Tangible Stuff

I bought a newspaper last Friday for ten dollars. It was worth a hundred.

Last year Reed Books relocated to 2021 3rd Avenue North in downtown Birmingham from an obscure upstairs location on 20th Street South it occupied for years. This is easily my favorite nostalgia hangout. The posters and memorabilia from past decades covering the wall can occupy a person for an hour. I could spend the day in this place and never spend a dime.

Sometimes I just browse, usually I comb the World War II book section, but Friday, I asked to see old newspapers. “Anything in particular?” the gentleman whom I assume to be Jim Reed, proprietor, asked. I said, “World War II era.”

He said, “We have an incredible amount of stuff categorized in the warehouse. If you ever have a specific date in mind, let me know.” Otherwise, I could sort through several stacks of yellowing newspapers in the back of the store. No problem.

I’m in heaven. Man, I love doing this.

In the stacks, there were papers from around the country from the day of Elvis’ death, several from JFK’s assassination, and likewise for days such as the Challenger explosion. But I was going back farther than that. I was looking for the late 1930s and early-to-mid 1940s.

It was all there. In fact, an old paper fell out of the stack from the mid-1800s. Hardly larger than a sheet of typing paper and mostly advertisements, it contained nothing that would hold the interest of anyone but a hard-core historian.

When I found newspapers from the 30s and 40s, I tenderly pulled them out of their plastic sleeves and checked out every page. They were brittle and tore easily.

The comics are a particular fascination. Back then, a typical newspaper might run only two-thirds of a page of comics, but each strip would be twice the size as in a modern paper. The Sunday comics were huge, and so beautiful.

(This is a common complaint of today’s comic strip artists. They gripe about the way editors and syndicates continue to reduce the size of strips to the point that there’s almost no room to draw the background, and barely enough for the characters and the word balloons.)

I bought only one newspaper, partly because I have a hard time justifying the expenditure and partly because if Margaret finds out, I’m in trouble. She already wants to know where I intend to park the old papers I have bought at other times. (Not a great many, but several.)

“The Tuscaloosa News” for Thursday, October 31, 1940, is fully 50 percent wider than this morning’s Times-Picayune, although with fewer pages. That date being Halloween, the Bama theatre was offering a full evening of fun and movies (“free noise makers”) for 25 cents. The movie was Peter Lorre in “Stranger on the Third Floor.”

Philco radios–large consoles that occupied a place of honor in your living room–were selling for $69.95 (“cash price and your old radio”). If your car needed servicing, P. A. Graves Garage offered the deal of a lifetime: “$1.50 and up.”

On the editorial page, Drew Pearson (a fixture on this page for decades) was writing his “Washington Merry-Go-Round.” Dorothy Dix was handing out advice, while twins Dear Abby and Ann Landers were still in grade school.

Most readers may not remember if you ever knew, that in 1940, the federal government had decided, what with the war in Europe already raging, to institute the draft in this country. The Tuscaloosa paper devotes one entire page to the draft numbers and their order. The term of service was for one year only. No doubt FDR felt if people thought they’d be coming home in 12 months, they could endure anything.

A popular song from that time–it’s not in the paper, but I’m familiar with it–went like this:

“Good-bye dear, I’ll be back in a year….”

Little did they know. That war, which had begun in September of 1939 would not end for nearly six years. Eventually people were drafted “for the duration.”

But at Halloween of 1940, Americans were merely spectators of the world stage, watching Hitler bomb the British and trying to stay out of “Europe’s war.” FDR, meanwhile, had convinced Congress to authorize the manufacture of planes and ships which would be sold or leased to the Allies. “Allies” meaning Britain.

And so the front page–you thought I’d never get there, didn’t you–announces “British Stock in Europe May Soar With U.S. Aid” (referring to the production of 26,000 warplanes). Another headline: “Greeks Regain Strategic Hill on Albanian Front.” And this one: “New British Aid Has FDR Support.”

The automobile industry was being asked to stop making cars and turn out bombers.

America was getting ready for the greatest war in the history of this planet. Only she barely knew it.

This newspaper is a piece of history. A yellowing, brittle piece, to be sure, but it was there, doing its part, informing the population, spreading the word.

Someone in Tuscaloosa held this newspaper in his/her hands and read it and processed the information and went forth into November of 1940 a tad wiser and better informed.

A newspaper is a tangible bit of the past. It’s as though we could take into our hands the actual voice of Edward R. Murrow broadcasting back to America from a blackened building in the middle of the London Blitz. It’s as if a tiny portion of Winston Churchill remained with us for us to pick up and analyze and treasure.

Newspapers are amazing things. And sadly, they are on the endangered list.

Gradually, newspapers are being replaced by the internet. Almost every young pastor I know admits he does not subscribe to the newspaper but gets his news on the ‘net. Few things sadden me as much.

Today you can go into the major libraries of any city in America or any university and ask for old newspapers and they’ll lead you to the microfilms department. I spent an hour at the University of Richmond’s library a month ago browsing newspapers of the late 1940s. You stare into a screen and watch the images of various pages go by at whatever speed you choose. You can scan lots of issues in a hurry and focus only on the articles you want to read.

It’s a great convenience. It’s also a crying shame. When libraries went to photocopying their newspaper stock onto microfilm, they also destroyed the original papers. “We don’t have room to store all those stacks of papers,” they protested, and they were right.

Still, it’s a shame. And it’s not the same.

Consider this my tiny protest against the disappearance of the newspaper.

A cartoon in New Yorker for May 11, 2009, shows a woman hovering over the newspaper with scissors in hand, saying to a friend, “I’m cutting articles out of the newspaper while we still can.”

(Check out www.jimreedbooks.com if you are interested in old books, posters, and magazines.)

4 thoughts on “Tangible Stuff

  1. I couldn’t help but be reminded off a statistic about how we read newspapers that those that read the comics first lived longer than those that read the front page first. I cannot attribute to who said that but I read it in a newspaper and I still read the comics first of every newspaper I read!

  2. Me Too!

    I think it was a research report. You know one of those the government grants to find out about human behavior. I read it decades ago and I did it that way already but it reinforced my behavior, LOL.

    Dr J

  3. Amen!

    I hate to see newspapers go away.

    As a print media guy, I am becoming a relic of the past and I’m not even 40.


  4. I spent 26 years in the computer business and spend way too much time today on the computer (mostly photo editing), I have in my pocket a 32gb thumb drive. Every day I communicate with people who are literally around the world (including a Woody Sears in Eastern Europe), but they all pales in comparison to sitting on the porch at 7:00 am (or earlier) with a cup of coffee and the morning paper. I fear that they will soon join the ranks of H.V. Kaltenborn and Fibber McGee. I guess I could look up the local paper on the laptop but it just wouldn’t be the same – besides, they don’t offer the comics online.

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