I’m Jesse Rifkin and I run the SundayMagazine.org history blog and website now, but below is the original explanation of the website from 2010 by the founder who ran it for several years, David Friedman:
Every Friday I post the most interesting articles from the New York Times Sunday Magazine that was published exactly 100 years ago that weekend. You can get each week’s articles by subscribing to the RSS feed, or following @sundaymagazine on Twitter, or by becoming a fan on Facebook.
The New York Times Sunday Magazine is full of interesting articles about politics, science, crime, life, language, and human interest. It features fantastic writing and photography. It’s my favorite section in the paper.
It turns out that no matter how far back you go towards the supplement’s 1896 debut, the Magazine Section (as it was called back then) was always filled with amazing long-form articles including many that are as interesting today as they were then. Some even more so. I stumbled upon this fact on April 1, when I began to get annoyed with every website’s need to pull some sort of prank. I wondered if companies did this sort of thing back at the turn of the last century. Searching for old articles about April Fool’s Day, I found this great article published in the NY Times on March 31, 1912:
HOW APRIL FOOL ORIGINATED AND SOME FAMOUS PRANKS (PDF)
Everything about that article is wonderful. The writing style, the stories, and the illustrations are all quaint by today’s standards, but that makes it all so charming. It’s worth downloading the PDF to read it all, or any portion of it. Here is one of my favorite passages:
A hundred years ago [children] used to say, “Sir, your shoe’s unbuckled.” Today, their successors cry out, “Mister, your shoe’s untied!” A more elaborate piece of waggery has endured up to the present time practically its original form.
“Sir, there’s something out of your pocket.”
“Your hand, sir!”
Or again a boy and a lady enter into this dialogue.
“Ma’am, you have something on your face.”
“Indeed! What is it?”
“Your nose, ma’am.”
In all cases the ultimate rejoinder is accompanied with a burst of laughter and the shout of “April fool!”
Another passage describes a prank pulled by the Evening Star newspaper in London, which comes closer to the kind of corporate pranks we see today, although a bit more mean-spirited:
On March 31, 1846, that paper solemnly informed its readers that a magnificent collection of asses would be exhibited in the Hall of Agriculture at Islington. A great crowd of staring and struggling human being filled up the hall long before noon, and not for some time did it dawn upon anybody that they themselves were forming the collection that had been advertised.
Could you even fill a room today by advertising a donkey exhibit? The article is full of stories like this, pranks and characters long forgotten. I thought I might sit on it for a year, and post it next April Fool’s Day on my blog Ironic Sans. But I wanted to learn more about the article so I could post it with context. I needed to research the various background characters and then-famous pranksters mentioned in the article to provide annotation. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder: could I find other interesting articles in the Times from around the same period?
I originally found the article on the NYTimes website, where all of their content pre-1923 is freely available, having fallen into the public domain. But their online archives are difficult to browse unless you have specific keywords you’re searching for. I noticed that this article was published on a Sunday, but I didn’t know what section it was in. I didn’t know if the Times even had a magazine back then. To find out, I went to the Microforms Room of the main branch of the New York Public Library.
Sure enough, the article was in the “Magazine Section” of the newspaper. I wondered what other interesting articles I could find the in the Magazine Section. So I rewound the microfilm one week and found the Magazine Section for March 24, 1912.
I think my jaw actually dropped when I saw this:
FRENCH SAVANT TELLS OF LIFE ON VENUS AND MARS: Conditions Resemble Those on the Earth (PDF)
What the hey-now? Check out those awesome drawings. They depict zoologist Edmond Perrier’s descriptions of “frogs as big as cows” on Venus and “beautiful plumage” of birds on Mars. It’s almost like he imagined the world of Avatar 98 years ago, a bit closer to home. And look at those large-chested Martians with headlights on their fingertips!
Here’s how Perrier described Venus:
The dampness of the atmosphere on Venus favors the growth of ferns. The development of flowers from the more primitive forms of plants must be slow and probably has not yet been accomplished on Venus. This lack means the absence also of bees, butterflies, perhaps of ants and of other insects which depend partly or entirely on flowers for their food.
Venus, then, is the home of insects like grasshoppers, or dragon-flies, or roaches, grown to an enormous size; of large batrachians, frogs as big as our cows, of innumerable and gigantic reptiles like those which once filled our earth, ichthyosauri, pterodactyls, iguanodons. Man is absent; indeed the race of mammals may not yet have appeared, in even the humblest form.
That’s not the case on Mars, where people evolved similarly to Earthlings:
[The Martian] is very tall, because the force of gravity is so feeble; he is very fair, with blue eyes, because there is so little light or heat; his jaws are narrow and the top of his head is large, because he has been evolving away from the animals for a much longer period than we. The Martian noses would be long and the ears large. The Martian’s lungs and consequently his chest would be enormous, on account of the thin atmosphere, and his legs would be very slender, because little effort is needed to walk.
What a find. This fantastic article seems like something out of Amazing Stories, and it’s just been sitting there in the New York Times Magazine archives for the past 98 years. As far as I can tell, nobody has written about it. A Google Search for the article brings up only one result: the PDF buried in the nytimes.com archive. It hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else that Google indexes, although a little more information is available about the French scientist. (I’ll have more to say about that on March 24, 2012.)
I was eager to find other gems like this. But with so many years of archives available, where would I begin? I decided to start with the New York Times Sunday Magazine from exactly 100 years ago, and make my way forward. So I found the microfilm reel for April, 1910. In just the first week’s issue, I found several interesting articles. Zooming ahead, I found several more. Every week there were articles that made me think I just had to write a blog post about this treasure trove of fascinating reading material.
I started working on a blog post featuring some of the articles I found covering a two month period of Sunday Magazines. Omitting all but the ones I found most interesting, I was able to pare it down to just 30 articles. But that’s still too many to reasonably expect anyone to read at once. That’s 30 articles stuffed into one blog post.
And so I decided the best way to share my findings is to dole out a few of my favorite articles from each week on a new blog: SundayMagazine.org. I have a couple weeks’ worth of posts up, and the next two months’ worth already in the hopper. They range from historically interesting to downright bizarre. I hope that you’ll see it as a new source of reading material. Some of the articles are short, and some are as long as 4,000 words crammed on one broadsheet.