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In a tour de force exhibition, the St. Louis Mercantile Library is now recounting a story of manifold stories – not dozens of them, not hundreds, not even thousands, but thousands of thousands.

That free exhibition, titled “Headlines of History,” opened slightly more than a month ago, on Oct. 8. It sprawls through much of that underappreciated local treasure’s lower level in the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Thomas Jefferson Library and runs till Sept. 3, 2019.

To anyone but so-called digital natives, the exhibition should constitute an Enola Gay-level blast from the past, one that John N. Hoover, the Mercantile’s executive director, conceived, astonishingly, almost three decades ago, notes a press release from the library.

It leverages the Mercantile’s vast holdings – which include both the archives and printing morgue of the now-defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat and a complete run of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch – to illustrate how much newspapering has changed here since the 1808 launch of the Missouri Gazette, probably the proto-state’s first paper, and even since editors might plug stray complainants.

(Seriously. “John A. Cockerill, the Post-Dispatch’s managing editor, was confronted by an enraged – and armed – Alonzo Slayback, the law partner of a St. Louis politician who had been the target of a series of Cockerill’s scathing editorials,” Lee Ann Sandweiss relates, in her 2000 Seeking St. Louis, of an 1882 incident. “Slayback barged into Cockerill’s office and was shot and killed by the editor.” Nowadays journalists exercise greater patience with irate readers.)

The Mercantile exhibition includes at least one amusing juxtaposition. “Truman Takes Over Burdens of State,” declares The Sun, from New York, in its edition of April 12, 1945, the day Missouri’s Harry S. Truman, then the U.S. vice president, assumed the presidency following the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. All of 4 feet to the left of it, the Post-Dispatch for Aug. 9, 1974, proclaims, “President Nixon Resigns, Gerald Ford Takes Over,” because of the Watergate scandal.

Had he lived another two years, the 33rd president might have guffawed over the travails of the 37th because Truman long considered Richard M. Nixon a skunk of the first stripe. (In Plain Speaking, Merle Miller’s extraordinary 1973 “oral biography” of Missouri’s most prominent 20th-century statesman, Give ’Em Hell Harry remarks of Tricky Dick, “He not only doesn’t give a damn about the people; he doesn’t know how to tell the truth.”)

Elsewhere on the walls of the William Maffitt Bates Jr. Gallery within the Mercantile, the exhibition less amusingly juxtaposes a Nov. 11, 1918, Globe-Democrat headline, “Germany Has Surrendered/War Ends Officially at 5 a.m. Today,” regarding World War I, and a Dec. 11, 1941, Post-Dispatch headline, “U.S. Declares War on Berlin, Rome,” regarding World War II.

Alongside smaller cases and miscellaneous tables, the exhibition also devotes a quartet of 8-foot-long glass cases, gloriously, to the funnies – the street-smart artistry of the comic strip. Those cases’ full-color contents long predate the current era of Scott Adams’ Dilbert, which, its satiric graces notwithstanding, could have been visualized four decades ago by a middle schooler “outputting” to a mimeograph. The contents of those cases include a full-page 1941 example from the Post-Dispatch of Prince Valiant, Harold R. Foster’s lush Arthurian saga, long regarded as one of the finest strips ever created.

The walls of the Bates gallery likewise sport a selection of political cartoons, a miniature tribute to the grease pencil, the dip pen and the brush. Among those cartoons appears one that remains a heartbreaker more than half a century after its Nov. 23, 1963, publication in the Chicago Sun-Times: Bill Mauldin’s wordless shot of the marble statue of Honest Abe at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial hunched forward, weeping at word of the assassination of then-President John F. Kennedy.

In the final analysis, this exhibition at the Mercantile – the oldest library west of the Mississippi, according to its institutional brief – poses the problem of what, in a limited space, to leave unlauded:

  • Copious examples of photojournalism, among them the famous Chicago Daily Tribune “Dewey Defeats Truman” shot, whose original the Mercantile holds?
  • Editions of non-English St. Louis newspapers, like the Nov. 6, 1832, German Anzeiger des Westens, whose blackletter nameplate’s second s looks elongated enough to impersonate an f?
  • Ink- and age-darkened hardware from the prime of linotype, hot metal and etaoin shrdlu (the precursor of contemporary lorem ipsum text), equipment often containing more steel than the average auto nowadays?

The sheer physicality of that hardware, in particular, serves to emphasize the utter weightlessness of electrons, pixels and, by extension, many of today’s modes of communication – and recalls a caveat from acclaimed essayist/literary critic Sven Birkerts.

“I would urge that we not fall all over ourselves in our haste to filter all of our experience through circuitries,” Birkerts cautions in his indispensable 1994 meditation, The Gutenberg Elegies. “We are in some danger of believing that the speed and wizardry of our gadgets have freed us from the sometimes arduous work of turning pages in silence.”

St. Louis Mercantile Library, Thomas Jefferson Library Building, 1 University Blvd., St. Louis, 314-516-7240, umsl.edu/mercantile

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Leaves of Glass

Newsprint falls to pieces faster than people do.

Given that sad fact, John N. Hoover, the executive director of the St. Louis Mercantile Library, briefly recounts precautions taken to protect the main components of “Headlines of History,” the splendid exhibition on display there through Sept. 3, 2019.

“Items too fragile were not exhibited, and some will be shown briefly in other colloquial presentations,” Hoover says. “All the items are so fragile that this is the first exhibition of its kind in memory in St. Louis. It’s been delayed here for the planning involved, due to fragility concerns, for 25 years. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the public to see these original newspaper editions in an exhibition setting.”

Regarding newsprint, he stresses the necessity of climate-controlled storage and low humidity, adding: “When hard copies are exhibited, we monitor humidity and heat levels daily, we shield lighting to protect items from ultraviolet fading, and we use a variety of book supports, Mylar strapping and other nonreactive tools for mounting objects.”

Hoover also characterizes the current exhibition’s cases, many of which incorporate glass fully a quarter of an inch thick, as “secure” and notes they’re “monitored by security on camera and walk-through inspection.”

In storing materials like those displayed in that exhibition, Hoover says the Mercantile favors a horizontal ideal, noting, “The older the paper, the flatter it should be shelved.” He also mentions the use of acid-free and Mylar folders for unbound, early issues or treasured editions, with some editions repaired and reboxed.

Finally, for general reading-room use, Hoover says the Mercantile established a “robust microfilm and scanning program” to shield original hard copies, which, past a certain age, can tear at the turn of a page – and even disintegrate like last autumn’s fallen leaves.

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Bryan A. Hollerbach serves as LN's copy editor and one of its staff writers. He loves to read, write, impersonate an amateur artist and research all things bibulous.

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