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

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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.

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.

David Friedman is a photographer whose side projects include SundayMagazine.org and IronicSans.com. He is currently working on a book of inventor portraits and interviews.

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