More than four centuries worth of history documented by the people who witnessed it is stored in South Williamsport.
At Timothy Hughes Rare and Early Newspapers, 341 E. Southern Ave., an inventory of 2 million newspapers has been 32 years in the making.
Hughes began as a coin collector who discovered the hobby had been exploited and was getting expensive.
Above, Timothy Hughes of Timothy Hughes Rare & Early Newspapers of South Williamsport, looks through one of his rare edition of Harper’s Weekly in his warehouse.
"I wanted to find a hobby that dealt with old things that hadn't been exploited, that people really didn't know much about," he said. "My thinking was that if it was a hobby that hadn't been exploited, the prices would be fairly right."
Shortly after that, Hughes found an 1846 newspaper for $3 at a local flea market. "I remember thinking if I was buying old coins, for $3 you couldn't get anything of any significance. It would be fairly recent and not very rare."
Hughes spent an hour reading that newspaper, he said. "The intriguing part is that you are actually holding history in your hands ... You get that sense of immediacy in terms of history. And it's an intangible thing. There's something intriguing about having in your hands something that people were reading 150, 200, 300 years ago."
From there he purchased his first lot of newspapers from a book dealer in Philadelphia for $1 each. After acquiring the papers, Hughes advertised in classified ads and collectors magazines to sell them for a profit.
"Whatever money I made selling newspapers, I bought more. It just started snowballing."
Thirteen years in, Hughes left his job with Little League Baseball to devote his time entirely to historic newspapers.
"We have some predecessors of newspapers that go back to the 1560s. We do a lot with newspapers from the 1600s from England ... We have about two million newspapers in our inventory right now," Hughes said.
He said that about 90 percent of the inventory has come from libraries converting their volumes to microfilm and discarding hard copies.
Included in the papers are "virtually any event in world history from the 1500s to the present day," Hughes said.
"We have or have had newspapers which contain the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the great plague and fire in London back in 1666, reports of pirates, the beheading of Captain Kidd the Pirate, Black Beard," he said.
"If it's an event that happened in history in the past 400 years, somewhere there's a newspaper that reported it and it's the thrill of the search to try and find those particular events."
Hughes said there is still excitement in his job . "There's no question that the biggest thrill that I get is finding something really neat or finding access to a collection ... And sometimes you find little gems when you don't expect to find something."
Before the Internet age, Hughes ran a catalog mail-order business. In addition to the catalog, he now has a Web site, www.rarenewspapers.com, and an eBay site with more than 2,000 current listings including a 1666 London Gazette reporting the "Great Fire of London," an 1862 anti-slavery Douglass Monthly, and newspapers chronicling George Washington's election, Civil and Revolutionary war battles, the Wright Brothers' first flight, sports history and much more.
While the business has "virtually no local customers," people of all ages and economic levels have purchased historic newspapers. "Our customers are basically anyone who's intrigued by or fascinated by history," Hughes said.
"It seems like we get a lot of requests for things that people studied when they were in history class. They'd like to have a genuine item that relates to that," Hughes said, adding that news from the Civil War, Revolution War and news covering outlaws and early 20th century gangsters are popular.
At $60,000 the most expensive newspaper Hughes ever sold was a 1787 Philadelphia Newspaper with the U.S. Constitution. Most antique newspapers are much more conservatively priced, Hughes said.
"Particularly because of the prices, people think these aren't genuine," he said. The sturdy fiber used to make newspapers before 1880 can throw customers off, he added.
"When they buy a newspapers and they receive it and they hold it and feel a newspaper that is 200 years old, they say it couldn't be real ... Because it's relatively white and not brown and yellow and fragile," he said.
Such high quality papers do not need to be handled with kid-gloves, Hughes said. "There was a lot of cotton and linen in the newspapers (before 1880). You can open it up, you can turn the page, crease it and fold it. It holds up extremely well."
More recent paper can yellow and become brittle with sunlight and warm temperatures. "You can't resurrect a newspaper, that's the problem," Hughes said of newspapers found in family attics. He encourages people to purchase newspapers in "as good of condition as you can" and to use protective folders.
In the "digital age" where much of the news is broadcast only in electronic form, Hughes said it is frightening "that we are actually losing the actual hard copies of what we have ... I think people don't appreciate that we've become one of the last bastions of the actual genuine issue."
Hughes said his collection is getting to be part of a "smaller and smaller world-wide inventory because so much is being thrown away."
"I've always loved this," Hughes said of his business. "This is something that I started from scratch on my own and because I loved it, it's just been fun. I've been very fortunate. I consider myself one of the few people who really loves their work."