Mercantile Library’s new ‘Headlines of History’ exhibition draws on vast newspaper collection, takes visitors back in time
Unfolding the cleverly designed exhibition checklist for the St. Louis Mercantile Library’s new show feels a lot like opening up the morning newspaper. Every inch of page space is filled with interesting stuff – 294 items, to be exact. And once you start reading, it’s hard to put the publication down.
It’s all the news that’s fit to print, except that in this case the coverage spans whole centuries. For many decades the library has grown its rich collection of yesterday’s newspapers, particularly those produced in St. Louis, and those printed time capsules will be on display for the public like never before beginning Oct. 9.
Titled “Headlines of History: Historic Newspapers of St. Louis and the World Through the Centuries,” the exhibition is the third in a tetralogy of major installations leading up to the 175th anniversary of the library. The first focused on St. Louis’ 250th birthday, and the second and most recent, “Audubon and Beyond,” plumbed the depths of the library’s extensive natural history collections.
This exhibition is equally illuminating, and it’s one that John Hoover has been looking forward to for quite a while. The longtime director of the Mercantile – which is the oldest library west of the Mississippi River and is now located at the University of Missouri–St. Louis – said the idea first occurred to him about 28 years ago.
“Some journalists came into the library when the St. Louis Sun was founded, and I put a number of our historic newspapers out for them to explore, and they were amazed when I told them that at one time St. Louis may have had 20 to 25 dailies operating at once,” Hoover recalled. “And I thought, ‘Well, someday, when the time is right, I’ll do an exhibition on this.’ And we have the critical mass of [display] cases to just barely achieve that at this point, so it was a good time to do it.”
Indeed, it’s a vast showcase with a footprint that extends across much of the library’s lower level inside the Thomas Jefferson Library Building on UMSL’s North Campus. Visitors could spend many hours poring over everything from the Chicago Daily Tribune’s famously inaccurate “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline to the work of cartoonists taking on party politics, McCarthyism, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and much more. And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s own Weatherbird, the oldest continuous cartoon in American newspaper history, gets a special tribute.
Curious but perhaps slightly overwhelmed? Not to worry: Hoover and the rest of the library’s staff as well as volunteer docents are quick to offer suggestions as to specific treasures not to be missed.
“There are a lot of firsts in here,” Hoover said during a preview of the show, “but to me this has a special tug – the first issue of The Missouri Gazette, July 1808. It was the first newspaper published west of the Mississippi. And over here is the first printing of the Declaration of Independence, from the Pennsylvania Ledger.”
The exhibition will be around through Sept. 3, 2019, and it’s sure to reward multiple visits for those so inclined. Along with the firsts that Hoover touts and French- and German-language newspapers from early St. Louis, “Headlines of History” casts a spotlight on the Gateway City as captured by photojournalists throughout history.
The show also revisits fascinating connections between the St. Louis press and major world events. Bruce Feldacker, who has volunteered as a docent at the library for about 10 years, zoomed in on one such connection during a recent sneak-peek tour: exhibition item No. 147, a headline that reads, “Evidence Grows that White Star Line Knew Titanic’s Fate Hours Before it Made it Public.”
“In 1912, there was a Post-Dispatch reporter [Carlos Hurd] who took a honeymoon to Europe, and on the return trip he was on the passenger ship [the Carpathia] that was closest to the Titanic as it sunk,” Feldacker said. “They didn’t realize it had sunk until the next day, but he was able to interview some of the survivors. He got the scoop, and he telegraphed it back.”
Feldacker also pointed out that the famous scene associated with the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, showing the in fact re-elected Harry S. Truman lifting the mistaken paper in his hands and smiling with delight, was photographed for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat at St. Louis Union Station. And the Mercantile owns the original negatives and prints.
“Even myself, with as much as I do know about the Mercantile, I was just amazed at what a broad breadth of material we have,” Feldacker said. “This is a wonderful exhibit.”
The way Hoover put it, there’s something for everyone.
“It’s just a tremendous pleasure to offer this,” he said. “Newspapers have a wonderful emotional appeal, and I invite the entire university and regional community to come see it.”
He added that as satisfied as he is with the exhibition itself, it’s just a small segment of the Mercantile’s newspaper holdings, which include both physical collections and digitized resources.
The full extent comes to light in the ambitious catalog volume that Hoover and colleagues developed as an accompaniment to the show. It includes a lengthy synopsis of all that’s available and will likely be useful as the library looks to the future.
“The synopsis had never been done before, and it’s like a guideline for how much we want to continue to collect but also how to catalog it and how to digitize it,” he said. “It took most of the summer, but when we finished I thought, ‘Oh, this is really something.’ The exhibition is just window dressing to a vast research collection.”
“Headlines of History” is free and available for viewing whenever the library is open. Several related events are set for the coming months, including a colloquium on collecting rare and antiquarian newspapers (Oct. 27), a book club event about “Valentines and Funnies” (Feb. 16) and a symposium on “Frontiers of Printing” (Feb. 17). Stay tuned for more.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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