Read all about it: the history that made the Observer’s front page

After 150 years of greeting the world with adverts, wartime newsprint rations and a new editor changed the paper’s format – it would never look the same again
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It would take 151 years for the command “Hold the front page!” to be heard at the Observer, not because there were no world-shattering events to rush into the paper, but for the simple reason there was no front page to hold. Advertisements covered page one from 4 December 1791 until they were finally cleared away to make room for news on 1 November 1942.

Tabloids had been perfecting the art of the front page for decades but most of Britain’s heavyweights clung to the adverts-only format, some longer than the Observer – the Guardian until 1952, the Times until 1966.

The Observer, publishing only once a week, took both a pragmatic and an editorial decision. In wartime (and for years after), newsprint was heavily rationed. The entire paper had to be crammed into eight broadsheet pages, so freeing more space for news was vital – but it was also a symbolic gesture. JL Garvin, editor from 1908, had stepped down that year and editor-in-waiting, David Astor, wanted to make his mark.

Though serving in the Royal Marines, he devoted as much time as he could to the Observer, introducing not just news on page one but wide-ranging commentary and analysis of political life, and discussion and debate on what sort of country Britain might be once the war was won.

The few front page examples reproduced here give only the tiniest glimpse of the Observer’s news coverage since 1942, but they show something of the paper’s preoccupations and passions over those decades and help illustrate the evolution of newspaper typography and design.

Most notable is the gradual appearance of photography. Front pages progress from those covered in type to those covered in a single picture – moments seen as milestones in history; papers that might end up in the attic to one day show the grandchildren. And, of course, you notice the arrival of colour – a revolution in itself after years of being “black and white and read all over”.

Then there are the changes in the masthead, what American newspapers call the nameplate. From Old English serifs to modern sans-serif, each update of the title piece reflects changing tastes in the different eras of the newspaper’s life. Later this area expands, acting as a shop window, announcing what to find inside, and crucially, tempting readers away from rival titles as they scan the papers on the newsstand on Sunday morning.

In a world saturated with 24-hour online news, it is curious how the front page still has the power to both arrest attention and to bear witness to world events; a fleeting record, yes, but in a digital world perhaps more permanent now than ever before.


Stephen Pritchard is the Observer’s readers’ editor

Contributor

Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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