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Today, the Sunday print edition of The New York Times is a thick bundle of news and features, with enough information and diversions to while away the day. But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, for the first 10 years of publication, The Times did not print a Sunday edition at all. “The New-York Daily Times is published every morning, (Sunday excepted),” read the first words of the first issue, on Sept. 18, 1851.
One of the biggest news stories imaginable would change that.
Many of the Sunday newspapers printed in the United States early in the 19th century were weekly editions. A daily Sunday paper filled with the news was not customary, and one big obstacle was the Christian Sabbath. Many worshipers did not want anything competing with the clergy, and new entries were often met with public backlash.
In New York, defenders of Sunday morals railed against anything that smacked of commerce. Vending, drinking establishments and especially trains — large, loud and carrying the mail — were frequent subjects of ire. Newspapers distracted the devoted. The Observer, The Sunday Courier and The Citizen of the World were three examples of early New York papers that had tried, and failed, to overcome the religious custom in New York, according to the book “The Daily Newspaper in America” by Alfred McClung Lee.
But in 1851, The Times was founded in a changing city. Sunday distribution was increasing, a trend since cheap dailies began appearing in American cities in the 1830s. The New York Herald had published a regular Sunday edition since 1841. According to Mr. Lee, James Gordon Bennett Sr., who founded The Herald, had learned from Boston’s Sabbath rows in the 1820s that “the American reader consumes most avidly that which he detests most blatantly.”
More generally, Sunday mores were softening. For growing numbers of working class immigrants, Sunday was the only day off and spent socializing in festive public gatherings.
The Times supported the New York Sabbath Committee, a body of civic leaders and clergy members formed in 1857 to rescue Sunday morals and “arrest particular forms of Sabbath desecration.” That its core readership was upper class Anglo-Saxon society probably played a role. Alarm at fading religious mores appeared frequently in the early pages of The Times, which published letters with complaints about the clamor of trade and German lager houses operating on Sundays. It also reported on the fuss over boats using the Erie Canal on Sundays.
Since the Sabbath Committee’s first meeting on April 1, 1857, its doings were covered closely by The Times. One of the committee’s first moves was to write to the heads of the major railroads, “through which traffic and travel and moral influences perpetually flow,” about their Sunday passages in the city. Soon after (even before liquor), the committee went after the newsboys hawking papers. The Times reported that after an appeal by the committee to Sunday publishers failed to silence the vending, a police order had it suppressed.
“The result of this action revealed the true power possessed by the Sunday press, for its course was condemned and the question settled that the Sabbath was a day that the strong arm of the law might keep sacred,” read a Times article from a committee meeting in 1859.
If The Times, which was still edited by its co-founder Henry J. Raymond, was equivocating while more Sunday editions cropped up in New York, it wouldn’t have to for much longer.
When South Carolina militia bombarded the U.S. Army at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the country, and newspapers, were changed. And the Sabbath taboo, which had already been weakening, was essentially shattered.
By April 18, with Fort Sumter fallen and war apparent, The Times had to explain to readers who found the paper delivered late and the news stands sold out that “we can only urge in excuse that our recent surge in circulation has been far more rapid than we were prepared for.”
The culture wars would not fully dissipate during the Civil War. The New York Sabbath Committee regretted that the Battle of Bull Run was fought on a Sunday, and worried that a generation of young soldiers would forget piety. But the news was urgent — the United States was cracking up — and by the second Sunday after Fort Sumter, The Times committed to a Sunday edition “during the war excitement.” It even announced that “special trains will run over the Hudson River and New-Haven Railroads on Sunday morning, for the newspaper accommodation of the people along the line.”
Once readers were accustomed to Sunday editions, there was no going back.