What Was the New York Times Magazine Like 100 Years Ago?
For one thing, there was a lot more clown coverage.
Slivers goes on to describe the time a child threw an old can at him, slashing his forehead right before he had to enter the ring. As Slivers wiped the blood from his eyes, the child's father praised his son's good throw.
As a science buff, I enjoy the science articles in the magazine, though time hasn't always been kind to them. Spiritualism was a popular movement at the beginning of the last century, and the magazine ran serious articles about psychics, mediums, and human auras alongside articles by prominent scientists writing about advances in aeronautics and global exploration, both of which were booming at the time.
Thomas Edison was a frequent interview subject for the magazine. In October 1910, it published an interview in which he states that there is no soul:
"I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul. … Heaven? Shall I, if I am good and earn reward, go to heaven when I die? No … I am not an individual—I am an aggregate of cells, as for instance, New York City is an aggregate of individuals. Will New York City go to heaven? No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong."
The Times received letters of both anger and support in response to Edison's musings, prompting follow-up articles over several weeks by clergymen and scientists taking one side or the other.
Some of my favorite old articles are profiles of people who did jobs that no longer exist, like Archer Hazzler, the only man with a license to hunt in Central Park. The Spanish War veteran was a prized sharpshooter who worked for the city hunting "a variety of dangerous animals" including rats, weasels, and owls in its parks. Today, the wayward coyote that wanders into Central Park is taken down with tranquilizers by the NYPD.
Sometimes I uncover stories that I can't believe aren't part of our modern conversation. I was shocked to read about a county in Ohio where it was common practice to sell your votes to the highest bidder. This went on for decades and was the norm, not the exception. Young men in this county looked forward to the extra income they would receive once they were of voting age. When the story finally broke, more than 1,000 people were indicted. With all the current discussions of voter fraud, falsified voter registrations, and voter disenfranchisement, this seems like a story someone would surely bring up if history hadn't swept it under the rug.
Then there are the true crime stories. The narratives about detectives investigating crimes with the latest technology—including analyzing blood and consulting finger print records—read like chapters from Caleb Carr's novel The Alienist, about a murder investigation in old New York. But some of the stories could be straight out of a magazine today. In the past few weeks I've read two stories about scam artists who use the Internet to romance lonely individuals and then con them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is even a website called RomanceScam.com dedicated to outing such charlatans. Compare these stories to the 1910 account, in the Sunday Magazine, of a man who fell in love with a woman he only knew through letters. Over 14 years, he sent her his life savings. Eventually he learned that she never existed, but was a fabrication of his neighbor.
One great thing about reading magazine articles from 100 years ago is that I can research what eventually happened to the people in the articles. When I read the details of a murder, I can search news archives to find out if the suspect was eventually convicted. When I posted an article about a man who gave to the public domain his patent for telephone multiplexing, the technology that allows several conversations to be carried on one wire, I was surprised to discover that he later went on to found Muzak. When I looked into the fate of Slivers the clown, I learned that he entered an unconventional relationship that turned darkly tragic.
I actually reached out and contacted the adult son of a 14-year-old boy who I read about in an April, 1910 article. As the president of the Junior Wireless Club, he testified before Congress about radio regulation. He said he imagined a time when "men will be able to carry around with them in their automobiles or aeroplanes wireless telephone outfits" and worried this wouldn't be possible if the proposed regulation passed. I learned from his son that he lived until 1992, long enough to see his prediction come true.
Click here to read a slide show about the New York Times Magazine 100 years ago.