Stories from a Staples Box: Exploring History and Memory in Old Newspapers

“People don’t actually read newspapers. They step into them every morning like a hot bath.”
Marshall McLuhan, c 1964
My rapidly expanding collection of newspapers and clippings, stored in a Staples box.
              In 1964 Canadian educator Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media, forever changing the way many people perceive media and the messages it contains. In brief, he asserted that items such as newspapers have far greater meaning than the superficial print they contain (pg 211). Of course, McLuhan’s philosophical discussion involves a much more complex analysis of media in relation to its true message, but as I look at the collection of clippings and papers in my Staples box I think of McLuhan’s more simple assertion above. Newspapers provide more than just an outlet for news stories. Their ability to make people feel like an integral part of the larger world is comforting, much like a “hot bath.” Indeed, my collection of clippings and newspaper editions contains more than just stories that I was a part of or events that occurred around me. The stories within illustrate that my life so far has been a tangible and recordable part of a broader historical narrative.
Those “15 minutes of Fame”
In 1968 Andy Warhol coined the phrase “fifteen minutes of fame,” which has evolved to refer to short bursts of fame or public notoriety achieved by unknown individuals. My hometown newspaper, the Westlock News, provided ample coverage on the exploits of its nearly 4000 residents. My collection of clippings begins with several items given to me by my mother, featuring either myself or my family smiling out from the pages. While growing up in my small town, I observed that “getting in the paper” happened to be a source of pride for many people (or at least notoriety for those in the “Court Report” pages), and I recall my mother scanning the paper each week for the names of people she knew. Concerning Westlock’s children, everything from school awards to local 4-H club celebrations and sporting events appeared. Riding horses was my passion in my youth, and I now admit that I enjoyed seeing my name in print or photos of me on horseback at various local events.
As I look at these clippings today I notice how they seem to chronicle more about my life than what the text and images reveal. For instance, my flamboyant “80s” hairstyle and an advertisement for a Kentucky Fried Chicken family meal deal (just $14.99) are perhaps the most obvious historic features in one of the clippings, but as I look at the entire collection more closely it reflects embedded features of my past. The clips chronicle how I changed physically and how my riding improved over the years. I also laughed when I noticed that in many of the 4-H club group photos I stood next a guy I happened to be dating at the time. Years later I obviously no longer cared to stand next to him, as the last group photo shows. Somehow these clippings had also managed to capture facets of my social life.
This was the last group photo our 4-H club took shortly before it folded. I stood in the back row, sporting the signature poufy 80s hairstyle (source: Westlock News, pg 21, June 10, 1989).

         Although I do not appear in many of my favourite clippings, they still contain important links to my past nonetheless. On November 17, 2002, my siblings and I published a picture of our parents as a gift for their 40th anniversary. It appeared in both the Westlock News and the Edmonton Journal, but my parents were particularly thrilled with the former. They had lived their lives in the same small town, contributing to the community alongside many of the same people they had known since elementary school. When my parents opened up the “Occasions” section and saw their picture they commented on how much they’d changed, but they were also amazed at the number of other couples celebrating milestones that day. Two 25ths, another 40th and three 50th anniversaries were commemorated on page 28 of the News and, remarkably, my parents could claim some connection to each couple. (For my part, I recognized a former classmate who had just had a baby, and a “friend of a friend” who had recently become engaged.) Perhaps the value of a clipping like this is not in what it overtly says but rather what it represents, a generation of couples who lived their lives in a small town, becoming integral parts of their community and defying Canada’s high divorce rate in the process.
We placed this ad in the "Occasions" section of the newspaper to commemorate our parents' 40th wedding anniversary (source: Westlock News, pg 28, November 17, 2002).

             As I watched the Olympics this summer, I couldn’t help but reflect on another favourite clipping that chronicles a unique memory. In 2000 my brother travelled to Australia for a work contract, and while there attended several Olympic events in Sydney. One fateful event was rowing, where he met Marnie McBean’s parents in the stands. Typical of his gregarious nature, he got along well with her parents and was later invited to visit Canada House in the Olympic village. There, he met McBean who asked if he was going to stay and meet Simon Whitfield, who was just arriving at Canada House following his gold medal win. He stayed, gathering other memories of meeting Whitfield and, later, the women’s swimming team. I enjoyed getting his phone calls during the Olympics, not minding that most were at about 2 am. He would give me play-by-plays of the sports he was watching, activity at the bars he was at, or commentary on the closing ceremony fireworks. The Westlock News subsequently published a story on my brother’s Australian adventures that also chronicled his own life growing up in Westlock and his later career achievements. The chance meeting with McBean’s parents had given my brother a unique connection to a significant event in Canadian sporting history, the gold medal win in triathlon at Sydney 2000, which the News later captured.
 A copy of the article that featured my brother's Olympic adventures at Sydney in 2000 (source: Westlock News, pg 12, December 13, 2000).

“Where were you when...”

            Clippings in which either myself or my family are featured provide a comforting connection to the past by grounding my life within history, but my collection of whole newspapers from significant days in history are also important to me because they reflect exactly what else was happening locally, nationally and internationally on days that were personally life-changing. In HIST 460 we discussed the notion of recalling where we were during significant events in our lives and how details of our own unique perspectives may unintentionally alter over time. Indeed, I have only a vague recollection of what I had for breakfast on the morning of my wedding (croissants and mimosas?), or how my husband woke me up on the morning of September 11, 2001 to tell me what had happened. (My little boy was still sleeping and my husband was ironing his white work shirt...I think!) I likely inherited the tendency to keep significant newspapers from my mother, whose own box of treasures contains a copy of the Edmonton Bulletin’s “Germany Surrenders” headline that she inherited from relatives.
My collection Edmonton Journal newspapers consists of some editions from significant days in my personal life and others that reflect local and world events, beginning with August 1, 1998. The morning of our wedding was rainy and humid, and I recall my bridesmaids and me joking about rain being a bad omen. (It’s not – I’m still married). I remember going for a run and painting my toenails blue earlier that morning, but many other details have become blurry with time. Someone saved the paper for me that day, and reading it now gives me an idea of what other events were happening that day. It was indeed rainy, humid, and 23 Celsius. Alberta premier Ralph Klein was on the cover, announcing yet another unpopular agenda that would limit federal involvement in health and education policy, and my unobtainable dream home, a 2700-square foot house in Sherwood Park called “The Buckingham” could be built for an “exorbitant” $383,000 (pg I9). Ironically, $383,000 is the cost of a modest, 1200-square foot condominium today.
            I also collected newspapers from the days when my three children were born. As I cuddled my new little “pumpkin” on October 31, 2000, I read an Edmonton Journal article on the front page about former Olympic VP Dick Pound, who suggested that Canada should stop funding what the newspapers dubbed “Olympic losers,” those individuals who participate in the smaller events and “bleed” money away from the marquis athletes. I laugh as I read this today. Those “Olympic losers” have just amassed many of the fifteen bronze medals in the smaller events at London 2012, bringing Canada’s medal count to a respectable level. Moreover, I shudder as I now read an advertisement on page A9 for a Packard Bell Intel Pentium III that, including the printer, was a steal at $1799! Today, it likely occupies a spot with its peers at the Edmonton landfill, and its successors are a fraction of the price. As my husband changed the diaper of our hours-old baby boy on August 25, 2006, I read that Pluto had been demoted from planet to planetary “dwarf.” On July 31, 2009, I cuddled my new little girl and read the cover story about someone else’s “little girl," Edmonton swimmer Annamay Pierse who had just broken a world record. Page A7 contained a much more sombre article commemorating the city’s Black Friday tornado. As I read, I could still vividly recall seeing the clouds in 1987, greenish and ominous and unlike the beautiful sunny day I saw from the hospital window years later in 2009.
This computer was advertised for sale on October 31, 2000, containing minimal technology for a colossal price by today's standards.

August 25, 2006 was the day scientists announced that Pluto was no longer a planet.

I have kept some Edmonton Journals from significant events in world history for reasons much like those discussed in HIST 460. For example, many who lived during the JFK assassination kept items such as newspapers, likely wanting to have a tangible record of a significant event that occurred in their lifetime, a record that could potentially spark a memory of where they were and what else may have been happening that day. My most significant newspaper is from January 1, 2000, the first day of the new millennium. Reading it now brings back memories of the excitement and apprehension many people felt as the New Year approached. I recall my boss having me perform enormous amounts of system backups for our library before we shut down for the holidays, and I also remember her concern for her mother’s pacemaker, rumoured to possibly fail once Y2K “hit.” Personally unconcerned, I rang in the New Year with family and the most decadent bottle of ice wine we could find. The following day, the Edmonton Journal published what I still consider one of the most striking editions I’ve seen to date. Its cover contained a fireworks display from City Hall, the simple headline “2000,” and the byline “Welcome to a Brave New World." It also included pictures of how East Coasters, the first to welcome 2000 in Canada, celebrated. Computers had not failed, planes did not fall out of the sky and Y2K fears fizzled as Edmonton welcomed its first millennium baby, Michael Dean Tutsin. Canada, and the world for that matter, would soldier on, as would Russia, whose president Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation with a plea for his countrymen to “forgive him for the shortcomings of his eight years on office.” As I read this paper today, I am amazed at how both Canada and the world have changed in twelve years, and I wonder how little Michael, a boy born the same year as my son, has fared all this time.
A copy of my favourite Edmonton Journal edition to date, January 1, 2000.

I kept the September 11, 2001 edition of the Edmonton Journal although it contains nothing of the actual events that happened that day. Edmontonians were likely reading this edition as horrendous events were unfolding in New York and elsewhere. Joe Clark’s coalition attempts were featured on the cover, and a seemingly prophetic story, tucked away in section A7, discussed how the murder of Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud by a Taliban bomber two days before had been a “grave setback to hopes of toppling the extremist Islamic Taliban regime.” Later that evening the Journal staff rushed out a special edition they called “Attack on America,” also dated September 11. I recall reading this second paper, but for reasons I can’t recall I did not keep a copy. I can only speculate that I, like so many others, probably felt inundated by the excessive media coverage in the days and weeks that followed.
The front page of the Edmonton Journal on September 11, 2001 obviously gave no indication of what was actually occurring that day. The Journal's special edition, published later that day, certainly did.

As I read the September 11 copy today, I am reminded of McLuhan’s theory that a medium can convey a deeper meaning that transcends its original purpose. This paper is important to me not because of its content but because of what it represents and the feelings I had reading it that morning. Still quite young at the time, it was the last paper in which I regarded world events with an innocent eye and as far removed from Canada. Though the event took place on American soil, Canadians too were affected by what has since been dubbed "9-11." Planes were grounded, borders were closed and, in the weeks that followed, conspiracy theories of terrorists in Canada ran rampant. Moreover, groups of innocent Islamic Edmontonians tried, sometimes in vain, to defend their culture and their loyalty to Canada.
My Ever-Growing Collection
            For me, the daily newspaper is indeed akin to a “hot bath” as McLuhan suggests, and my collection of clippings and papers will likely continue to grow. Newspapers have interested and entertained me, and have connected me to the greater world throughout my life. As a result, I have chosen to keep a select few clippings and papers that have been particularly special to me. Old print copies of the Westlock News and the Edmonton Journal are gradually making their way into archival repositories over time, and historians many years from now may gain insight into my generation by observing our mullet-like hair or by reading an advertisement for a comparatively cheap bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. As for my own repository, the newspapers I have kept are worth more to me than the words on the page. As I reflect on them now, I realize that they contain significant parts of my personal history, and in many cases they represent more than just the events they depict, allowing me to commemorate personal achievements or to connect with history on days that were significant in my past. Most of us will never achieve the fame or notoriety required to become front page fodder, but on those occasions when we are a part of a news story we become an even more tangible part of a broader historical narrative. The Westlock News and the Edmonton Journal may one day cease print publication in favour of an entirely online format. I know I will lament the connection to the physical paper as I read the printed text one last time, and I will add these copies to the Staples box when I’m done.


  1. What an interesting collection. Looking back at some of those events, well after 1989 for me, I almost can remember what I was doing at the time. I vividly remember the whole Y2K thing, it kinda freaked me out when I was ten because of how hyped up it was as a global catastrophe waiting to happen!

    It is so interesting how something as simple as a newspaper can chronicle events in your life and trigger memories. It was amusing to see the computer article, the specs on that model are almost as bad as the price!!! It is so amazing how far we have come technologically!

  2. I thought it was interesting to see that your parents were more excited to see their anniversary posting in the Westlock news than the Edmonton journal. It makes perfect sense even though this would be more routine to see themselves in it rather than having a bit more novelty in the Edmonton Journal. It made me consider some of the discussions in class regarding ownership and how we link ourselves to our local communities.

  3. @kuhcnelysaw, you're right. It's so interesting to look back in time and see how things change, how far we've come and to laugh about the things that concerned society so much at a particular time in history and yet never came to pass.

    @nom de plume, I also thought they'd like the Journal entry better, but I guess that little extra connection to those around them meant a bit more, and I can certainly understand that given our discussions in class on the importance of linking to sense of community to solidify a sense of belonging and personal fulfillment.