Leisure Features

Dorothy About Town: 10.11.17

Would you be surprised to hear that St. Louis is home to one of the largest collections of newspapers in the country? And I don’t mean simply old issues of the Post-Dispatch and Globe-Democrat. It’s newspapers from all over America that chronicle the history of our nation.

You may not be familiar with the St. Louis Mercantile Library, but it’s where you can get up close and personal with treasures like the first newspaper printed in St. Louis (Missouri Gazette, July 26, 1808) and a 1750 issue of Benjamin Franklin’s The Pennsylvania Gazette. The oldest membership subscription library west of the Mississippi, the Mercantile, as it is known, has launched an exhibition titled Headlines of History. Viewing the impressive collection of local and national print memorabilia is like a crash course in American thought and norms over the past 250 years.

Now housed in two lower levels of the Thomas Jefferson Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus, the Mercantile, free and open to all, displays more than two centuries of archival newspapers, magazines and books having to do with the development of St. Louis and America at large. These things very likely would have been lost if not for this niche library, started in 1846 by St. Louis’ merchants, in part to ensure that they had access to the latest newspapers and information from around the country. That effort yielded a cache of amazing printed material, from the June 17, 1776, Pennsylvania Ledger printing of the Declaration of Independence to the iconic 1948 Chicago Tribune headline declaring Dewey a victor over Truman.

For us St. Louisans, it is also a treasure trove of artifacts describing how our city developed. Yes, we know the French and German settled the area, but it’s so much more visceral to actually view their early native-language publications. At one time, St. Louis had no fewer than eight German language papers. And several French ones as well! There are long, descriptive published letters (in The United States Gazette for the Country) by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark detailing the terrain and peoples of the Louisiana Purchase—how else would Americans learn about that wilderness in 1806?

The exhibit will take viewers through other headline-worthy moments in U.S. history—“Brilliant Union Victory,” “Lindbergh’s Death-Defying Dash,” “Churchill Warns of Red Bid for Power,” “Kennedy is Assassinated,” “Men Walk on the Moon.” It is humbling, awe-inspiring and an astounding preservation for posterity right here in our midst. The exhibition runs until September 2019; don’t miss it!

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