Finding the history behind a family’s precious heirloom

Buried deep inside a wooden trunk that traveled from Germany to McComb, Ohio, underneath photographs of generations gone by and other various yellowed items, was the Borgelt family’s greatest treasure: a newspaper.

A newspaper may not seem like a treasure, but my family’s heirloom is far from ordinary. Dated July 2, 1863, the newspaper was supposedly written in Vicksburg, Miss. during the Civil War, and it is printed on wallpaper. Yes, wallpaper.

Preserved between two long sheets of glass, the one-page newspaper consists of four columns of text. The masthead reads The Daily Citizen, and printed below is the editor’s name, J.M. Swords. The wallpaper on the back is cream-colored, with red roses arranged inside a brown and white pattern, and it is taped from years of being handled.

Questions about the piece have floated around the Borgelt family for years. Why was the newspaper printed on wallpaper? Where did it come from? Was my family’s copy really printed during the Civil War? Do other copies exist?

Intrigued by the piece and the questions it provoked, I decided to search for answers to my family’s own ‘history mystery.’

Scott Martin, chair of the Department of History at the University, explained that some Civil War newspapers were printed on wallpaper because the Union imposed a naval blockade on the South, cutting off supplies to its people.

‘ ‘This seems to have been a phenomenon of the Civil War, because newsprint was very scarce in the South,’ he said. ‘They didn’t have facilities to make paper, so they had to use any substitutes they could ‘hellip; wallpaper was one of the things they could use.’

Although my family’s copy was printed on ancient-looking wallpaper and is dated 1863, Mark Donaldson, an accessionist at the Hancock Historical Museum in Findlay, noticed something that changed my entire perspective on the piece.

At the top of the newspaper, in fine print, is the phrase, ‘Fac-simile of ‘The Vicksburg Daily Citizen’ of July 2, 1863.’

My family’s copy is a fake.

Donaldson gave me an article titled, ‘Famous Fakes 4: Vicksburg Daily Citizen Facsimiles,’ which came from the Archival Chronicle, an online publication by the Center for Archival Collections in Jerome Library.

The article reads: ‘Never would a newspaper printed on wallpaper be as collectible as the July 4, 1863 issue of the Vicksburg Daily Citizen. Its souvenir status has spawned thirty or more facsimile editions since that original printing.’

The article, written by Eric Honneffer, a conservator for the CAC, refers to a July 4 edition because Union troops placed an addendum at the bottom of Swords’s July 2 edition after taking over Vicksburg.

My family’s copy contains the addendum, which includes the date July 4, 1863. It reads: ‘The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg ‘hellip; This is the last wall-paper edition, and is, excepting this note, from the type as we found them. It will be valuable hereafter as a curiosity.’

‘I think what they were trying to do was to keep pretty much what had been put on [the] July 2 [edition] and then add this little tidbit on July 4,’ Honneffer said. ‘They had a point to prove, that’s what I’m reading into it.’

Honneffer and Donaldson had several speculations as to why my family’s facsimile was made.

‘The original ones are hard to find,’ Donaldson said. ‘I would think [your family’s copy] would probably come from someone from Grant’s army [who] printed up something for the troops.’

Donaldson guessed the Borgelts’ copy was probably made between the early 1900s and the mid-1930s.

‘We could safely say it was not printed on a computer,’ Donaldson said. ‘It’s too old for that. It’s not a modern facsimile.’

Honneffer’s article mentions reprints that were made in the general time period that Donaldson suggested: ‘Certain reprints were created to commemorate the death of General Grant in 1885, the performance of the play ‘Little Coquette’ and a G.A.R. [Union veterans] encampment in Indianapolis, Ind., September 20th to 25th, 1920.’

Honneffer said there is also a chance my family’s copy could have been made for marketing purposes. He said he has seen copies of the newspaper announcing Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, and some of those copies contain advertising. He also showed me two Daily Citizen facsimiles held at BGSU’s library, and one of them appeared to have an address printed on it from which people could order additional copies.

‘Companies would put these things out as a giveaway,’ Honneffer said. ‘I could see people that collect historical advertising collecting them.’

‘ Honneffer said the CAC Preservation Lab in Perrysburg is contacted between four and six times each year regarding old newspapers, including the newspaper about Lincoln’s assassination, the July 4, 1800 newspaper that includes George Washington’s death announcement and The Daily Citizen. He said The Daily Citizen is one the lab doesn’t see a lot.

‘They’re usually brought in with the idea that these are probably real,’ Honneffer said. ‘It is kind of a unique thing, even if they are not the actual document.’

When old newspapers are brought to the lab and not marked as facsimiles, Honneffer tells their owners about how the color of the papers can provide clues as to whether they are facsimiles. He said before the Civil War, newsprint was made of lighter-colored, sturdier rag-based paper. In the years after the war, flimsier, wood-pulp based paper, which darkened more quickly, was used.’

‘If it’s nice and brown, there’s a good possibility that it’s not always the original,’ Honneffer said. ‘If it were an original, there’s a good possibility it would’ve been lighter in color and stronger in feel.’

Honneffer’s ‘Famous Fakes’ article contains a list of 10 characteristics belonging to original copies of The Daily Citizen that set them apart from reprints. The list includes sizes of the original copies and a note indicating the misspelling of the word ‘whistle’ as ‘whisttle’ in the fourth column of text. My family’s copy does not match all of the characteristics.

My family attached a strong sentimental value to our copy of The Daily Citizen, but we never had it appraised. Honneffer said the monetary value probably depends on what people are willing to pay, but most copies have little value.

Although the Borgelts’ copy of The Daily Citizen is probably worth very little, the age of the document and my family’s connection to it continue to make it special. There was something exciting about digging the old newspaper out of a trunk and seeing it in its brown, tattered state, and I wouldn’t trade the piece’s sentimental value for any amount of money. I wish that attitude on anyone going on a family treasure hunt.

As Martin said, ‘There are probably other facsimiles in other trunks elsewhere, waiting to be discovered.’