I have mentioned before how I go to sometimes ridiculous lengths to undertake research in the interests of producing Lovecraftian props/handouts for scenarios. My goal in creating such things is always to make something that looks entirely authentic … and the only way to do that is to find out what authentic looks like.
The most common type of prop I have made for games is unquestionably the humble newspaper article. After all, what Call of Cthulhu (or even Trail of Cthulhu) story is complete without at least one curious clue hidden away in a musty old newspaper morgue? Making such props is certainly fun … but making them authenic is always a challenge.
As mentioned in a recent post, one of the ways I tackle this task is by trying to find a suitable “reference example” whose style — whether that be typographic style, or writing style, or both — I can emulate. If my task is to create a faux newspaper from 1920s Florida, I will try to find something as close as possible to be my reference example. Once upon a time this would have been very difficult — with the Internet it is MUCH easier.
Over the past decade or so there have been several large-scale efforts to scan old newspapers (and usually to OCR them to produce searchable text). My personal favourite such archive is the Google News Archive. I like it for a couple of reasons: first, it’s free. Second, it’s huge — it includes literally millions of pages of scanned newspapers, comprising issues of over 2000 different periodicals.
But there are things that make the Google News Archive hard to use … not least the fact that in 2011 Google discontinued the project completely and have buried it away where few folks are likely to ever find it without help. The other major challenge is figuring out where in the world (or more realistically, North America, mostly) each of the 2000+ newspaper titles hails from. The main index page simply lists the title of each newspaper, the number of issues held in the archive and the (sometimes erroneous) first and last dates held. There’s nothing to help you know whether the “Rochester Evening Herald”, for example, is from Rochester, NY or Rochester, IN or Rochester, PA — indeed newspapers from all three Rochesters are included in the list, none of them placed geographically.
So … what’s a prop-maker to do when searching for newspapers from a specific region to serve as “representative examples” for a design?
Well … one solution is just to use guesswork … but a better method is to produce a geographical index of your own. Over the past week or so, this is exactly what I’ve created for all newspapers in the Google News Archive which contain at least one issue printed in the 1920s. Now, scanning by hand through 2000+ newspapers sounds like a lot of work … but some clever filtering cut the size of the problem down to something more tractable. In the end it really only took a few days to visually inspect a page from every newspaper likely to have a 1920s issue …
In the end, my trawl over the (current) Google News Archive found 319 newspapers which were included with at least one 1920s issue; these were printed in 193 different cities/towns. Most newspapers came from the US or Canada, but there were a handful of titles from Australia (Sydney and Melbourne) and the UK (London and Glasgow). Plotting out these newspapers on a custom Google Map produces a nice geographic index of places for which scanned twenties newspapers are available — the pic below gives a static shot of part of the map; click that image to go to the shared map. Alternatively you can just click here.
[ Note that this map is hosted and delivered by Google — some browsers seem to struggle a little displaying the pages served up by the google map engine; if things aren’t displaying correctly for you, try a different browser or read the help pages on Google’s site ]
If you fly around the interactive map and zoom in on specific locations you will see that some cities have multiple markers, one for each newspaper in the Google News Archive printed in that city. Clicking on any marker shows you the name of the newspaper and, more importantly, a link to the scans of that specific periodical. I hope that this geo-index is helpful to prop-makers generally, and particularly folks who have at some time been stumped while trying to find regional data (specifically, 1920s things — the index says nothing about papers published in other decades) in Google’s tantalizing yet poorly-indexed collection of scans.