District library officials are perplexed by the mysterious return of a huge bound volume of the 1896 Washington Evening Star to the Mount Pleasant branch this week.
The book, 23.5 by 18.4 inches, was probably too large to fit down the return. Such archival material isn’t available for checkout, and the guess is that old papers probably disappeared decades ago. But officials at the Washingtoniana archives of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, where the volume is now housed, are glad it’s back.
“As an archivist, it’s very important that it has been returned and didn’t end up in the trash or a dumpster,” said Derek Gray, who added that he has never seen anything like this reappear. “This is a very valuable item.”
The defunct Evening Star, the District’s dominant newspaper in the late 19th century, when The Washington Post was just a teenager, donated the collection on Jan. 16, 1907.
The 1896 newspapers weren’t completely lost to history. The D.C. Public Library has every edition of the paper on microfilm, which is also accessible on a searchable database online. But bound copies come in handy for exhibits and when the microfilm isn’t legible.
The volume covers October through December 1896, when the news was dominated by the lively presidential race between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
The Star boasted of erecting “great screens” outside its offices to electronically display Election Day updates, prefiguring the big display of the washingtonpost.com home page in the lobby of the paper’s K Street offices. The Election Day front page featured a large cartoon of the victorious McKinley and dispatches from dozens of states.
“It is doubtful if there was ever an election in this country which attracted anything like the interest or gave rise to half as much excitement as the election tomorrow,” an unbylined piece from Nov. 3, 1896, reads. (One can only imagine what readers in 2136 will make of The Post’s 2016 campaign headlines about small hands and rumored affairs.)
Monetary policy was the hot issue. Bryan famously declared “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” when advocating for legal silver tender at the Democratic National Convention.
Perhaps unsurprising for newspapers in 1896, the treatment of women and minorities in print wouldn’t pass muster today. A classified ad requests a “light colored” butler, while another headline screams “Why Ladies Like Coffee.”
Gray and other library officials want the person who returned the newspaper collection to come forward.
And not to slap the person with astronomical late fees.
“I just want to know how did you get it out of here?” Gray said. “It’s huge.”