It’s Your Nickel
A supplemental argument
In August 2001, the Omaha World-Herald opened a gleaming production facility, clad in glass so that downtown passersby could watch the miracle of 75,000 newspapers being printed and folded per hour. In September 2007, Toronto’s Globe and Mail joined Twitter, four months before the Toronto Star but six months after the Washington Post, so that it could share happenings with its audience in almost real time. And in May 2017, the New York Times introduced a Kids supplement in its Sunday edition, so that parents might enjoy A1 in peace (“This section should not be read by grown-ups,” a recent issue noted). With The Sunday Paper: A Media History, the Canadian scholars Paul Moore and Sandra Gabriele detail how a competitive cadre of American publishers, editors, and distributors laid the foundations for these and countless other innovations more than a century ago.
“The Sunday paper was the stage on which the drama of American modernity unfolded,” Moore and Gabriele write. Through its many supplements —“from the society and fashion pages to sporting and business reports, theater reviews and listings”— it aimed to “take reading beyond the page.” Rather than simply offering the latest news, which “took second billing” when compared with the slimmer daily editions, the all-embracing Sunday paper presented readers with “a panoramic view of mass society” that at various times included colour comic strips, women’s sections, literary magazines, sheet music, lithographed art inserts and posters, and collectible dioramas.
Throughout the period covered by the authors, roughly 1888 to 1922, the typical Sunday newspaper cost a nickel. For that stable sum, readers in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and beyond (more than 200 Canadians took the New York World in May 1893, for example) received a leisurely day’s worth of “pastimes and amusements.” Despite the fun-filled pages, however, editors initially justified publishing on the Sabbath with generic arguments about “public service” and by citing a mass demand for news that could be traced back to the Civil War.
Although the Sunday paper was largely defined by its less newsy supplements, these parts “were often rendered ephemeral, omitted from compiled numbers of archived editions.” Because complete sets were rarely saved by librarians and archivists, Moore and Gabriele gathered quite a bit of their primary research through online auctions and collectors’ fairs. Much of what they describe is fascinating. In the late 1890s, for instance, cut-out dolls “doubled as a fashion plate to provide a vivid and realistic vision of the latest Parisian creations.” At one point, the San Francisco Chronicle offered dress patterns for ten or fifteen cents, which meant readers could “make for themselves the very gown, bonnet, and cloak depicted in the art supplement.”
Some novelties were less practical. The St. Louis Republic, the Philadelphia Press, and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal were among those that exploited printing advances by filling their special sections with “hidden pictures” and “magic inks.” These trends were short-lived, but others had substantial staying power. The New York Times began featuring half-tone photography when it debuted its Sunday Magazine in September 1896. In promoting the supplement, billboards declared that it included “All the News That’s Fit to Print”— a self-aggrandizing phrase that would eventually grace the Gray Lady’s front page. Other publishers found ways to draw readers by chartering hot-air balloons, hiring express trains, offering tours of the pressroom floor, and tapping into the new medium of radio.
For its part, The Sunday Paper will struggle to find its own readers, whether dedicated students of print culture or veterans of the trade. However well researched, this is a book that is hampered by endless jargony harrumphing and inelegant repetition. “To conceptualize through articulation is to investigate the conditions under which relations come to be fixed as though inevitable, how they come to be a ‘structure in dominance,’ ” Moore and Gabriele attempt to explain in their introduction. Later, they write of a New York daily, “When the Recorder was started with millions of dollars from W. Duke, Sons & Co.’s American Tobacco Company, another partner was Joseph P. Knapp, whose dominant lithographing company provided lavish color posters as premiums to new subscribers when the paper started up in February 1891.” Then there’s the fuzzy chronology. Consider how, in contextualizing the many newsboy strikes of the nineteenth century, they move from 1876 to 1899 to 1889 to 1896 in four successive paragraphs, without first warning hapless readers of temporal whiplash.
What’s more, The Sunday Paper leaves any number of salient questions unanswered. Yes, it’s great to know that newspapers left Manhattan in the early hours of July 4, 1875, and reached Toronto that same day. But how were they distributed in a city notoriously buttoned up on Sundays? Did subscribers receive them that afternoon? Or did readers buy them at newsstands the next morning? Without the plain facts one expects from even the humblest of rags, undue theoretical scaffolding serves little purpose.