Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chronicling America website (1911 newspapers)

Working in a library, I am well-nigh constantly receiving emails reminding me of the scores and scores of professional development websites and resources out there on the information superhighway (remember when it used to be called that?) to make me a better, dare I say even a stronger library employee. Like internally generated spam, daily entreaties from coworkers and even higher-ups extol the various and sundry virtues of finishing this online workshop, or checking out the resources at that electronic database, 'til cartoon steam escapes these bucket-shaped ears of mine. Being naturally possessed of a dismissive attitude towards any attempts at my own betterment that do not, say, involve testing my knowledge of Katharine Hepburn's filmography via this online quiz, or becoming better acquainted with Edgar Allan Poe's (dismal) military record, I ignored these emails, until one crossed my virtual desk the other day and caught my eye:

As JoAnne mentioned in her post yesterday, the first 14,000 pages of historic Tennessee newspapers are now available on the Chronicling America Web site. Access is free to all users. Check out Chronicling America – it’s a fascinating project - but be warned, it can be addictive!

Addictive? Understatement. Of. The Century.

As it reflects poorly on one to be manning a public desk and flipping indecorously though the newest issue of
US magazine, or flat out reading a book about high end Palm Beach true crimes propped open with the keyboard as a paperweight (guilty, aaaaand.... guilty), I am ALWAYS looking for time-killing websites to look at in between answering patron questions and looking for books. Chronicling America is like a perfect world scenario of that elusive, dream website.

My favorite feature? Under the "100 Years Ago Today" feature column, you can browse newspapers from today's date in 1911. My hands down favorites are the Tacoma Times (Washington state, 100% sensationalistic) and the Marion Daily Mirror (Illinois, 100% weird Midwestern news you wouldn't expect to happen in the Midwestern US of the Edwardian period).

Where to begin? The advertisements? Featuring such bizarre copy bylines as "Come See Our Mayonnaise Dressing Mixer" and "Let Me Drill Your Well"?

The first article in which I realized I was probably going to fall victim to the foretold addiction mentioned in the email was this article, entitled "Hyde's Noisy Garb Startles English":

"A closely veiled woman, whom nobody knows, is with him. Hyde startled Londoners with his bright plaid trousers, velvet waistcoat, braided coat, flowing tie, and sombrero." And sombrero? That would probably startle Londoners today, much less those of the teens.

Take a look at the ad below, hawking Matthew Brody's famous Civil War photographs by working the angle that you, the buyer, may be able to possibly spot your father, grandfather, or uncle amongst the ranks of soldiers in the War Between the States. Because in 1911, the Civil War had only been over for fifty years (!!). Mind. Blown. Another article from the last month described what was to be the last fraternal get-together of the original 49's (gold panning namesakes of the football team), who had to be grown men in the mid 19th century to venture forth into Klondike country, putting them well into their eighties' at press time. Unreal.

Next to that, one of a series of "fakeout calamity" ads with headers that sound like actual news stories, but are actually selling tonic water for "womanly troubles". Charlatans! Fr
auds! I wanted to hear about the Texas Woman near death! My macabre, piqued interest is bruised by these falsehoods. I counted another four or five of these in a month's publication.

Ever since I was sent that email, I've been drawn back to the 1911's news as if it were some chain letter curse. Thereafter, I found myself interested in such September 1911 news items as the assassination of Russian PM Stolypin, Taft's controversial reciprocity deal with Canada, and other "of the moment" goings-on that I'd never even HEARD of, despite what I consider a better-than-average familiarity with world history. The same limp, sparse, and decidedly weird-to-21st-century-ears style of prose that drew me to dialogue in turn of the century comics like Buster Brown (click his name to see a SUPER early, dare I say vintage, She Was a Bird blog entry on the self same) makes me love, love, love these Edwardian copywriters. Take this, for example:

"It will never be visible again, he says" has such a ring of finality to it, does it not? Another clipping, which I lost track of in my e-newspaper frenzy, described some horrific accident that had come to pass upon a young male citizen of Marion, the last sentence of which was the grimly simplistic "He will die." Not,
"He sustained severe injuries, and is in critical condition" or "His injuries are grave, and he is not expected to live" but "He will die".

Clockwise, the enticingly named frou frou is a real dessert, still existing a hundred years later, if only in the Netherlands. Next, I guess degree of "cool" ness is in the eye of the beholder... nice suit for say, oh, ME, but not so much for your contemporary ten year old. Last, the long piece to the left is a clever piece of advertisement, using the fakeout method of the earlier ad but to much greater appeal. If you click to enlarge the photo, you can more easily read the copy: "HOLD-UP on your Fall order until you have inspected my woolens... don't ROB yourself of the satisfaction you can attain by being properly attired..." and so on. Adorable. I would shop there on principle.

Now, for the weirdies, presented without comment. All of these sound like episodes of Dateline. Guys, the 'teens were desperate and exciting years. Scandals, scandals, scandals. While reading, please keep in mind what I said about the oddly toneless vibe!

Anyway, go give this a whirl for yourself at the "Chronicling America" website. Won't you just die someday when they digitize the 1930's-60's? Go get 'em!


  1. Oh, wow, this looks like wonderful down-time reading! The "Don't be backward" line and description of James Hazen Hyde killed me. And that final statement "The charge struck the girl in the head, tearing it from her body"...that's just priceless.

  2. @ Heather: I love how the "don't be backward" ad is so sidlingly convincing, as in "Look, I promise everyone else has false teeth. Do you really want to go around with no teeth in your head?". As said, SO. ADDICTIVE.

    @Ciciley: I know, right? :)



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