Big job Joseph Makkos sits amid a mountain of historically important newspapers. (Zack Smith)
Joseph Makkos lives in a modest, second-floor studio in a light-industrial area of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, where his living space competes with his passion for printing. His bed is stuffed in a nook beside three different turn-of-the-century printing presses, and the floor is cluttered with drawers and buckets full of small letters and numbers made of lead. In the studio’s center leans a tall wall of clear plastic tubes, each containing original, Victorian-era copies of New Orleans’ daily newspaper, known since
19151914 as the Times-Picayune. In a vast warehouse space below Makkos’ room, hundreds of tube-filled cardboard boxes await unpacking.
Makkos estimates that he has 30,000 sections of the Picayune, covering 1888 to 1929—an especially important period in the paper’s history and the history of news technology in general. “I just found it while trolling Craigslist,” says Makkos. “An ad in the ‘free’ section that said ‘historic newspaper collection.’ It had pictures of the giant stacks in a storefront, and some images of the tubes.”
The papers’ previous owners have included Pennsylvania newspaper dealer Timothy Hughes, who won them in a 1999 British Library auction in which he outbid author Nicholson Baker, as detailed in Baker’s book Double Fold, an indictment of the routine destruction of old newspaper archives and books by libraries. Makkos learned almost everything he knows about his own collection from Double Fold and hopes his work will serve as a sort of coda to it. The book claims that, while part of the British Library’s collection, Makkos’ Picayunes survived an attack by Nazi pilots who bombed the library, mistaking it for munitions storage or a warplane factory. More than 10,000 editions of Irish and English papers were destroyed. The surviving papers were housed in the British Library and Museum in northern London until Hughes bought them, later selling them to an anonymous buyer who, remaining anonymous via a property manager, finally gave them to Makkos.
With the collection overflowing his studio, Makkos brushes against history with every step. He unsheathes an edition from April 6, 1914, bearing mastheads from both the Daily Picayune and the Times-Democrat simultaneously—a style worn only briefly, right after the papers merged that same year. The paper’s masthead changes three times within Makkos’ collection, starting out as the Daily Picayune, then merging with the Times-Democrat, before officially becoming the Times-Picayune, a name that will celebrate its centennial
in 2015this year.
He hands me another tube dated April 6, 1914, which features a political cartoon referencing New Orleans’ discontent at being passed over for a Federal Reserve branch “even though the city hosts a US Mint. That was a big political issue,” Makkos says. He grabs another random paper: January 23, 1901, the Victorian era meets the beginning of its end with the headline, “Queen Victoria is Dead.” Another, from early July 1929: “The paper from the day before, July 3, includes the announcement telling the New Orleans transit workers that, ‘Work must resume!’ ” Makkos chuckles because the next day’s headline, July 4, reads, “Car Man Shot as 1000 People Battle in the Canal St Bus Barns.” Makkos believes that particular paper documents the exact origination of New Orleans’ traditional po’boy: “During the strike,” Makkos says, “the owners of Mothers restaurant on Willow, around where the riot was, gave out sandwiches to the striking workers, like, ‘Give that poor boy a sandwich.’ ”
Makkos plans to preserve all this history and, in some cases, bring it back to life, using his hand presses—of the same vintage as those used to originally print the papers—to create photo replicas, broadsides, chapbooks, and other literary art objects based on his collection of Picayunes. But first he wants to organize and archive the massive collection. This could take years. He has started sorting a trail of tubes across his futon that represent Mardi Gras coverage; another wall is stacked with Victorian-era cartoons, political and otherwise; beside that leans a tower of Sunday magazines bearing the British Library’s red cancellation stamp. Makkos says that many of these bound editions from the British Library were probably complete and intact.
But he is perturbed that, outside of what’s in his room, these papers now exist only on the same type of microfilm he used to browse in his elementary school library. The paper’s official microfilm archives were likely created from newspapers still in their bindings, which hindered the scanning process, according to Nicholson Baker’s book. Once Makkos determines the best technology, he will begin archiving the collection to create what may well be the clearest, most complete record of historic Picayunes.
Innovator The Eliza Jane Nicholson Collection’s women’s fashion section (1914). (Image courtesy of NOLA DNA)