Amazing graphics from the 1950s New York Times archive

A trip to the morgue

The “morgue” is a smelly storage room in a dark basement just down the street from The New York Times headquarters. About seven million photographs and tens of millions of clippings are stored there. A journalist’s dream, a minimalist’s nightmare.

I was visiting the morgue with colleague Jessia Ma and clip-filer Jeff Roth to see what we could learn. Jessia and I were reviewing some designs and fonts from the past, especially within Opinion and Sunday Review. But I found something else surprising and fascinating.

Jeff Roth gives us a tour around the “morgue.”

I stumbled across a series of books documenting graphics from the 1950s and early 1960s. Back then, the graphics team saved clips in scrapbooks so they could consult old work and repurpose relevant pieces. “So they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel each time,” Jeff told us. (There were a series of books between 1950 and 1962, but Jeff wasn’t sure what happened to the rest of them, if they were ever produced.)

While the New York Times graphics team been around for a very long time, I haven’t really spent much time considering its history. “Graphics” seems like such a new thing, maybe because the industry’s changing so quickly. We do more data wrangling and programming than illustration these days.

But as part of that change, maybe we’ve lost a bit of our history and the important lessons it can offer. So here are some things I noticed while flipping through these old scrapbooks.

Illustration played a bigger role

I’m really worried we’re losing a vital part of news graphics: illustration. Today it seems mostly relegated to the loathed “infographic,” with only the occasional fully-illustrated news graphic.

But graphics teams back then used illustration in creative and beautiful ways. Some of the most stunning graphics I saw in the collection were illustrations.

There was this amazing rendering of what scientists believed would happen after the U.S. government detonated an H-bomb in the ionosphere. Just consider the artistry and time involved in getting all these points right.

Then there was a full series of amazing graphics explaining the moon landing. It was obviously a huge story at the time and the graphics team was busy explaining all aspects of the mission, from launch to touchdown.

I love the small details here: the dots and shapes on the moon, tiny arrows around the shuttle’s path, the small figures inside the capsule. Such a delight to explore.

They weren’t just making sidebars

My grand theory of graphics teams was always this: they were once focused on making print sidebars for text stories, then slowly and painfully became fully-formed enterprise journalism teams.

I think that’s probably mostly true, but there’s lots of evidence they were doing big and ambitious work back then. In hindsight, that’s probably obvious, but it wasn’t something I thought about.

This complex map on relations between Russia and China is a good example: ridiculously detailed with major areas of conflict and “some factors in the background” for context. But there were many others that showed these teams weren’t just arting text stories (though there was plenty of that).

They also did this without any color at all. The Times didn’t introduce color until — can you believe it—1997! So for maps and charts, they only had a couple of tools: shades of grays, dots and lines. But it was pretty effective.

This map below accompanied another map showing a series of violent events against African-Americans in the south.

Map projections seemed more creative and varied

We probably need to think a bit more about the map projections we use. We’re so conditioned to seeing the world through Google’s Mercator projection or seeing the U.S. in Albers USA (and more recently spinning 3D globe things), we’ve maybe lost track of more inventive map forms.

From what I could tell, they used a wider assortment of projections and usually found ways to emphasize parts of the map to suit the story.

You can imagine how this map below, on the “communist shadow over the far east,” would look today: perhaps just a standard top-down view, clipping out the relevant areas from a larger map. But in the 1950s, they included the globe in its entirety in a spherical projection with lots of detail (look how the text bends around the curve of the Earth).


The full-globe projection was a common one, including the China-Russia map above.

Some things never change

I loved coming across election graphics that resembled everything we do today. Election result maps, congressional breakdowns, even a “path to the White House” graphic.

In the end, there are just some things that will always be in our wheelhouse. They’re so effective, they don’t really need any alterations. In these state maps, I appreciate the larger gaps between state borders and the very long legend labels.

I had a great time visiting the morgue and plan to go back soon. Diving into the past and exploring work from our predecessors is an invigorating experience. It reminds you there’s a long history and powerful legacy for this kind of work.

As the industry continues to press forward with fancy technologies and new, digital forms of storytelling, it’s easy to lose track of where we’ve come from. It’s important we learn from the past and use it to improve our work as we continue to innovate in this exciting field.