Read all about it: 100 years of history, but where are the ads?

What hits you is the monochrome nature of the medium for most of that century. This may be one reason that the winner of the Newsnight poll to find the most memorable front page showed a fireball of vivid red against a bright blue sky and a pl

An exhibition about British newspapers celebrates great events and memorable headlines – ignoring the brands that helped to pay the bills

What hits you is the monochrome nature of the medium for most of that century. This may be one reason that the winner of the Newsnight poll to find the most memorable front page showed a fireball of vivid red against a bright blue sky and a plume of jet-black smoke. The photograph took up most of the page, under the the stark headline “War on America”.

This was The Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the attack on New York’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and it attracted more than 20% of the votes. Second was the Evening Standard’s 1969 Moon landing report, headed “The First Footstep”, and third was the Sun’s notorious “Gotcha” headline, relating to the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands War in 1982.

In fact, that Standard front page also carried a colour photo, showing the spacecraft on the Moon, and so did The Times’ front page picturing Neil Armstrong under the headline “The lunar odyssey”. In those days, colour was a huge investment, offered to advertisers rather than editors, and justified in news terms only by an event of the magnitude of man’s landing on the moon.

The only colour on the Sun’s front page was its “red top” – the blood-red rectangle of its masthead.

Nowadays, when The Guardian and Observer can carry colour on every page, these papers seem from another age – which, of course, partly explains the power and charm of the exhibition. This is history in the making, day by day, and the pages have been chosen as much for the events they represent as the skill and power with which they recorded them.

Hitler Dead, Kennedy Assassinated, Man In Space, The War Is Over, Champions of the World, Diana Is Dead… These are the days which those alive will never forget, and most of the best of those front pages are here at the British Library. For anyone in the media world, it’s not to be missed, not only as an unashamed wallow in the big events and great coverage of our times, but also as a series of snapshots that show just how far the media have changed, and continue to change, in the digital age.

Even so, there are curiosities about the exhibition, not the least of which is that the newspaper has been around for much longer than 100 years. The Times, the Observer and others have already celebrated their bi-centenaries. The battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo were front page stories long before those of Flanders, Vietnam and the Falklands. The British Library holds many newspapers going back three hundred years, and the very first in its collection dates from 1513.

The centenary being celebrated is that of the Newspaper Publishers Association and, though that may seem an arbitrary date, the organisation deserves great credit for mounting the exhibition – particularly at the British Library, temple to the written word and home to Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels and first editions from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll. By focusing attention on this often ephemeral world, it recognises the huge importance of newspapers as historical sources.

The British Library is keeper of what it calls “the finest newspaper collection in the world”, but you wouldn’t normally know it because the papers are all kept in a warehouse in Colindale, North London, where its services – as it acknowledges – are “costly and inefficient” (it hopes the exhibition will focus attention on its plans to preserve the collection for future use). It receives a free copy of every UK newspaper and magazine – 13,000 issues a month. The titles are almost all kept in bound volumes, which brings us to the second curiosity of the exhibition – the papers don’t come from the British Library at all.

All the newspapers displayed in the Front Page exhibition are from the collection of a man called John Frost, who is now in his 80s. He caught the newspaper bug as a schoolboy, when he bought a paper reporting the R101 airship disaster, and during the war – as a young soldier in the Royal Fusiliers – he continued to collect memorable papers and send them home.

Frost’s collection now exceeds 100,000 editions, dating back to 1630, and has become a thriving business hiring newspapers to the media who want to reproduce famous front pages and headlines.

There’s another curiosity. From the exhibition, you would hardly know that newspapers carried advertisements. The free newspaper that accompanies it carries articles about the weather, cartoon strips and promotions, such as free encyclopaedias, dinner services and DVDs, but nothing about the ads which help pay for the papers.

Yet look hard and you can find the odd ad, and in colour too. The Daily Sketch of June 3, 1940 reports from Dunkirk, proclaiming that 300,000 – four-fifths of the British Expeditionary Force – have been saved. There are two splashes of bright red on the black and white page – one is an ad for Bournville Cocoa, the other for Bird’s Custard and Jellies.â¢

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