History books are full of marquee events: men on horseback winning battles, research labs finding cures for horrific diseases, captains of industry reshaping manufacturing.
Collections of newspaper displays follow the same pattern — classic front pages plastered with giant headlines about D-Day, the moon landing or a former boa-wearing pro wrestler being elected governor of Minnesota.
But historians, biographers and other fans of bygone eras have long known that the real stories about what life used to be like were much more subtle in their telling. It wasn't Page One that detailed the opening of a library in the farthest reaches of the city (Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue) or recounted the heroic rescue of a cat stuck in a tree near St. Anthony Falls.
The wealth of detail in the old papers is extraordinary, and the quantity of stories about the way people lived gives you a sense of the time and place like nothing else. But those tales of everyday life were relegated to the inside pages, often told in short accounts buried under headlines not much larger than the type in the story itself. And searching them out required patiently paging through dusty collections of bound newspapers or spending hours squinting at images displayed on a microfilm reader.
Until now, that is.
The Star Tribune's archive of old papers — all 150 years of them — has been digitized and is now searchable from a computer.
The Star Tribune is offering a free digital copy of any page of the paper since 1867. (We're working on the next 150 years as we speak.) You can sign up for a subscription at startribune.com/vault.
You could get a copy of the paper from the day you were born, but what's the point? "Ah, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was naked, screaming, dripping with amniotic fluid, and Eisenhower was dealing with the Suez Crisis."
But as a self-professed aficionado of the past who admittedly has spent more time digging through dungy repositories of olden times than any outdoor-loving, plaid-shirt-sporting Minnesotan should ever admit, let me share some insight on how to get the most out of this endeavor.
No. 1: Forget the big news.
It's boring. Yesterday's big events are well-known — "Oh, we invaded at Normandy? New one on me" — or it seems unimportant after the passage of time. A headline screaming "Senate Debates Measure" could be from 1926, 1946, 1976 — or yesterday.
It's the small news that seems timeless. Every single crime seemed to get in the paper. "Eva Cody and Arthur Peterson were arrested for beating Oscar Olson with his cane when they were all sharing a gallon of alcohol." Or: "A prowler entered the room of George Glumac in the Beaufort Hotel and got away with $30 in cash."
Everything the government did was news. "Postmaster outlines rules on mailboxes." "US Dept. of Air Commerce shows 31 airports in state."
If it wasn't in the paper, it probably didn't happen.
No. 2: Don't count on the editors to help you.
The early papers are so dense you don't know where to start. The cluttered layout and almost random assignment of story positions seem to defy reading. The design doesn't start to open up until the early years of the 20th century, when photographs and illustrations made the pages more accessible, and varying headline sizes told you what was important.
Don't be intimidated by the early editions' chaos. You just have to jump in and start reading, keeping in mind the most interesting articles might be in the least expected places.
No. 3: Their science looks amusing.
One big science story from 1924 has the headline: "What Astrology predicts for 1925!" The stars said we'd get "New Triumphs for Youth" as well as "Scientific Advancements"(anything that was truly important warranted capital letters) that would produce "Startling Advances in Radio Marvels."
Or, another headline from the '20s: "Mystery Tone Quality Found in Air of City." The ensuing article, it turns out, was about the opening of the Minnesota Theater.
It said, "Chemical elements present in the atmosphere of Minneapolis are largely responsible for musical, instruments, and vocal excellence that is impossible anywhere else in the world, according to Nathaniel W. Finston."
No. 4: Social issues are different, but familiar.
From 1924: "Modern Family Lacks Head, says Omaha Woman."
It went on to report, "Traditionally, man may be the head of the household, but under present conditions he hardly dares admit it even to himself, according to Mrs. Eva Morse."
She was giving a talk about the modern family, and how father, mother and child are all pulling it in different directions. Oh, they'd be happy to know we sorted that one out.
No. 5: The ads are the best part.
They tell you more about the culture than the front page. So many movie theaters. So many stores long gone. Go back to the '20s, and you might not find a single brand you recognize.
There's an ad for CREMO, a tobacco company fighting the battle against "Infected Cigars." Finally! There's an ad for Beaver Pelt coats, and one for Pluto water for balky bowels.
Between 1925 and 1930, there's a remarkable leap in the ads' sophistication; new typefaces spring up, graphics get sleek and lean.
The ads of the early '40s turn grim. Companies tout products that are in short supply "for the duration," while others describe the appliances you'll buy someday, after the fighting. The phone company tells you not to make long-distance calls because the lines are needed for war. All there seems to be is soap, coffee and Coca-Cola.
Then the war ends and it's cars and hamburgers and Dayton's, Justers and Red Owl. Eventually, the world starts to look familiar.
No. 6: The comics weren't funny then, either.
The more things change. …
So, armed with this advice, where to begin?
It depends on what era grabs your fancy, but if you've got time and patience, start with World War I. Work your way forward, watching Minneapolis grow out and up in the boom years, grapple with the crash and the reset of expectations in the Depression. Observe how World War II was detailed, at a time when its outcome was far from certain. Watch the front page get cleaner and simpler, with fewer stories and bigger pictures.
Appreciate the realization that, somehow, it all worked out. The things that bothered people are familiar, which is reassuring. The things they feared — the Depression, Nazis, polio, the Reds — didn't prevail.
If nothing else, it's a reminder: It always feels like a mess, probably because it is. But here we are, and there'll be another paper tomorrow.