Newspapers as Historic Sources

"The picture they [newspapers] draw is a response to a predisposed public opinion which is both satisfied and moulded by it" 

-Herbert L. Matthews, New York Times reporter


Even today newspapers seem to be marginal sources for many historians, who may give them a quick glance for a few juicy quotes to enliven the pages of already completed research. The emphasis is changing, however, as some scholars realize that newspapers and other forms of communication strike responsive chords in the public; otherwise, they could not exist economically. To a certain extent, then, newspapers are also gauges of public opinion. Since their inception in 1609 they have become the lingua franca of society, the most valuable index we have of measuring popular attitudes

Whether you are a researcher for a university, media or theatre company, a Teacher looking for historical coverage as it was written or even just looking for a specific article or picture, Timothy Hughes Rare and Early Newspapers are the world's largest sellers of authentic newspapers dating from 1600's-1900.

Original copies of historic newspapers can be bought through the website and they very kindly sent History and the Sock Merchant a couple of samples for review, an amazing edition of 'The Daily Post Boy' dated 1729, The Illustrated London News from 1881 and Harpers Weekly from 1864.



Few historians have wrestled with the problem of newspapers as historical sources.  Nevertheless, there have been some brilliant studies by American historians using newspapers as primary source material, and these works are increasing in number. The historiographical breakthrough came with Marcus M. Wilkerson, Public Opinion and the Spanish–American War (1932) and Joseph E. Wisan, The Cuban Crisis as Reflected in the New York Press (1934). After Joseph Goebbels focused attention on mass manipulation in the events leading up to World War II, a flurry of works appeared which considered newspapers as actors in the historical drama, not mere spectators seated comfortably in the box seats.

As a historian always trying to understand contemporary opinion these newspapers were a treasure trove, there really should be a greater exchange between historians and journalism scholars,  there is a long-standing imbalance to redress and stimulate discussion on the important issue of not excluding the proper use of newspapers as factual sources.  At the very least, the historian can examine and present the newspaper record of what was offered to the public and let readers form their own conclusions.