What was the New York Times Magazine like 100 years ago?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 30 2011 12:25 PM

What Was the New York Times Magazine Like 100 Years Ago?

For one thing, there was a lot more clown coverage.

Slide Show: What Was the New York Times Magazine Like 100 Years Ago? Click image to launch.

Did you catch the article in the New York TimesMagazine about the man with a license to hunt in Central Park? How about the interview with the circus clown who was attacked by a small child? I won't be surprised if you missed them, as they're buried a century back in the Times archives. I only found them because every week for the past year, I've been reading the magazine from exactly 100 years ago.

I started last April. While researching the history of April Fools' Day for a post on my blog about how annoying the holiday has become, I found a quaint Times article from March 31, 1912, about pranks that were popular at the time. They're delightfully tame by today's standards. For example, one "brilliant" stunt had kids calling the New York Aquarium, where a "tired official will have to answer five or six hundred times as good-naturedly as he can the apparently modest query, 'Is Mr. Fish in?' " Hilarious.

The long-form article was whimsically written and filled an entire broadsheet page, complete with lovely line illustrations emblematic of the period. It was a terrific read, and it made me want to read similar Times articles from that era. Unfortunately, most of the articles I found in the Times's online archive were short, nonillustrated pieces. I couldn't determine why this one was different. Their deep Web archive is unfortunately not browsable by section, and its search results don't typically indicate where in the paper an article appeared. I would need to see the article in context to figure this out.

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So I went to the microforms room of the New York Public Library and loaded the Times reel for March 1912 into a microfilm reader, a device I hadn't used for 15 years. I found the April Fools' article in the "magazine section," which I discovered was at the time a full-size section of the paper, not an insert as it is today.

I wound through the reel to see what I might find in other issues that month. Just one week earlier, the headline of a full-page magazine article boasted "French Savant Tells of Life on Venus and Mars." In the text, zoologist Edmond Perrier wrote in extensive detail about the plant and animal life he was sure lived on the two planets. The illustrations showed a world that looked like James Cameron's Pandora, complete with large-eared humanoid bipeds. This was in the New York Times? I totally needed to blog about this.

As I went through more reels, I found articles every week that were unusual, fascinating, or historically interesting, and all of them apparently long forgotten. Just as it does today, the magazine featured long pieces about science, education, politics, society, and technology. I'm not sure why I expected the language to be difficult to follow, like some early 20th-century novel I couldn't trudge through in high school, but I was surprised to find the articles highly readable.

It seemed that I could pick any week all the way back to the magazine's first issue in 1896 and find interesting articles, but I chose 100 years ago as a nice round number from which to start and work my way forward. In the hours I spent during my first trip to the library, I compiled a list of 30 articles I wanted to blog about. Then I realized that nobody would read a long blog post about 30 long-form articles from a century ago. If I wanted people to read these unearthed gems, I was going to have to start a totally new blog. (Since every article published before 1923 has fallen into public domain, I knew I could post them in their entireties for a modern audience.) So for the past year, I've been posting my favorite articles from the Sunday Magazine from exactly 100 years ago each week at SundayMagazine.org, along with some commentary or historic context.

Reading articles 100 years after they were published means that the topics are often surprisingly relevant. For example, when today's media was talking about the 2010 census, I posted a Times Magazine article about how the 1910 census was counted using punch cards and an electric tabulating machine for the first time. When the New York Public Library unveiled its centennial restoration of the main branch, I posted the old magazine's preview of the brand-new building.

The magazine has changed a lot since the old broadsheet edition. Then again, it's changed a lot in the last couple of months. In March, the magazine debuted a major content overhaul under the leadership of new editor Hugo Lindgren. Gone is the decades-old "On Language" column. "The Ethicist" has a new writer for the first time in more than 20 years. But Lindgren's magazine is still closer to that of his predecessor, Gerry Marzorati, than it is to the magazine of 100 years ago. For one thing, the contemporary magazine is much smaller, with about half as many articles per issue as a century ago.

The subject matter has changed as well. Naturally, there was no Hollywood issue 100 years ago, but the circus was a major part of popular culture then, and the magazine occasionally wrote about the lives of clowns, acrobats, and sideshow freaks. One of my favorite articles took a look at the plight of circus clowns outside the ring. It includes an interview with a then-famous clown named Slivers:

"It's funny," said Slivers, his eyes resting thoughtfully on his circus feet: "it's funny how people can't understand that we clowns are fellow-human animals with just about the same outfit of feelings that the rest of 'em have. I suppose it's because people have become so accustomed to seeing the clown always getting the worst end of it in the circus ring that they've come to think that he's built to stand the same kind of a hand-out all along the line.

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