We are 140 years old.
It was on Dec. 6, 1877, that The Washington Post published its first issue — four pages that cost three cents — bringing politics, world affairs and local intrigue to the nation’s capital.
What made news that day?
- We reported from Rome on the Pope’s ill health: “the hands and arms of the Pope are swelling and his prespiration (there was no auto-correct back then), his mind, however, continues clear.”
- There was a war in Constantinople: “A report has reached here that the Turks have captured Elena, with 5,000 prisoners.”
- We’ve always had that thing with New York. So there was a whole section headlined “What the Gothamites Are Doing” a wrap-up of New York tidbits, including: “a rain storm prevailed here all days and a thick fog hangs over the city and rivers” and news that “the pension office was crowded by relatives of those who lost their lives in the service of their country.” We got the scoop on a police captain who “was dismissed for intoxication” and reported an increase in the suicide rate, which “appears to be growing stronger.”
- News from South Carolina included a circus showman who performed on a trapeze hanging from a “monster balloon.” The story described an accident during the show, when one of the “gazing negroes” was tangled up in the ropes and fell 50 feet to the earth. Reports said “they found him still alive, but terribly bruished, (that linotype again) bleeding from the mouth and his hands literally sawed through to the bone.”
- Reports from Capitol Hill ran under a column, “AT THE CAPITOL” and editorializing was common: “The Capitol was a rather dull place yesterday.” The story described a Senate that “was not in session, the House labored wearily with a number of small matters and the ‘dear public’ which customarily dances a very generous attendance upon the sessions of either House, seemed to be either in sympathy with the weather or suffering a reaction from the excitement of last week and dozed in scant numbers in the dismal and half empty galleries.”
- There were updates about the USS Huron shipwreck off the coast of Nags Head, N.C. The wreck happened a couple weeks earlier and killed 98 aboard.
- And there was a blistering editorial: “The brutal, corrupt and avaricious Government of Spain has been as powerless to crush freedom in Cuba as King George to suppress the lovers of independence in this country.”
- And yes, we had the 1877 version of clickbait: “an old bachelor died of the combined effects of a cat-bite with his own folly.”
And that was just one day. The first day.
For 140 years, The Post has been reporting and writing the day’s news. Every day. We were founded after Reconstruction, during a time when newspapers were clearly partisan. Our founder was a Democratic journalist, Stilson Hutchins. But he sold the paper in 1889 to a bipartisan pair, a Republican postmaster general and a former Democratic congressman. John Philip Sousa was commissioned to write “The Washington Post March” for the awards ceremony honoring the winners of an essay contest, which the new owners ran to encourage youngsters to write and their parents to buy the new Post after the sale. The piece remains one of Sousa’s best-known works.
Right away, The Post had influence across the country, beyond Washington. And that was before we defied the courts and published the Pentagon Papers in 1971, before our coverage of the Watergate scandal forced the resignation of President Nixon three years later.
And before Hollywood decided that stars like Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman should portray Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in “All the President’s Men,” the movie about Watergate. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep star in a movie in theaters later this month about our decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. It’s called “The Post.”
The battle cry for American sailors — Remember the Maine — during the Spanish-American War back in 1898? The Post printed that.
A 1902 cartoon that showed Theodore Roosevelt bonding with a small bear cub that became the inspiration for the teddy bear? That’s us, too.
From the Spanish-American War to World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, hundreds of Washington Post reporters have been risking their lives to bring home the news.
Reporters have been there to record our nation’s social revolutions, civic upheavals, impeachments, resignations, 27 presidents, thousands of weddings, births and deaths.
And when we get it wrong — it would be impossible to write so much, every day, flawlessly — we correct it. Fastidiously and sometimes famously.
In 1915, The Washington Post printed what still holds the record for one of the worst newspaper typos. It was a story about President Woodrow Wilson’s love life. “The President gave himself up for the time being to entering his fiancee.” The story was supposed to say he was “entertaining”, not “entering” Edith Galt. Oops. We owned up to it and scrambled to recall papers already on the stands. Then, we corrected it. Swiftly. (In fact, I made mistakes in this story. I typed wrong and originally said The Post is 170 years old instead of 140. And I didn’t tell the full story of the Post March. Not good. It’s been fixed. We fix!)
The corrections section remains one of the most engaging reads in the paper. And it’s a testament to holding ourselves accountable.
Happy Birthday to real news, 140 years of it. In case you’re still wondering whom to trust.
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