Sometime in the early 1980s, the Tribune tossed out a mountain of bound volumes. Deemed obsolete by management after being copied onto microfilm, the bulky archive fell into the hands of an amateur sports historian the company consulted after acquiring the Cubs. After clipping the sports pages for his personal collection, the hobbyist, a retired airline pilot, hauled the tomes off to a suburban storage locker.

For Janet Ginsburg, a free-lance curator from Skokie, stepping into that locker was bliss. “It was like being on the wrong end of Cupid’s arrow,” she recalled. Smitten by the immaculate pre-World War II papers, which had been printed on low-acid rag paper for library use, she promptly visualized an exhibit. “I have a Mickey Rooney gene–“Let’s put on a show!”‘ she says.

In 1986, when the Tribune hired Ginsburg to survey the company’s remaining historic holdings, she tried, unsuccessfully, to sell them on assembling an exhibition. In 1988 and 1989 the highlights of Ginsburg’s digging were displayed in the hallways of the marketing department; but although some execs liked the framed pages as office decor, the company made no further plans to exhibit them.

So Ginsburg pitched the idea to the Illinois Arts Council, which had funded two previous exhibits she curated–“Sacred Space” and “Mickey Pallas: Photographs 1945-1960.” With $12,000 in grants and office space lent by the Medill School of Journalism, Ginsburg began mining her findings for themes. “It was literally tons of history,” she said.

The finished exhibit, “The Art of the Message,” features 77 examples of Tribune graphics from the period between 1876 and 1945, an era when hand-drawn maps, charts, and caricatures transmitted the news. There’s the Chicago Daily Tribune’s front page of April 16, 1876, six of its seven columns packed with ads–including “Pianos Cheap for Cash” and “Cow! Cow! Cow!” (Ginsburg says she thinks early advertisers showed greater graphic verve than journalists.) Then there’s William H. Wisner’s “How Much Is a Billion Dollars?” from Sunday, September 11, 1938. To visualize the sum’s magnitude, the illustrator equated a dollar to a minute and started the clock on January 1, 1 AD. “At the time of crucifixion” the running figure was $14,741,000. The towering stack of greenbacks topped off one billion on May 26, 1902, at 4:47 AM.

In “The Curse of Communism,” an alarmist feature printed on October 30, 1938, a bloody splash of red ink complemented the reporter’s inflammatory metaphors. A possible precursor to morphing, “Dictators: The Iron Man,” superimposed the faces of seven dictators over each other. The commentary on this 1934 exercise in physiognomy added: “It will be noted also that none of these rulers of nations has a weak chin.”

Besides pulling out curiosities, Ginsburg organized some pages as “books on walls,” covering war, women, and the paper’s celebration of its own technology. “It costs us over $8,000 each day to get the news we sell you for 2 cents,” boasted an August 1, 1926, piece on production at the “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” In the 30s, as Hitler loomed in headlines, the Tribune presented Adolf’s astrological chart, citing particulars like his time of birth (6:30 PM, “true local time”) and the latitude and longitude of his birthplace. Decades before Womanews, a suffragette-era headline from 1913 asks: “Would You Rather Have a Vote Than a Husband? Wherein Lies Woman’s Greatest Happiness and Advancement?”

“My earliest memory of newspapers is sticking Silly Putty on the comic pages to make imprints,” says Ginsburg, who is contemplating a CD-ROM version of her exhibit. These days, she says, newspapers “act almost as a program guide for other media like television, radio, movies.”

Do newspapers have a future, as pixels make picas obsolete and home delivery becomes a matter of modems? Not surprisingly, Ginsburg upholds the role of artifacts. Newspapers can be clipped, saved, and faxed. “That matters to people, especially in an age with so many intangibles like E-mail.”

“The Art of the Message” is on display through September 24 at the special collections exhibit hall on the ninth floor of the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State. Hours are 9 to 7 Monday, 11 to 7 Tuesday and Thursday, 9 to 5 Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Admission is free. For more info call 747-4050.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.