Fun facts, firsts about the Detroit Free Press on their 191st birthday

Today is the birthday of the Free Press. Actually our 191st, but it’s fine if you didn’t get us a ticket (although the staff would probably devour a cake if you gave one).

Not only was The Free Press Michigan’s first daily newspaper, we are also the state’s oldest news organization.

The weekly Democratic Free Press and Michigan Intelligencer first published May 5, 1831. It was a whopping four pages, “packed” with news about the war in Poland and the ice in Buffalo, NY

In our honor and thanks in particular to Free Press alumnus Peter Gavrilovich, here’s a recap.

Here are some fun facts and firsts from Free Press:

• When the Free Press began publishing, Detroit was a city of just 2,300 people—but that was still good for being the 35th largest municipality in the country.

• It took only three people to get the first Free Press out on May 5, 1831: printer, apprentice, and 21-year-old publisher Sheldon McKnight, funded by his family and friend, John R. Williams – Detroit’s first Mayor.

• The Free Press began publishing before the invention of the telegraph. When the newspaper appeared in 1831, it took three days to get news from Buffalo, seven from New York, and eleven days from Washington. Today we can send messages to your pocket in seconds with push notifications.

• When Michigan became a state in 1837, the Free Press was unable to cover the celebrations because the newspaper’s offices were destroyed by fire.

• Photography was invented in more or less 1837, but it would be decades before it became a staple in newspapers, which used woodcuts and engravings at the time. The Free Press did not publish its first front-page news picture until January 28, 1900 – a photograph of the British royal family, although the first photograph to appear on the front page was an advertisement for a shoe shop in Woodward, near Jefferson.

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• In 1851, the Free Press purchased a steam engine to power the newspaper’s printing press, named Peggy Ann for reasons long lost. At the time, Peggy Ann was doing an impressive 400 pages per hour. Gives you a little more patience for the laser printer in the office, doesn’t it?

• The Sunday newspaper has a long tradition in American homes—and it’s a tradition we started. The Free Press printed the nation’s first regular Sunday edition on October 2, 1853. Publisher Wilbur Storey defended the move, saying it was not sacrilege since the paper was distributed before dawn.

• The Free Press has long valued our female readers: in 1878 we began publishing Household, the first US newspaper supplement for women. Three years later, Jennie Starkey became the Free Press’s first female employee. She covered Detroit society for about 40 years.

• John C. Lodge, yes, the guy the M-10 freeway is named after was Detroit mayor and longtime city councilman—but he was also once city editor at the Free Press.

• The Detroit Free Press has won 10 Pulitzer Prizes—the first came in 1932 for our coverage of a giant parade at an American Legion convention. An excerpt from our winner: “Woodward Ave. swept up, the men of our civilization, in luxuriant imposing. They came hour after hour, part of the power that stormed out in 17 when folly took the world by the hand and led it to a bloody holiday to fill the meadows of France with dead.” OK, so our Pulitzer was the brought down corrupt Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a little more impressive.

• On June 9, 1933, the newspaper’s motto changed from “More than a century on the job” to “More than a century on the alert”. It was changed to “On Guard for 125 Years” on May 5, 1956. Today we have been on guard for 191 years.

• The first color photo to appear in the Freie Presse was in December 1953 – and it was a picture of a duck dinner.

• Although the Free Press was an early proponent of desegregation and affirmative action, it was not until 1955 that it hired its first African-American reporter. Collins George eventually became a music critic.

• During the 1967 riots, the Free Press borrowed an armored personnel carrier (though unarmed) from Chrysler Corp. from which she built in Warren. The vehicle was of course intended to protect reporters in riot zones. But that didn’t stop several employees from driving the APC to the Detroit News Building one morning and ordering the news employees to surrender.

• In October 1986, the Free Press reached its highest daily circulation: 656,477 newspapers from Monday to Saturday.

• In 1989, the Free Press and Detroit News entered into the nation’s largest joint operating agreement, a 100-year business-sharing and profit-sharing agreement—but with separate and competitive newsrooms.

• The world has been going to Freep.com since August 14, 1996, when the Free Press launched their website.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on May 5, 2015, the 184th anniversary of the Detroit Free Press.

About Gloria Skelton

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