The Grammarphobia Blog

The story behind the headlines

Q: I have been trying to find the point in time, and the reason why, the period was dropped from the end of newspaper headlines. Around Lincoln’s time, you would see something like “Man Steals Horse.” as a newspaper headline.

A: Periods began disappearing from the ends of major headlines in the late 19th century, according to our informal survey of historical newspaper databases.

That’s about the time when big-city newspapers began using periods only in smaller headlines and in “decks”—the smaller, descending headlines that appeared beneath major ones and in different typefaces.

In the 1930s the periods on such lesser headlines, too, began to disappear, and they had pretty much vanished by the end of World War II.

That’s the short answer. But in asking two former newspaper editors this question, you’ll get more than you’ve asked for. We can’t resist passing along the story behind the headlines.

When newspapers first began appearing regularly in America and in Britain, around 1700, headlines didn’t exist.

During the course of the 18th century, they appeared only rarely, according to David A. Copeland, the author of Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers (2000).

This meant that the news might change abruptly from paragraph to paragraph. Often a new article was marked only by the place and date where the report originated (as in “Paris, April 21—”).

This so-called “dateline” convention came about because “most of the early news reports were based on letters,” according to Kristina Schneider, whose study of headlines appears in the book English Media Texts—Past and Present (2000).

Finally headlines, as we know them, “started appearing quite numerously around 1800,” Schneider writes. (This must have been a great relief to the readers of the time!)

For most of the 19th century, headlines had periods at the end, as we found when we explored newspaper databases. These are some of the examples we collected—and brace yourself for lots of capital letters:

“OVERWHELMING CALAMITY.” (from the New-York Gazette, 1812);  “FUNERAL SERVICE OF NAPOLEON.” (from the Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, 1821); “REJECTION OF THE REFORM BILL.” (from the Detroit Free Press & Michigan Intelligencer, 1831);  “Shortest India Passage.” (from the New York Daily Times, 1853); “The Fall of Atlanta.” (from the New York Times, 1864).

The practice of ending headlines with periods wasn’t limited to newspapers, however. We found that 19th-century magazines and journals, in both the US and Britain, also used final periods in headlines.

A couple of examples: “RECENT DISCOVERIES OF WORKS OF ART IN ROME.” (from the Century Magazine, 1887); and “A COCKNEY ON A FOX-HUNT.” (from Punch, 1860).

Then in the late 19th century, periods began to drop out of major headlines. 

In the 1899 issues of the New York Times, for example, there are no periods at the ends of important headlines. But the headlines on decks, as well as on lesser stories (like “New Honor for Andrew Carnegie.”), still had periods.

Apparently, the policy was to omit periods in headlines (and accompanying decks) that were printed in capital letters. But lesser headlines, as well as decks printed in upper- and lowercase letters, ended in periods. This policy continued for several decades.

Here, for example, is a headline from the Times of Jan. 1, 1935. (In giving examples of headlines, we won’t try to reproduce the various typefaces and indents.)

PRISONER PASSES

A RESTLESS NIGHT

        ____

Hauptmann Tosses on His Cot

in Cell After First Day of

His Trial for Life.

        ____

PACES ABOUT NERVOUSLY

        ____

Wife, Sitting Near Him at the

Defense Counsel Table, Makes

No Effort to See Him in Jail.

Note the periods on those upper- and lowercase decks. But by 1937, even those periods had disappeared from the Times, as in this headline from Dec. 19, 1937:

NAZIS IN AUSTRIA

GAINING STEADILY

         ____

Leader Named by Hitler Works

Openly in Known Offices

Despite Ban on Party

        ____

ITS PRISONERS ARE AIDED

        ____

Get Money From Fund Set Up

by Ex-Governor—Hitlerites

Smash Jews’ Shop Windows

We found somewhat similar results in the Chicago Tribune, though the periods on decks stuck around for several years longer. Here’s a headline from the newspaper’s issue of Oct. 8, 1937:

WALLY OBEYS HER

DUKE AND ENDS

SHOPPING SPREE

         ____

She Buys Less Lavishly to

Please Husband.

The Tribune continued using periods in this manner throughout 1944, but stopped in early 1945. Here’s a headline from Dec. 6, 1945:

HITLER A RAVING

MADMAN IN LAST

HOURS OF BERLIN

        ____

Hanna Reitsch Tells of

Scene in Bunker

We can’t vouch for the evolution of headline style at every major metropolitan daily. But we think it’s safe to say that periods disappeared at mid-century, and that they vanished because there was no need for them.

Check out our books about the English language