Verbal Energy

A browse through the newsstand of centuries past

A visit to an online archive of newspapers of the 17th and 18th centuries shows how bloglike many of them were – for good or ill.

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We were all effectively snowbound the other day in the Greater Boston area and beyond. Since moving through the streets looked difficult, I decided to time-travel through the Burney Collection of 17th- and 18th-century newspapers.

As a joint project of the British Library and Gale, the educational publisher, it's available online through university and other research libraries. I got to it via the Boston Public Library.

These newspapers, published in London, elsewhere in the British Isles, and in British colonies (including Boston) "comprise the most comprehensive collection of early English newspapers anywhere in the world," according to Gale.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

This million-page collection was the work of the Rev. Charles Burney (1757-1817), a classical scholar, schoolmaster, and clergyman. (His father was a friend of Handel's, which is why the name may ring a bell, especially so soon after Christmas.)

Burney's collection, which went to the British Library at his death, shows how constant is the impulse to have a common public political conversation, even if in the guise of "letters" coming through the "mail."

The names of these publications are all over the lot. Many sound like titles you might ask for at your favorite newsstand or bookstore: The Boston Gazette or The Daily Courant. (I suppose that's another way of saying that newspaper names tend to be old-fashioned, er, steeped in tradition.)

But those titles are downright snappy compared with, say, "Briefe Relation of Some Affaires and Transactions," from 1649. Its publisher had obviously never heard of search engine optimization.

Then there's "All Alive and Merry; or the London Daily Post," from the early 1740s, which sounds as if it's trying a bit too hard to be sparkly. There is just one issue of "An Account of the Publick Transactions in Christendom" in the Burney Collection, that of Saturday, Aug. 11, 1694.

This was just a few years after the Ottoman Turks were defeated in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The writer of the "account" reports, "General Veterani has advanced with the Forces under his Command to the Iron-gate, to cover Transilvania against the Tartars, and to favour the Expedition of the Poles, who according to the last Letters from Warsaw, were drawing together to enter Moldavia."

Some 330 years later, Western Europe is still concerned about its neighbors on the other side of the Bosporus, and still finding ways to make a place for the Poles and other Eastern Europeans.

It's astonishing how bloglike some of these papers are – for good or ill. The "account" begins, "We have been this Week in great Impatience for want of News, and the Holland Mail we had on Thursday, has not yet quenched our thirst; for what we heard was not very material."

Most news organizations would know better than to lead with "We don't really have any news, and what we had last time wasn't so hot either." But maybe if they were really honest they would.

And some of these old papers could be pretty cheeky. For instance: "This Courant (as the Title shews) will be Publish'd Daily: being design'd to give all the Material News as soon as every Post arrives: and is confin'd to half the Compass" – what we might call "news hole" or "format" – "to save the Publick at least half the Impertinences, of ordinary News-Papers."

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