A gourmet savors the taste of a sauce; a lover of classical music and art sighs over symmetry of a sonata or sculpture. Me, I swoon over the frenzied chaos found in turn-of-the-century newspapers, with screamer headlines using enough black ink to gag a squid. “LOOK AT ME!” “BUYYY MEEEE!” headlines shouted in cacophony, each promising stories more sordid, more terrific than any of their competition on the sidewalk newsstand, often with eye-catching photographs exploding out of the frame. The wonderful artists who designed these pages had little idea what they were doing; they were unbound by established conventions or stylebooks, guided only by what they hoped might tease a curious citizen out of a nickel.

There is no good book on the evolution of newspaper graphic design (as far as I can tell), which is a shame – as the craft matured from the Civil War onwards, so was developed the art of persuasion, both for political and advertising ends. Much originated with the Victorian England tabloids and was imitated in late 19th century America, but a new pace was set by the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, who clearly understood that visual style was integral to telling a compelling story (as well as using those stories to advance his political objectives). Nor did he hesitate to use graphics for just the sake of attention; my favorite Hearst design story is that one of his papers printed a full-sized picture of a revolver that took up far more space than the accompanying story, which simply mentioned that a gun had been used in a minor crime.

Besides paying tribute to Hearst’s innovations, I hope that whomever writes this history will give salute to George French, who wrote prolifically in printing trade journals at the time about the importance of typography, then later specifically about graphic design (and psychology) in “The Art and Science of Advertising” and other works. If you have any interest at all in this topic, don’t miss his 1919 masterwork, “How to Advertise” which could be a textbook for communication majors today (and probably should). French and others ushered in the golden age of newspaper design, magazine illustration, and print advertising, which all coincided c. 1910-1925. Stylish was the new style; it was as if every editor and artist decided it was time to doff the work clothes and slip into evening wear, a chilled martini in hand. But that’s getting ahead of our story.

Below are partial front pages of four newspapers, all published on October 23, 1907 (click on any image to enlarge). This was an important news day; it was near the peak of the Bank Panic, and fears ran high that the U.S. financial system was about to collapse at any minute. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is included not just because it’s the hometown fishwrap, but because its coverage and layout was quite typical of smaller newspapers at this time. Stories were crowded together with little or no organization, making it difficult to read; the front page was an ugly slab of newsprint, little changed from how it had looked during the late 19th century. An academic paper comparing coverage by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal is also available.

* The Press Democrat was a morning paper, so to be fair, it must be noted that it was reporting on events from the previous day (although the following edition kept the same layout, with a 2-column story in the same place and the same font; the headline that day was, “FINANCIAL SITUATION IS PANICKY ALL OVER COUNTRY”). Not much detail on the crisis was ever provided in the PD; as Santa Rosa is on the rim of the San Francisco Bay Area, anyone seeking in-depth coverage could find it in papers from that city and Oakland, which arrived on the morning train. Typical of 19th century newspaper design, there are plentiful subheads and every story is presented in the same, basic typography. The single graphic is unrelated to any news in the paper – it’s a portrait of an East Coast railroad company president. In this era the PD front page often splashed portraits of notables and pictures of buildings; did editor Ernest Finley hope any random photograph would boost readership?

* Before the advent of Hearst, the New York World (top right) was certainly the best-looking paper in Victorian-era America. The front page was usually illustrated with original small engravings, and in 1898, their massive color printing press changed the Sunday Comics forever. But like the New York Times, the 20th Century began with World remained locked into the 19th century grid format of simple typography pouring down columns that were the length of the page. By 1907, however, the design was less rigid, and the World could (almost) pass for an outpost in the Hearst empire. In the example here, the World’s front page tastefully mixed typography to differentiate and emphasize stories. The World also followed Hearst’s style of placing the results of the most talked-about sporting event at the top of the front page, no matter what else the news.

* The San Francisco Call presented the most beautiful layout of the day, with banner-width headlines and neatly organized articles. Alas, the progressive Call also followed Hearst’s lead in twisting the news to further the paper’s political objectives. President Teddy Roosevelt didn’t “boldly defy” bankers as the headline claimed; he’d only made a short comment to the press blaming “stock speculators” for the crisis. The Call also featured a political cartoon on the front page, another hallmark of the Hearst style – and coincidentally, this cartoon actually jabbed at Hearst, himself. (The cartoonist’s message refers to Hearst’s backing Dan Ryan for San Francisco mayor; Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley In 1901, and his supposedly “weak and excitable brain” was driven to murder because of Hearst’s fear-baiting editorials. Ipso facto, Ryan was in league with a crazed assassin.)

* The Oakland Tribune produced a front page with quite a nice layout, but the paper is also the hands-down winner of the Rosebud Award for Hearstian Sensationalism. The “rich man” who committed suicide had nothing to do with the financial crisis; he was a local businessman who killed himself for no known reason. And the “Stock Exchange” was really the Pittsburgh Clearing House, whose temporary closure was little noticed outside of Pennsylvania and, for some reason, Oakland California.

I want to write more about this topic in the future, and had intended to share my appreciation of old newspaper design since this blog was launched in 2007, but never got around to it. What finally inspired me was the advertisement below, which is so godawfully bad that you must understand that really, really good design existed at the time in order to appreciate its brain-freezing idiocy.

The full page Press Democrat ad – which appeared SEVERAL TIMES in early 1908 – depicted a drawing of a house. Over the drawing were small business ads, sometimes shaped as if they were signs physically posted on the house, but also sometimes awkwardly floating in the air. These were supposedly “the leading business houses in Santa Rosa.” Houses: Get it? Get it? (I swear, I have not seen an adult human bean produce anything this childlike since a dental hygienist once forced me to gaze upon an instructional poster she had created at dental hygienist school. Red heart-shaped sparkles were glued around the mouth of a patient to suggest a clean bill of health, but I recoiled because without my glasses, it looked like the person was spewing blood after a runaway drill mishap.)

Regrettable concept aside, someone at the PD probably deserved credit for creative salesmanship. These businesses were all steady advertisers who had 1-inch text ads appearing three or more times a week. Presumably the paper collected a premium for “featuring” them in this swell display.

And then there was the ad copy, which offered additional wonders. The slogan, “better smoke here than hereafter” was, more or less, the advertising message of the tobacco industry for the rest of the century, although it was usually expressed with more subtlety. It was nice to know that H. H. Moke was an EXPERIENCED mortician, and the Marlott Bros. conducted a first-class bicycle business, even though their address was secret. The White Star Laundry included the squib, “And this is the House of Clean Linen”, which I always read as a question delivered in a Borscht Belt accent. And who could resist Little Pete, whose restaurant had the charming motto, “eat with me and you will love me always.” Now, there was a guy who truly understood advertising.

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