Written by Mariam Touba, N-YHS Reference Librarian
Even as we are told that newspapers are a dying medium, each of us can remember their banner headlines announcing momentous events. Such headlines, however, did not always come with newspapers. How then did early newspapers alert their readers to important occurrences? The answer is, “very subtly,” at least to our modern eyes.
Readers in the colonial period and in the early 19th century knew to look for the latest and most important news in the inside pages of the newspaper. The front page was usually reserved for advertising—if the paper was fortunate enough to receive advertising revenue. The newspapers themselves were only four pages—actually produced by merely folding a large sheet in half—and the printer found it easiest to lay out the late-breaking news on the second and third inside pages. Here, for example, you can strain your eyes in observing how the stunning and significant result of the Revolutionary War battle of Saratoga was reported on page 3 of the New-York Packet in October 1777.
New York Packet, October 23, 1777. Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, N-YHS, Newspaper Collection.
So it is gratifying to show the one glaring exception to this pattern, announcing the great victory of the American and French forces under George Washington over Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia 230 years ago this month. This extraordinary banner headline appeared in the Freeman’s Journal when news of the surrender reached the Continental Congress at Philadelphia.
Freeman’s Journal, October 24, 1781. Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, N-YHS, Newspaper Collection.
The aforementioned New-York Packet was the one newspaper that could not help but repeat the Freeman’s Journal’s unusual front page effort on November 1, with both papers ending with the Latin Laus Deo (“praise be to God”).
New York Packet, November 1, 1781. Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, N-YHS, Newspaper Collection.
The Yorktown Surrender did not mark the formal end to the Revolutionary War: skirmishes continued, the peace treaty was not signed until 1783, and the British did not end their occupation of New York City until over two years after Yorktown. It is for this reason that New York City’s patriot printers, like the Packet’s Samuel Loudon, struggled for years to put out their newspapers in exile in upstate cities like Poughkeepsie and Fishkill. These early printers, however, clearly understood the historic significance of the surrender of Cornwallis’s army on October 19, 1781, “screaming” it in a way they had not done before nor since, knowing that everything had indeed changed in a “World Turn’d Upside Down.”