Folger to showcase exhibits on early newspapers

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Washington’s premier Shakespearean library will unveil a new exhibit this week that chronicles the birth of the modern newspaper in the United States and England during the 17th century.

“Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper” will open Thursday at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. The exhibit tells the story of how innovations in printing technology and the creation of a new class of professional journalists allowed breaking news to be accessible to ordinary readers for the first time.

“There were few techniques for manipulating the press available today which were not available in the 16th and 17th centuries,” said curator Jason Peacey.

Among the collections at the exhibit are the first U.S. newspaper, a replica of a Guttenberg-style printing press, and early versions of 17th-century British periodicals and newspapers still in print today.

“This exhibit will allow visitors to view the genesis of the modern newspaper,” said Folger Library spokeswoman Amy Arden. The library was built in 1932 and contains the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials, as well as other major collections of rare Renaissance books, manuscripts and works of art.

A major story arc covered by the exhibit is the relationship between emerging journalists and the English government during and after the English Civil War of 1642-1651. It was during this period that government control of the press broke down for the first time in Europe, allowing writers to play significant roles in shaping public opinion.

Included in the exhibit are examples of political propaganda from pundits and pamphleteers, specifically those commenting on the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Also on display are early versions of the English newspaper the London Gazette, which has been in continuous publication since 1665.

“This was a great time for salacious reporting … the King was executed, the government had been drastically changed. There really was nothing like the English press during this period,” Miss Arden said.

Another story told by the exhibit is the crucial role played by technology in allowing journalists to report breaking news. On display is a replica of the printing press, first invented by Johannes Guttenberg in 1439. The replica was acquired from Bucknell University and offers viewers a glimpse of the equipment used by early newspaper publishers.

The development of newspapers in the American colonies also is examined. Included in the exhibit is the sole copy of America’s first newspaper, Boston’s Publick Occurrences, which printed just one issue in 1690 before being shut down. Also surveyed is English coverage of breaking stories from within the colonies, including an advertisement in the London-based Athenian Mercury for English pamphleteer Cotton Mather’s account of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts.

“Just as people today are interested in what’s going on in the world, so did English readers, wanting news from the New World,” Miss Arden said.

The free exhibition in the Folger Great Hall will run until Jan. 31.

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