The beginning was inauspicious. Only four pages, a single sheet folded over, the first day's issue of 850 copies of the Daily Evening Star came off a hand press in a small print shop at Eight and D streets NW, an intersection now partly obliterated by the FBI Building. Joseph B. Tate, a printer by trade, was the proprietor.
To the practiced eye, there was one thing incongruous bout The Star's nameplate, in a modified German text letter resembling the Old English that in later decades graced the top of the front page: the "y" in the word Daily was really an upsidedown "h."
This article, vignettes and observations about the evolution and demise of Washington's afternoon newspaper, draws on the writer's 25 years of Star readership and his personal archives, from yellowed clippings and scrapbooks in the Washingtoniana Collection of the D.C. Public Library and from interviews.
The Star during most of its 128 years was complete, accurate, fair to the point of blandness and utterly devoted to the nation's capital. It never deviated from Tate's prospectus in that first issue:
The Star "will be devoted, in an especial manner, to the local interests of the beautiful city which bears the honored name of Washington. . . . Whether it shall be a fixed or a wandering 'Star' depends upon the patronage it will attract."
"The eidtorial department will be under the direction of gentleman of ability and tact."
A news item in the first issue:
"Our courts are sitting, but the business with which they are engaged is not of a very interesting character."
By 1861, with The Star now owned by William Wallach, it published word of the first ground skirmish of the Civil War in the nearby Virginia countryside on Page 2, under the heading "The News Here" -- an early precursor of Metro news:
"Just before daylight," the account began, "a detachment of Company B, United States dragoons, were fired upon by sucession troops, while reconnoitering in the vicinity of Fairfax Court House. The U.S. calvalry returned the fire, and charged three times through the village. . . .
"From fifteen to twenty of the rebels were killed, it is estimated, and the dragoons brought away five prisoners."
The article carried a "postscript," in modern parlance a bulletin, containing later details, received at The Star office as late as "3 1/2 p.m."
At its half-century mark in 1902, The Star was strictly an afternoon paper, six days a week, with a circulation of 35,000, then about the same as The Post, which it would soon exceed. Its presses did not roll for its only edition until 3:45 p.m.
The Sunday paper began in 1905, and it marked the start of an era of Star domination of the community that was at once nurtuing and suffocating. Fat with advertising, The Star would assume an ultimately flawed sense of economic invulnerability and would exude an often smug attitude of civic paternalism.
The ystar advocated the creation of Rock Creek Park and of East Potomac Park from muck dredged from the river bottom to form Hains Point. It pressed for the construction of Union Station and the removal of railroad tracks from downtown streets. It led the successful drive to create a public library. It won a campaign to power streetcars in central Washington from underground electrical conduits rather than ugly overhead wires.
The Star advocated still unattained voting representation for the District of Columbia in Congress. It called for giving city residents a presidential vote, which was ultimately achieved with journalistic and political help from others after The Star's fortunes already were ebbing. For years it opposed "home rule." It eternally sought a more generous federal payment to support the city government.
In one situation, The Star embodied the local Washington Establishment and was its relentless mouthpiece. It not only spoke for the conservative Board of Trade; it also provided that business group with rented quarters in The Star Building until 1954, and it supplied the board three presidents from its corporate hierarchy.
When Theodore W. Noyes, The Star's editor since 1908, reached his 80th birthday in 1938, he was feted at a Civic Celebration banquet in the Willard Hotel ballroom and proclaimed Washington's First Citizen. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes sent greetings. Even the rival Post, represented at the event by publisher Eugene Meyer, printed a picture layout and the full text of Noyes' speech.
Gray in format until the relatively recent past [although not adverse to an occasional screaming headline on a major story], The Star was crammed with Associated Press dispatches and endless columns on local happenings. It fostered the creation of the federations of [white] citizens' and [black] civic assoications, nad dutifully chronicled their parochial concerns. It made for dull reading but helped foster a sense of community, a sense that was diluted if not lost as once tight-knit Washington was transformed into a metropolis.
"The assoication members wouldn't even start their meetings until the Star reporter got there," recalled John W. Thompson Jr., a grandson of Theodore Noyes, who attended many of the meetings as a cub reporter out of Princeton in 1936.
In 1922, The Star began its late Night Final Edition, incongruously printed on a garish pink paper, a livery that was discontinued 13 years later when the now-familiar red streak was instituted.
Not until 1936 did The Star add a before-noon street edition, and it hastened to assure readers that it was motivated by public service, not profits. "In the mere adding of a given number of thousands of circulation," an editorial intoned, "there has never been, and is not now, any concern."