Q: I have often wondered about the period at the end of the Wall Street Journal’s presentation of itself on page one. Is this a pure design choice, by an artist or like person? Or is there a usage I could learn about?
A: Periods were once common at the end of newspaper names appearing on page one, called “nameplates” or “flags” in American newspaper jargon.
The tradition-minded Wall Street Journal simply kept its period while other newspapers dropped theirs.
The New York Times, no slouch at minding traditions, kept a period at the end of its nameplate until well into the 1960s.
And the Hartford Courant, considered the oldest continuously published paper in the US, revived its old period for a while in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
We’ll have more to say later about those periods at the Journal, the Times, and the Courant, but first let’s look at the evolution of punctuation in nameplates at American newspapers.
The American colony’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, which was shut down by the British after its initial issue on Sept. 25, 1690, didn’t have a period after the nameplate but it had one at the end of the subtitle, “Both Forreign and Domestick.”
A British-subsidized weekly, the Boston News-Letter, the first continuously published newspaper in the colony, had a period at the end of its nameplate when it appeared on April 24, 1704.
The next paper to appear, the Boston Gazette, had a period at the end of the nameplate when it began publishing on Dec. 21, 1719. It later changed the period to a comma and added a subtitle, then alternately used a period, a comma, or nothing after the subtitle.
The fourth paper on the scene, the American Weekly Mercury, had a comma after the nameplate when it began publishing in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, 1719, but a period had replaced the comma by the time it stopped publishing on May 15, 1746.
In one of the odder examples of nameplate punctuation, the Providence Gazette and Country Journal once had a semicolon after “Gazette,” a colon after “Journal,” and a period after its subtitle. But it later had a more typical 18th-century title.
As you can see, the punctuation in nameplates of American newspapers wasn’t all that consistent in the 1700s. Why a comma or a semicolon after the title? Perhaps because some editors considered the date below the title to be part of the nameplate.
But by the 1800s, most US nameplates probably had periods at the end. That’s what we’ve concluded after examining several dozen front pages in America’s Historical Newspapers, a subscription-only database.
We had similar results in examining a dozen or so front pages in databases available to the general public, including examples from the Richmond Planet, the Washingtonian (Leesburg, VA), the Wabash Express (Terre Haute, IN), and the Morning Clarion (Oxford, NC).
Our searches indicated that newspaper nameplates gradually lost the periods during the 1900s, though some periods lasted until well into the 20th century.
The New York Times had a period from its founding on Sept. 18, 1851, until it dropped the punctuation mark on Feb. 21, 1967, to the consternation of some tradition-minded readers.
Although dropping the period was part of a number of design changes intended to give the newspaper a more modern look, the Times let it be known that the move saved the paper $41.28 a year in ink.
A Times history published in 2001 noted one reader’s reaction to the changes. “What has God re-wrought?” said the letter to the editor. “No period in the New York Times masthead? The weather unboxed? ‘All the News’ restyled?”
The Hartford Courant, which began publishing as the weekly Connecticut Courant on Oct. 29, 1764, brought back the period in its nameplate in 1997, and then turned it into the dot of “.com” as part of a short-lived design change in 2008.
In a Sep. 28, 2008, interview with Poynter.org, Melanie Shaffer, the design director at the Courant, discussed the decision to make the nameplate vertical and incorporate the period in “.com”:
“We already had this period sitting at the end of the Hartford Courant nameplate. Yes. It was there on the original nameplate—200 years ago. It sort of disappeared for a while, then we brought it back with the ’97 redesign. We wanted to figure out how to incorporate the dot-com. When you turn the masthead sideways and the dot-com sort of rounds the corner, it made good sense.”
As it turned out, the upside-down vertical headline, with a perpendicular “.com” at the top of the page, made sense to designers but not to readers of the Courant.
The Courant responded to the grumbling by asking its readers in June 2009 to choose from among three different nameplates. The winner was a black-and-white horizontal design with the period gone.
As you can see from the changes at the Times and the Courant, the use of a punctuation mark at the end of a newspaper’s nameplate is a style or design issue, not a matter of grammar or usage.
As for the Wall Street Journal, which began publishing on July 8, 1889, we asked Ashley Huston, the chief communications officer at Dow Jones, why the paper still had its period.
“The period is a holdover from the 1800s when other papers also had a traditional period,” she emailed us. “We have kept it while others gradually dropped it.”
She noted that the subject had come up in a 2012 article in the Journal about the period at the end of “Forward.”—an Obama campaign slogan.
In the article, she said no one at the paper knew why the Journal had kept the period in its nameplate when other papers gradually dropped theirs.
We should mention here that many newspaper headlines, as well as nameplates, used to end with periods, but the practice died out in the 20th century. If you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog post on the subject in 2013.
And we ran a post in 2014 about the origins of the word “masthead,” both nautical and journalistic. The one on a ship apparently gave us the one in a newspaper.
You didn’t ask, but some British papers, including the Times (London) once had periods at the end of their nameplates, but the practice wasn’t as common in the UK as in the US.
In the UK, a “nameplate” is referred to as a “masthead,” a term that in the US is generally used for the interior box that lists the publisher, senior editors, and address. This box is known as an “imprint” in the UK.