From January 22, 1911
ANSWERS TO QUERIES ASKED BY READERS OF THE TIMES (PDF)
The New York Times has a history of answering reader questions in columns like Science Q&A and the F.Y.I. feature of the NY/Region section (available in two paperback compilations called The Curious New Yorker and Only In New York).
This article is one early example of a column that ran at least as far back as 1908, often under the name “Queries From The Curious And Answers To Them.”
Here are the rules for submitting a question to the “Queries” column:
This department does not pretend to be infallible. It will endeavor, however, to answer questions sent to it by Times readers to the best of its ability, reserving the right to ignore all that are trifling, or of concern only to the questioner.
To receive attention, every query must bear the name and address of the person sending it. This does not necessarily mean it will be published; only the initials will be used if the questioner so desires. No attention will be paid to queries in which this rule is not followed.
Hundreds of letters are received by this department every week, and it is obviously impossible to answer the writers intelligently through the mails. This is done only in exceptional cases.
Questions concerning the correctness of English sentences will NOT be answered for the reason that the proper reference books are available for the public generally.
Questions as to the value of coins and stamps will invariably be ignored.
And here is a sample question and answer from this week’s column:
Have our scientists ever definitely proved the theory that there are canals on the planet Mars? I am led to ask this question for the reason that I read an article on the subject recently in which the writer, supposedly a man well informed on the subject, appeared to accept the theory as a fact. For my own part, I have always supposed that it was a question admitting of much doubt and one that must forever remain unsettled.
Although the “Canals of Mrs” have long been a subject of discussion among astronomers, it would be incorrect to suppose that there has been any consensus of opinion that these canals actually exist. In fact the most distinguished astronomers look on them as purely mythical and certainly no one has ever come forward with any proof that the marks seen on the planet with powerful telescopes are actually inland waterways…
For a broader look at the column, here’s a sampling of questions asked of the Times over a four year period:
“Kindly let me know whether a Hebrew or a Catholic can be nominated for the Presidency of the United States.”
“Who deserves the credit of being called the discoverer of the art of photography? When and where were the first pictures made?”
“Where is the body of Christopher Columbus buried? Is its present resting place the original grave or was it transferred?”
“Is there any way by which we can determine approximately how old the earth is? I have read and heard the most divergent statements on this question, and am wondering if any one has ever reached what might be called even a fairly accurate conclusion.”
“Is the plural of money ‘monies’ or ‘moneys,’ or is either correct?”
“Has any one — scientist or philosopher — ever attempted to calculate the number of hairs on the human head? We are told by the Good Book that every hair on the head is numbered, but for my part I have never seen any figures on the subject. Can The Times gratify my curiosity?
“We expect to go to Los Angeles or San Francisco, Cal., to live for one year, beginning next month. Would you kindly tell us whether or not it would be advisable to take a set of furs there? In other words, is it cold enough there during the Winter to make furs a necessity?”
“Who was the first Poet Laureate of England, and how did the creation of the title come about?”
“How many pounds in the average bale of cotton?”
“Has a foreigner the right to own real estate in the State of New York?”
“Are Japanese who are born in this country American citizens?”
“Which city in the United States was the first to adopt electricity for street lighting?”
“Please publish the names of the President, of the Vice President, and of the Cabinet.”
“Are there any classes in drawing for adults in the public High Schools evenings?”
“What day did Nov. 13, 1875 fall on?”
“When was the obelisk on Central Park brought to New York, and on what ship? What is the significance of an obelisk?”
“Which is correct: ‘Two teaspoonfuls is the same as one,’ or ‘Two teaspoonfuls are the same as one’?”
“In order to settle a dispute, please tell me what is the height of the Singer Building and the Eiffel Tower?”
“Where can I take a swim near Twenty-eighth Street and the East River?”
“Is it true that there are places in the world where rain never falls? I have traveled rather extensively in various parts of it, but must say that I have never discovered a place where the drouth was perpetual.”
“Please tell me the name of the city in which we live. I have always supposed that it was simply New York, but find that some of my friends think it is New York City in the strict sense.”
For the answers to these and many other questions, download this 6.5MB PDF in which I’ve compiled a sample of “Query” columns from 1908-1912.