Plenty of people pontificate — but few put their money where their mouth is. Novelist Nicholson Baker...

Share story

“The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911)”

by Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano

Bulfinch Press, 132 pp., $50

Plenty of people pontificate — but few put their money where their mouth is.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Novelist Nicholson Baker and his wife, Margaret Brentano, a former reporter, are among those few, and their glorious treasure-trove of a book, “The World on Sunday,” is one result of their efforts. Offering a rich and gaudy guide to the early days of color illustration in American newspapers, it encapsulates an era that was very nearly lost.

The story: In 1999, when Baker learned that the British Library was selling off its American newspaper collection in a blind auction, he and Brentano saw no choice but to put a bid on it. The library may have thought that its holdings were duplicates of archives safely kept in the U.S., but Baker knew better. Instead, almost all American libraries — including the Library of Congress, our supposed library of record — had put their newspapers, including color supplements, on black-and-white microfilm that often turned out to be perishable. The papers themselves were then sold off or thrown away.

Baker recounted this sad state of affairs in his book, “Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper,” winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award. He also described how he and his wife emptied their retirement accounts, frantically applied for grants, borrowed money and solicited contributions to buy the last remaining runs of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, the New York Herald Tribune and 90 other publications. Altogether they spent about $150,000 — and that didn’t include the ongoing cost of renting a warehouse in which to store the newspapers. They set up a nonprofit organization, the American Newspaper Repository, and kept the newspapers safe until Duke University accepted the collection as a gift in 2004.

As noted on the Repository’s Web site (www.oldpapers.org), “The gift agreement stipulates that the collection is to be kept together in perpetuity and made available to scholars in accordance with Duke’s policies for rare books. It prohibits disbinding for purposes of photography, and it prohibits experimental deacidification.”

Baker came to Seattle Public Library in 2001 to give a slide-show presentation from the Repository’s collection, and it immediately became clear what all his fuss was about. Library-microfilmed images of newspaper pages were shadowed, smudged, carelessly crooked or incomplete. And of course they weren’t in color. The color slides Baker had made of the same pages from newspapers in his possession were, by contrast, multi-hued extravaganzas.

“The World on Sunday” takes just one newspaper, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and shows what early newspaper color art was all about. The World was, as Baker writes in his introduction, full of “scenic wonders and oddities everywhere.”

Among them:

• “The Present Kite-Flying Craze and What May Come Of It,” from 1899, in which kite-power serves to get commuters to work, keep drunks standing upright and other bizarre twists on the pragmatic.

• “Birds That Blush and Dance,” from 1906, a beautifully illustrated article by C. William Beebe, future co-inventor of the bathysphere, then curator of ornithology at the Bronx Zoo.

• “The New 1899 Crop of United States Senators — Large Purses and Little Men,” in which roly-poly senators are wafted aloft on moneybag wings to a Senatorial throne compromised by corporate and monopoly interests.

The satirical imaginations at play in these illustrations are one big draw. But just as fetching are the normal newspaper feature pages and want ads. In these you’ll find a column by Confederate widow Mrs. Jefferson Davis, a “Special Contributor” (Brentano tells us in her helpful caption notes) to the World during the last 10 years of her life. There’s also an exclusive by Mark Twain: “My First Lie and How I Got Out of It.”

Other items include an article on how to get a quickie divorce in North Dakota, sheet music for a song about making a trolleycar transfer, photographs taken from the steeples of St. Patrick’s Cathedral when they were the tallest thing in midtown Manhattan, a double-page spread on the Panama Canal as a work in progress, and the latest bulletin from the New York Technology Club, announcing its plans to drink — gulp — radioactive cocktails (“known to cure carcinoma of the liver”).

As in any old newspaper, the ads for “the newest spring hats” are a revelation. And one headline — “Actress Grew and Bodices Didn’t Fit” — suggests that Kirstie Alley is just the latest representative of a venerable tradition.

In short, this beautifully produced book offers both hours of browsing amusement and some real insight into the foibles and fantasies of yesteryear. One can only feel grateful to Baker and Brentano for saving these fascinating pages, in their original format, from oblivion.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com