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Broadsides, Blogs & Breaking News

The More Things Change, the More they Stay the Same

Is it just me, or lately does it seems as though we’re being bombarded with news?  When I check my email, yahoo is flashing headlines with links to longer stories; I find bits of the newspaper strewn throughout the common areas of the office; my retired parents telephone frequently in near-panic over the stock market; and the phalanx of television sets at my gym distract with disturbing, high-def images of the follies and tragedies of current events.

Feeling overwhelmed with media the other day, I decided to give my eyes and ears and brain a bit of a break by sitting and reading a novel.  Returning to the “old fashioned” printed word made me think about how important printed words are–and have been–since the invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century.  We have so many outlets to receive (with or without choice) news and information, but in past history, the printed word was the primary vehicle for disseminating news and current events.

Antique printed news notices are called “broadsides” by collectors.  In a way, a broadside can be considered an antique form of a tweet, a blog, or an email newsletter: it was intended to  spread the word about something to the widest audience possible, in as expedient a manner possible. Broadsides were also intended to be printed quickly and efficiently, in order to keep news as fresh as possible.

A printer would set type and print the information on a piece of paper. Then the broadside would be rushed out of the print shop and delivered to important town officials, who would then spread the word. Or, the broadside would be posted in a high traffic area of town, such as a town hall or market doorway.

Because of the transient nature of antique broadsides—they were printed on humble paper that wasn’t meant to last long—broadsides can sometimes be rare survivors, much sought after by paper ephemera and Americana collectors.

Broadsides sold by Skinner in November 2010 at a Fine Books & Manuscripts auction

Declaration of Independence

This is what I would consider one of the ultimate broadsides, an early printing of the Declaration of Independence—an amazing piece of American history. This was big, big news, and worthy of the $380,000 it achieved at auction.

Gerry, Elbridge (1744-1814), Broadside, Natural and Political History of The Gerry-Mander! Auctioned for $4,147.50

This broadside reminds me of current squabbles and posturing going on in politics today. It relates specifically to the Massachusetts political arena, and some shady maneuvering called (then and now) Gerry-mandering. It’s a warning notice that explains the issue.

American Broadside, Horrid Massacre at Dartmoor Prison England, Auctioned for $237

This broadside is pure propaganda, relating to an incident in a prisoner of war camp during the war of 1812. The facts are mostly true, but the drama of the event has been amped up. The printers even employed an ultimate news marketing tool: a salacious image.

Thanksgiving Broadside issued by Samuel Adams, February 29th, 1796, Auctioned for $2,725.50

Not all broadsides relayed life-changing news, or issued elements of propaganda. Some were simply notices of what was happening in town. In this printing, Samuel Adams is letting the populace know that there’s a holiday coming up. Isn’t that nice?

People are People, No Matter the Century

Not all news has to be bad, and that’s a good thing to remember.  In the midst of economic fluctuations, environmental woes, political farce, riots, and drought, it’s difficult sometimes, but I always try to find news about something good. The discovery of an historic document like one of these always brightens my day. Sure, it’s dorky, and far less important than flooding and famine, but knowing that an historic broadside has been discovered and preserved for the future is a little bright spot in my life of unabashed geekdom.

Broadsides remind us that even when we’re unplugged, we can still learn, and still find out what’s going on.  They remind us that people are people, and we’re all in this together, dealing with some of the same woes as people 100, 200, even 300 years ago.  And they can also remind us that not all news has to be bad.

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