Collector scores treasure trove of 30,000 antique N.O. newspapers

It took Joseph Makkos and a friend six trips in a 17-foot U-Haul truck to transport 30,000 sections of antique Times-Picayune newspapers to his printing studio in the Upper Ninth Ward. Makkos found the collection, which spans 1888 to 1929, being given away for free on Craigslist. His studio and his life are now crowded with boxes upon boxes of New Orleans history.

In the six months since the acquisition, Makkos has strenuously researched the collection’s history. In his book “Double Fold,” about the mass disposal of international news archives, author Nicholson Baker details how, as part of the British Library’s collection, this same batch of Picayunes survived a bombing attack by Nazi pilots who mistook the Library’s warehouses for munitions storage.

The British Library then sold the Picayunes to newspaper dealer Timothy Hughes, who later sold them to the unnamed donor who recently bequeathed them to Makkos. Hughes, who has not yet seen Makkos’ collection, says this story rings true. “We still have the majority of papers I purchased from London in our inventory,” says Hughes. “But we did sell a chunk of them years ago to someone in New Orleans. When we had the papers, they were not in the same state though; they were bound.” Hughes is impressed with the considerable amount of time and financial investment that has since been put into preserving the papers: each section slipped into a plastic sleeve that’s then rolled up and tucked inside a Mylar tube. Makkos estimates he inherited around 30,000 such tubes.

Makkos’ rare collection documents historic scenes like New Orleans’s yellow fever epidemic, the 1929 transit strike and riot, and the 1927 Mississippi River overflow.

Within the collection, the publication’s name changes three times: first known as the Daily Picayune, the paper merged in 1914 with the Times-Democrat. Makkos owns the very few papers bearing the masthead of both companies simultaneously before the Times-Picayune was born, 100 years ago.

Until another collection such as Makkos’ is unearthed somewhere, this vintage of Picayune papers otherwise exists only on microfilm archives at the paper and various universities.

Dr. Julien Gorbach, who just received his Ph. D. in media studies from Missouri School of Journalism and is putting together a book telling the history of San Francisco via vintage newspaper clippings, has driven from his home in Lafayette to Makkos’ studio three times recently, mostly just to stand in awe. “You don’t need a forensic scientist to see these are the real thing,” says Gorbach. “The British Museum’s seal is on several hundred of them, for one thing. But more than that,” he chuckles, “there would just be no reason, and no way to, really, to forge all of these old papers.”

Makkos’ collection not only tells the story of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, but also the story of Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson, the first female publisher of a major metropolitan daily, who owned the Picayune from 1876 to 1896. A young Mississippi poet, Eliza Jane moved to New Orleans and at the age of 29 became the Picayune’s literary editor. She married the paper’s 60-something-year-old owner Colonel Alva M. Holbrook in 1872. Holbrook died four years later, making her publisher. Having inherited a financially sinking ship, Eliza Jane Holbrook and business manager George Nicholson first married, then managed to push the paper to prominence on the strength of some bold editorial ideas that reached an untapped market of female readers.

As a printer himself and a restorer of rare presses, Makkos is most fascinated with the evolution of graphics as displayed throughout his Picayunes. He is particularly focused on political cartoons, and the way the Picayune’s illustrators represented Mardi Gras, pre-photography. He has begun creating new print blocks of certain vintage Picayune drawings and photos for the purpose of reprinting them on his antique printing presses.

But first Makkos plans to digitize the papers using scanning technology that was unavailable the first time the papers were archived on microfilm — which means he must first organize it all, the thought of which makes Makkos sigh. “I have been making headway,” he claims, scanning his studio’s mountains of boxes and tubes. “But then the train came by the other night so loud that it collapsed my biggest tower of papers.” Makkos sighs again, but remains undaunted.

For more information about the project, go to noladna.org