A Publication of WTVP

Frozen in time

by Phil Luciano |

When newspapers were king 82 years ago, there was no indication of the war horror to come

Ihave a weird guilty pleasure:

Reading old newspapers.

I bet not too many of you do likewise. After all, it’s hard to find much use for old newspapers, to say nothing of old newspapermen, something I’m still trying to figure out.

Anyway, there’s a throwback appeal to poring over weathered newspapers, especially those that arrived before I did. As far as visiting bygone days, it’s a different experience than reading history books, which offer a methodical and thoughtful presentation of context, anecdotes, statistics, experts and analysis. Rather, when you open an old newspaper, you get immediately plopped smack-dab into the middle of yesteryear.

Bold headlines and wide photos highlight major events. But the big picture is filled out with briefs, comics, ads and agate, which provide nuance and insight into people’s everyday life back then. What did they cook? Where did they eat?  How did they talk? What slang did they use? Where did they shop? How did they spend their free time?

Skimming all that info, you kind of feel like an amateur sociologist — or maybe a nosy neighbor from the future. Like I said, the pastime isn’t for everyone. But a friend, Moon, likes it almost as much as I do.

Moon lives with his wife in The Knolls in Peoria, where they bought a bungalow in 1988. Soon afterward, to make more space for their growing family, they converted an upstairs attic into a bedroom.

In the process, they lifted up floorboards and found several stacks of papers, likely shoved in there as cheap insulation decades before. These were mostly editions of the Peoria Star and Peoria Journal-Transcript from 1940 and 1941.

Moon put the old newspapers into a storage bin, taking them out now and then to enjoy a back-in-time journey. Lately, though, he has been downsizing, so he decided to part with the papers. Not only are they becoming increasingly brittle, but he wondered if perhaps they’d be of better use in a library or museum.

So, he called me, and I said I could ask around. First, though, I decided to give them a look-see, just for fun.

I snapped open the bin and gingerly pulled out the top issue. Though yellowed, the pages burst with the color of time. The black-and-white stories and photos offering a vivid portrait of Peoria just before World War II, especially from autumn 1941.

The sports section carried plenty of football news, especially college teams. But there also were column after column of scores and standings from dozens upon dozens of bowling leagues. Imagine that: Long before ESPN — and television in general — Peorians regularly left their homes for sports entertainment.

And with TV in its infancy, radio still ruled the airwaves. That’s why the Star ran a daily feature called “Radio Today,” listing that night’s shows and highlights under the byline “Joan Kelly, Peoria Star Radio Editor.” Though soon to go the way of vaudeville, radio programs were still vital enough to prompt full-time newspaper coverage.

Meanwhile, Peorians loved movies, so much so that the city needed nine theaters — the Beverly, Varsity, Princess, Columbia, Warner, Luxe, Apollo, Palace and Madison — to meet ticket demand. That fall, the flicks spotlighted Greer Garson, Cesar Romero and the Marx Brothers. Or, if you felt like dancing, you could head out to the Hub Ballroom and see the likes of Sternie Sternberg & His Orchestra.

As for news, one Sunday front page reported a mass power outage in East Peoria the night before. Some businesses, such as theaters and groceries, simply shut down. But not barbers, who apparently didn’t want to turn away “the usual Saturday night last-minute rush,” likely so gents would look sharp for church the next morn.

How do you cut hair in the dark? Very carefully. As the paper reported from one shop, one barber held a candle while another worked his scissors.

I marveled at that report. For one, a newspaper had enough staff and drive to send a reporter out to find an interesting take on a mundanity like a power outage. For another, though I’m sure police had to respond to all sorts of calls that night, it’s nice to think of a Peoria where Saturday night’s biggest news involved not bullets but barbers.

Other news that autumn included quaint items. A will by a “Mrs. Bergan” bequeathed $7,150 to two sons and two daughters. A “Mrs. Mac Duncan” had been treated to a nice bridal shower. And five Peorians were seeking admission to the Illinois Bar Association.

From the ads, A&P shoppers could start planning for Thanksgiving. Smoked hams went for 27 cents a pounds, with turkeys six cents more. Also on sale were Lucky Strikes, for $1.39 — a carton.

Plus, long before Black Friday became today’s sales monster, Thanksgiving ads touted upcoming yuletide shopping. Bergner’s announced that Superman soon would be opening Toyland, where a Lionel train set — steam engine, four cars, oval track and transformer — was being slashed in price from $17.60 to $14.95.

Block and Kuhl tried to wax poetic with its ad: “Last night, the spirit of Christmas slipped into our store. With a blinding burst of silver light, it spread itself over the whole store.” Hokey? Sure. But reading that, I kind of got excited.

All of those pages, especially with the holiday flourishes, made for a wistfully quaint and simple setting a la “A Christmas Story.” Yet, amid all the charm, the newspapers’ dates — so many from November 1941 — left me almost clenching my teeth and fists in anxiety over the looming horror.

To be sure, there were stories about the war overseas, with headlines screaming updates such as “Russians Smashing at Axis Lines.” Some stories shared a widespread yearning for continued U.S. neutrality: “FDR Again Expresses the Hope America Can Stay Out.”

But the most riveting report atop the front page of Sunday, Nov. 16: “U.S. Psychologically Far from War.”

I stared at that headline for a long while. I thought about original readers seeing that story and quite possibly thinking, “I’m not ready for another world war. I hope things stay the same at home.”

And I counted dates on the calendar, aware how things would change so drastically — for Peoria, the country and the world — just 21 days later. But on that Nov. 16, in that issue of that newspaper, life breezed along with an almost carefree naivete.

Maybe that’s another reason I enjoy old newspapers: Each edition is frozen in time. If you pick the right issue, all is calm, all is bright. It’s only a fantasy, as we know that time always marches on, sometimes brutally. But we can linger, slowly turning brittle, yellowed pages amid peace and simplicity, if only for a little while.

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]