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Primer on Collecting Old & Historic Newspapers

Q. What makes an old newspaper valuable?
The age of the newspaper has very little to do directly with the value. As you will see in reading this file, it is possible to purchase an authentic American newspaper from the 1790's for as little as $25, or an original late 1600's British newspaper for under $25, while an original December 7, 1941 Honolulu Star-Bulletin sells for from $200 to as much as $700 (beware as most of these editions found are old reprints with little or no collector value). In most cases, the value of the newspaper is greatly affected by what the news is on the front page. Usually, those papers having front page coverage of major events in American or world history command the highest prices. Basically, the more important to history, the higher the value.

Q. Just how is "major event" defined?
From a technical standpoint, every day in the past was history but not every day had a major event happen. To make the distinction, recall your high school history class. How many events can you at least name? Some examples might be the election of various presidents, Boston Tea Party, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and his assassination. You probably also recall learning about the American Civil War. Quick, name as many events or battles as you can during this war. Unless you majored in American History in college or have been a long term Civil War buff, chances are you could only name four or five specific events or battles -- Such as the Battle of Gettysburg, Battle of Antietam, etc. -- during this war. This is the distinction of what makes an event in history a major one. If you can name the specific event and, for those that happened at least 50 years before you were born, the decade it happened, it is likely a major one.

Q. What about the events that were major in local areas only?
Newspapers with headlines like "Worst Blizzard Ever Hits Area", "New Mayor Elected", "Main Street Department Store Burns Down", and similar have little, if any, interest from national or world news collectors. Another example is of all the forest fires out on the west coast of the United States in the 1980's. While they destroyed thousands of acres, generations from now, few will remember them and want to collect those events. Your best bet for headlines like these is to find local interest collectors and sell the papers to them. They would pay you more.

Q. What about all those newspapers that don't have major historic event news in them?
If a newspaper has no news of a significant historic event in it, it is called an "atmosphere" newspaper. Of all the dates in history, perhaps as many as 98% of the dates fall into this category. World War II is one example. From the time the United States formally declared war until it ended there were a little over 1300 days. Of all these days, less than 10 events have a value of over $30. All but these 10 events fall into the "atmosphere newspaper" category.

Q. If an atmosphere newspaper has no news of a big historical event then what criteria determines the value?
For the most part, atmosphere newspapers derive their value from the age and era alone. Using the same example above, atmosphere newspapers from World War II are lumped into one pricing range. A World War II collector may pay you as much as $1 to $3 for most of them..

Q. Are there subcategories within "atmosphere newspapers"?
Yes. Even though the event might be lost to history or totally unimportant, news of it can add a little to the value. One specific example of this was a newspaper I had from 1845. There was no news of any significant historic event in it. However, four full columns on the front page were devoted to an account of the recent discovery of a mass murder. Someone had broken into a home and murdered the entire family with an ax. This account made the newspaper edition different from the typical atmosphere newspaper from that era. Without that ax murder story, the collector value would have been about $5. With this lengthy, graphic description, the collector value would be around $8 to $10.

Q. Is historic content the only way to base a newspaper collection?
No. While most base their collection on major news events, there are many other ways. Throughout history there have been many newspapers with cute names. Some examples include: Cupid's Sitting Room, What's Next, Tack Room, and the Bitter Sweet to name a few. Some people collect newspapers with cute or unique names. Others collect first and list issues or centennial or anniversary issue newspapers. Still others collect only those with decorative nameplates -- often mistakenly called a masthead. Yet others specialize in engravings.

Q. Engravings in newspapers?
Yes. There were many illustrated newspapers in America in the 1800's. Since the technology was not available yet to print photographs in newspapers, a few newspapers used wood, and later steel engravings, to illustrate their news. Instead of sending a photographer to the scene of the event, the editors would send an artist to sketch what they saw. In turn, these sketches would be taken back to the newspaper offices and other skilled engravers would labor to produce an engraving representation. Most of the illustrated newspapers were monthly but some were weekly. Of the weeklies, a typical issue might contain twenty or more such engravings. During the Civil War some of the now famous Matthew Brady photos were rendered as wood engravings and published in illustrated newspapers of the time.

Q. Are there subcategories of illustrated newspapers?
Yes. There were illustrated newspapers which contained news like most other typical newspapers. That is news of historic but current nature. Technically they were more like a news magazine of today like "Time" or "Newsweek", except the illustrations were engravings and not photographs. Some prime examples of this category are Harper's Weekly, Frank Leslie's, and London Illustrated News. Scientific American is another sought after title. The rest of the illustrated newspapers fall primarily into the literary or entertainment field. That is, rather than containing news of historic nature, they were filled with poetry, short stories, oddities and so forth. With the exception of Police Gazette and Sporting News most of the literary or entertainment illustrated newspapers have very little collector value. Due to lack of demand, most have a collector value of under $3 each. Some examples of the lower value titles include: Youth's Companion, Fireside Companion, Home Companion, and Hearth & Home.

Q. Did any of these engravers go on to become famous and their works collectible?
Yes. The three most famous examples are Thomas Nast (Harper's Weekly -- 1863-1887), Winslow Homer (Harper's Weekly -- 1857-1875 and Frank Leslie's -- 1865-1866 are his most famous but he also did works for other lesser known titles), and Frederick Remington (Harper's Weekly -- 1886-1890).

Q. Aren't really old newspapers practically non-existent? That is, already owned by private collectors or institutions.
No. There are several dealers in the United States and England that I am aware of that specialize in selling old and historic newspapers. They issue regular mail order catalogs and each catalog lists anywhere from a thousand on up different issues from varied eras -- all the way from the 1600's to the 20th century. Perhaps as many as 80% of their catalog have sale prices of under $10 each. Their catalog content varies from typical atmosphere to key event issues such as Lincoln assassination, San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Lindbergh flight and kidnapping, gangsters, Civil War battles and so on. The only problem you will have with their catalog is deciding which issues you want to order as there will be lots you would want to buy.

Q. But don't old newspapers crumble and disintegrate in a relative short period of time?
Not necessarily. In fact, newspapers printed prior to the 1870's are often found in excellent, solid, white, condition. This is due to the type of paper they were printed on. Prior to the 1870's in America newspapers were printed on what is typically called "rag Linen." As the name implies, the paper was made from a mash of boiled down clothing. This paper contained no acid or wood pulp. For this reason, newspapers printed on rag linen are much more stable and don't deteriorate as easy.

Q. What about the ones not printed on rag linen -- after the 1870's?
While not as stable as those printed on rag linen, those printed on wood pulp (typically called "newsprint") can still be found in nice collectible condition. The acid content of wood pulp varied over the years and from newspaper title to title. Exposure to direct sunlight, moisture, and extreme changes in temperature cause these newspapers to turn dark brown and become brittle.

Q. What is the best way to store and preserve newspapers?
First off, store the newspapers in the "open" position. That is, opened all the way up so that one can see the entire front page at one time. For some strange reason, newspapers printed on wood pulp, when left folded in half, become brown and with enough time start to separate at this fold. Secondly, do not store them in a garage or barn unless they are heated and have air conditioning. Also, keep the newspapers in boxes with lids on them. (Make sure the box is large enough to store the papers in the open position.) For issues of higher value, protective folders and binders are made for this purpose.

Q. What about laminating the front page to preserve it?
If you care about collector value, DO NOT have it laminated! Doing so will destroy ALL collector value!

Q. What if the newspaper I have is not complete? Does it affect the value?
Prior to the early 20th century, most American newspapers typically had only one section. As time went on, additional sections became more commonplace. If the newspaper had more than one section and only the front section is left and all of the news for that major event is in the front section, it still retains about 90% of the collector value. If the front page only is present, the value varies greatly. If it is an atmosphere, the collector value is cut by at least 90% -- if not 100%. However, if the front page bears news of major historic significance, the value varies greatly. The value drops anywhere from 75% to as much as 90%.

Q. Is historic content the only factor that affects collector value?
No. There are several other factors that affect value. These include:

  • CONDITION: Foremost, if the newspaper is brittle, in pieces or falling a part, it probably has no collector value. This is especially so for atmosphere. For a newspaper with news of a major event on the front page, it may still have some collector value but not much. For example, if a key issue newspaper had a value of $500 in solid condition, if it were in pieces and one could not turn the pages without causing more rips and pieces to fall off, the collector value might be as HIGH as $50 -- if any collector would even want it. Newspapers printed prior to the 1870's are usually found in what many would call "excellent" or "near mint" condition. If for some reason it is in a shabby, well-worn, and stained condition, the value drops anywhere from 50% to 100% for those with major historic content. Atmosphere newspapers in this condition have no collector value.

  • EARLY REPORT: The closer to the date the event happened, usually, the higher the value. The first time the newspaper printed the news of the event is called a "First Report." Every newspaper would have a "First Report." There is also the "First Report in the Nation." Only one newspaper can have this distinction. To cite one specific example, look at the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on the evening of April 14, 1865. The "New York Herald" edition put out an edition with the news in their 2 AM April 15, 1865 issue. It was the "First Report in the Nation" for this event. Other newspapers also published news of the assassination in their April 15, 1865 edition. Still others, due to later arrival of the news in their offices, did not publish the news until April 16, 17, 18 or even later. In these cases, all would qualify as a "First Report." Being a "First Report" adds to the value. Being the "First Report in the Nation" adds still further value.

  • GEOGRAPHIC PROXIMITY: Newspapers from near where the event occurred are more desirable. One example would be the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. The Dallas newspaper of that date with the headline announcing the assassination has a collector value of about $75. Most any other city newspaper with the same date and news of the assassination has a collector value between $5 and $15.

  • CHARISMA: Some events in history have a certain "magic" surrounding them. Some examples are outlaws of the Old West and the gangsters of 1920's Chicago. Just the mention of names like Frank and Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, and other infamous criminals, brings more interest. If Sam Smith robbed a bank in the 1870's Old West who cares? If the James Brothers robbed a bank more people are interested. For this reason, news of these infamous criminals, automatically inflates the value.

  • DISPLAYABILITY: (First, a distinction should be made here. The following information applies mostly to key events in history. It does not apply to atmosphere newspapers.) If the news of the event is printed on the front page, it has a much higher value than if it were on inside pages. A front page photo or engraving of the event or people in it also adds value. The larger the headline the higher the value. Typically they are termed "2-column", 3-column" or so forth, headlines. One that goes across all the columns is called a banner headline. The actual wording on the headline can also affect the value to some extent. Color ink headlines in pre-1960's newspapers are also rare and add to the value. Some newspapers during World War II printed some editions with color headlines for example. These have a higher value than black ink headlines. The bottom line is that the "fancier" the front page layout is, the higher the value.

Q. How do I know if the newspaper I have is an original?
Many a person has found in great-grandma's trunk what they thought were truly rare and valuable newspapers. They falsely assume that since they have been in the family for generations, they have to be originals. Sadly, too, many general line antique dealers also believe they are original and unknowingly sell them to customers. When buying newspapers of higher value, be sure to do so from a reptable dealer that specializes in historic newspapers.

Q. Are reprints of newspapers that common?
There are the same seventeen newspaper editions that keep croping up in antique shops, attics, paper and advertising shows, Ebay, and small auction houses. All of the owners fully believe that the specimen they have is an original -- but they aren't. The following is what the Newspaper Collectors Society of America calls its "Hit List" of the most often reprinted newspaper editions:

  • Boston News-Letter -- April 24, 1704
  • New-England Courant -- February 11, 1723
  • New-England Weekly Journal -- April 8, 1728
  • Pennsylvania Gazette -- Dec. 24, 1728
  • (Also titled "Universal Instructor in all Arts and Sciences")
  • New Hampshire Gazette -- October 7, 1756
  • Boston Gazette and Country Journal -- March 12, 1770
  • Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser -- August 20, 1773
  • Massachusetts Spy or American Oracle of Liberty -- May 3, 1775
  • New York Morning Post -- November 7, 1783
  • Gazette of the United States -- May 2, 1789
  • Ulster County Gazette -- January 4, 1800
  • Sun (New York City) -- September 3, 1833
  • Public Ledger -- March 25, 1836
  • Sun (Baltimore) -- May 17, 1837
  • Daily Citizen (Vicksburgh, Mississippi) -- July 2 (or 4), 1863
  • (Printed on the back of a sheet of wallpaper.)
  • New York Herald -- April 15, 1865
  • Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- December 7, 1941

If you have one of the editions listed above, IT IS A REPRINT. PERIOD. Most of these were reprinted over 100 years ago so your specimen will look old and "authentic" to you but it is not. How can this blanket statement be made? The author of this file, R. J. Brown, has forty-three years experience in collecting old newspapers and 12 years as editor of a publication for newspaper collectors and has done extensive research about newspaper editions that were reprinted, and is the author of a monograph about newspaper reprints that is used by major institutions of learning and historic newspaper dealers to validate their specimens.  To further delineate why this blanket statement can be made is the January 4, 1800 edition of the Ulster County Gazette. That edition was first reprinted in 1825. In the next 100 years it was reprinted on at least 484 different occasions. The original edition had likely less than 50 specimens printed. The total press run (combined total of specimens printed -- 50,000 one time, 125,000 another time and so forth) it is probable that millions of reprints of this edition alone were printed. The last original of this edition was found in 1948. Reprints of ANY newspaper edition, even though they might have been reprinted over 100 years ago, have little collector value.

For detailed descriptions of how to tell if your specimen on the above list is a rare original or a "low value" reprint, click here.

Q. What if the newspaper I have is not on the "Hit List" above?
If the specimen you have is a Volume 1, Number 1 issue, the odds are quite high that it is a reprint. It was a common practice for newspapers to reprint their first issue for their 50th, 75th or 100th anniversary. They were then inserted into their anniversary issue. Generations later, to an untrained layman, these appear to be authentic but they are not.

Q. What if my specimen is not a Volume 1, Number 1?
If it is an atmosphere, it is likely an original. For an edition with major historic content, if not on the "Hit List" above, the odds are quite good that it is an original.

Q.Do newspaper clippings have any value?
If the individual articles have been cut out of the newspaper, newspaper collectors have little interest in them. If you have a large collection centered on one event or theme, researchers MAY have a desire for them, but the value would likely be very small.

Q. What about Sunday color comic sections?
Values vary greatly for these. In many cases, post-1960's Sunday color comics section have little collector interest. On the other end, late-1890's and early 1900's have the highest value. In most cases, the Sunday comic collector is more interested in single sheets with their favorite comic strip on it rather than the entire section.

Q. What about Sunday magazine sections or "rotogravures"?
While fascinating and interesting to look at, for the most part, newspaper collectors, with a few exceptions, have little interest in them. If it has a front page photo of an old time movie star or other famous person, contact someone that is a fan of that personality. Again, the value would likely be minimal.

Q. The newspapers I have were "made into a book." Does that affect the value?
What you have is a bound volume which is very common. Libraries and newspaper offices did this all the time with their back issues at one time. Just because it is bound does not make it rare or valuable.

Q. How do I determine value of a bound volume?
Keep in mind that in many cases, with any 'product", the more you buy at one time, the lower the unit price. Therefore, if the collector value is $3 each, it does not mean your volume is worth hundreds of dollars -- $3 each times 90 papers = $270. If newspaper collectors wanted to buy it, it is more likely they would offer you $100 or less for it. This is especially so for most 20th century bound volumes. In fact, many early 20th century bound volumes bearing 3 months of issues can routinely be purchased from newspaper dealers for under $75 and in some cases for $35 or so.

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