... on the Web.
Most people except those raised in state schools have at least some interest in history. Not to know what happened before you were born, said Cicero, is to remain forever a child. Curiosity about the past is usually satisfied, more or less, by reading books about whatever period or event interests you.
Whether written by professional historians or journalists, such accounts usually have several advantages for the reader. The author has presumably read from many sources of information. He has weighed the value of various descriptions of what happened. He has the big picture in mind and is able to put specifics into a larger whole. (All this is of course the ideal, not necessarily the reality.)
The point is not that people who were present at historical events or lived in other times were more "correct" in their perceptions. They were just as likely biased or saw complicated situations from only one viewpoint among many. Historical writing has always had to face the problem of balancing first-hand observation with reasoned, and after-the-fact, synthesis.
But it can be intriguing to read how people described things at the time, especially in journalism, those "first drafts of history." Such accounts often include details that struck the writer as worth mentioning, but which have long since evaporated from memory.
Lately Google has been put in the shade by another site specializing in old magazines and journals, with a far wider selection. The newcomer is called simply All Periodicals, and it's a hoot. The index of titles runs from The Abolitionist (no, not from the slavery era, but March 1970 to September 1971) to Yank (1942-1945). You can search by date, from pre-1850 on.
Its proprietor Ron Unz, I learn from Wikipedia, ran for California governor in 1994 and later became publisher of The American Conservative.
They are all PDFs, avoiding the typos caused by optical character readers, plus you can see the original typefaces, design, cartoons, and fillers.
Returning to our theme of the strange fascination of reading how subjects were treated contemporaneously: consider, for example, a piece titled "Norfolk -- Our Worst War Town" in the February 1943 American Mercury. It says:
We rode through the narrow streets of Norfolk's old red light district in a scout car. As we passed block after block of decaying two-story houses, our host, the cop, talked honestly of the headaches in handling forty thousand sailors and multiplied thousands of new shipbuilding war workers.
"Norfolk’s always been a sailor town," he explained, "and here’s how we took care of the boys up until a year ago. Wehad about four hundred prostitutes in here. They kept up the property and paid taxes on it. They weren’t allowed out of the district at night. Each
girl had to get a health certificate every week, and when a sailor came up with a disease, the Navy told us where he got it and we took the rotten apple out of the barrel. In that way we kept things under control.
"The sailors liked it that way. They could get stewed, yell and dance, then get out in the street and fight to their heart’s content. All we had to do was pick ’em up in the Navy wagons and take ’em back down to the base. If a sailor had been rolled, he gave us the address and we went back and got his money for him. It was a good system. The Navy liked it because it kept the disease rate down.The sailors liked it. And we officers liked it because we could control it that way. ...
Women,"wine," and the galloping dominoes, of course, are the principal law enforcement problems. Fashions in wars may change, but the nocturnal objectives of a twenty-year-old boy in a sailor suit remain pretty constant. Every night is Saturday night in Norfolk, because about twelve thousand sailors come to town every night.
We stood with the cop and watched them start piling out of staggering buses about five o’clock. We followed the bobbing whitecaps to the liquor store. The line was already two blocks long and the fellows up front were doing a land-office commission business on purchases they agreed to make for mates not in line.I doubt you will become acquainted with this side of wartime Norfolk, Virginia, in any history book. Although as the man said, fashions in wars may change but not the freely detonating hormones of young sailors. I've heard from old timers that San Diego too was a wide-open town in World War II, as I suspect more than a few other military-linked cities and towns were.
Of course the article might be sensationalism or mostly fantasy. American Mercury's reputation declined by a long shout in the post-Mencken era. But it sure gives you a slightly different glance at the Greatest Generation.