Let The New York Times Google That For You

“Queries and Answers” was a pre-web Shazam-like service for poetry and trivia.

Image: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr

In 1908, there was no sparsely decorated webpage with a blinking cursor silently begging to answer every stupid question that had ever decided to staycation in your brain. So when New York Times reader F.S. Shaw wanted to know the know the heights of the Eiffel Tower and the Singer Building in order to settle a bet, his best option was sending a letter to the newspaper. When fellow subscriber David Levy was curious about the population of Salt Lake City, he did the same, as did the person who just wanted to know how Benedict Arnold’s descendants were doing. Eventually, the answers appeared in a column in the fashion and society section, forbear to the Sunday Styles, next to articles about the Long Branch dog show, the fine weather at Bar Harbor, and diatribes against the dearth of small hats this season. It was called “Queries from the Curious and Answers to Them.” It was mail-order Google for the exceptionally patient.

The column could stretch for more than a page if the answers or questions were complex two-parters, which they often were. It began with a disclaimer: “This department does not pretend to be infallible.” The ink-stained sleuths refused to answer questions about “the correctness of English sentences,” as discerning New York Times readers should be more than capable of consulting a reference book, or the cost of coins or stamps, because no one else cares about your philatelic concerns. If you complain about the word “cocktail,” prepare to be shamed. (“Avast there! Let the cocktail alone. Its name comes from the hoary past and is not a thing to be lightly treated.”) And don’t even think about asking for “a list of all persons who have died in England leaving fortunes. Obviously it would be impossible to give such a list.”

The rest was fair game—a mix of the practical and the questions that friends think up after a late night of drinking. Like, was the person who used to live down the street from me related to Alexander Hamilton? One man just wanted to know the names of the senators from Texas, Colorado, California, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, and New Mexico. The list goes on: Has March 4 ever fallen on a Sunday? Why do barber poles look like that? Where did Teddy Roosevelt get his turkeys from? Was the death of Oscar Wilde a hoax? A significant number of the questions need to be resolved for bets. You can now answer all these questions yourself using the same device you’re using to read this piece, unless you, like M.D. Bailey, just wanted to know where the hell Ambrose Bierce went.

Some of the questions are far too delicious to be forgotten once answered, like this one from L.M.S.: “Not long since I chanced to read an article in which was the statement that the web of a spider had at one period changed the whole history of Scotland. Will THE TIMES please oblige one of its readers by explaining how this could have been possible?” Most questions felt curious, but every once in awhile desperation would creep in at the edges as readers asked about immigration or inheritance law, making you wonder about the context that left them asking such personal questions to the entire world.

But this semi-regular scavenger hunt, which treated this entire strange world as its playground, was not the greatest content called “Queries and Answers” in the New York Times. That distinction goes to the similarly named if far more specifically inclined section that ran weekly in the Book Review for over half a century. It was basically Shazam, but for poetry. Instead of an app with terabytes of data at its beck and call, all it had was millions of Times readers, superheroes armed with a jumbled mass of verses memorized in the sixth-grade, and the ability to acquire an endless number of stamps. Readers would send in snippets they remembered from their school days or ran across in their day-to-day lives in the hopes that another fellow Times lover would return it to them whole a few weeks later. And amazingly, they often did. Dozens of people from all over the country would send an envelope to Manhattan with the lost bit of verse, creating a Shop Around the Corner in which the Times acted as mediator, an epistolary romance in which those involved fell in love with literature instead of each other.

Hazel Felleman took over the column in 1923, and continued doing so until her retirement in 1951. She was the first line in the Times’ literary Pinkerton agency, consulting the archives to see if a request had already been answered (If the quote was from “Evolution,” by Langdon Smith, it had already been answered dozens of times, please stop sending it in), if it could be found in her collection of reference books, or if a librarian or academic knew the answer. If those methods didn’t work, the quotation would appear in the paper under the headline “Appeals to Readers.”

In 1936, she published a book titled, The Best Loved Poems of the American People, featuring the poems that readers kept writing in to find. There were other editors through the years, like S.N. Behrman, a playwright who was fired from the Times after his bosses learned that he was sending his own questions to the column to make things more interesting. Recurring characters appeared in the Queries and Answers canon, namely the women who answered more questions than anyone else—the Jeopardy champions of their age. Mrs. Henry D. Holmes appeared in Queries and Answers so many times that she was named  “Vermont’s most widely known woman” in a short item in the Times. Louella D. Everett located homes for so many literary fragments that fans started sending completed poems to her, per the New Yorker. (Ex. “Louella D. Everett, Boston, Mass., / Must be an industrious, painstaking lass.”)

Many of the poems that people wrote in to report lost fall into the “one day will appear on a knick-knack at your grandma’s house” school of verse, like “Love is wealth, but wealth is naught without health.” Other letter writers wanted to know where that poem their dad recited came from, or were looking for “the full text of a poem which was in the school books of Nova Scotia some thirty years ago.” A few readers thought that the stanzas etched in headstones found on a walk through a cemetery were poignant, and others just had flashes of Shakespeare rolling around their skull, waiting to be mated with the rest of its folio. Often, the memory wasn’t very complete. In 1945, C.W. was looking for a sonnet with the line, “My (something) lost (or gone), and my ambition blind.” The internet tells us—after a Google search of “and my ambition blind”—he wanted “I cry your mercy-pity-love! -aye, love!” by John Keats, but how the heck was anyone in the 1940s supposed to find it?

“Queries and Answers” became as much of a journalistic behemoth as other reader-generated content of the time, offering serialized iamb-sized mysteries for readers and succumbing to the fate of all things that grow far more popular than anyone imagined: It inspired takes and parodies, often from critics who thought the whole exercise was a waste of time. In 1941, The New Yorker published a poem with the subheading, “A poem designed for eventual reproduction in the Queries and Answers Department of the New York “Times’ Book Review.” Thirteen years earlier, the magazine ran an amusing piece titled “At Home With Genius,” imagining an interview with one of the column’s top contributors that quickly descends into a quote-off, with the Queries and Answers zealot yelling “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door” as a New Yorker reporter runs away, determined to send a letter to the Times to find out the source of her retort.

The Times seems to have been besieged by nearly as many letters about Queries and Answers as it was letters for it. People in Scotland, China, New Zealand, and Portugal wrote to declare their love of the literary lost and found. “Your department,” another reader wrote, “is worth to all serious readers many times the price of the Sunday Times.”

Not everyone agreed. Gelett Burgess, the humorist, author of “The Purple Cow” and the Goops books, wrote a letter to the Times in 1910 to declare his disdain for everything Queries and Answers stood for. “Who,” he grumbled, “are these effeminate old bachelors and anaemic old maids who are continually whining for their lost doggerels? … Is there, in heaven’s name, nothing to be inquired about but silly, old-fashioned newspaper verse?”

“Perhaps these queries,” he added, “contain secret ciphers, and enable burglars or eloping couples to communicate with each other. This is the only charitable explanation.” He suggested that the publisher just start rerunning old Queries and Answers to save money, as no one would notice the difference.

“To suppress the department of Queries and Answers,” the Times responded to Burgess, “would be to cause nationwide unhappiness. We doubt that any department in any other periodical in the United States has been the source of so much solid satisfaction to its readers as this. Suppress it? It would be infinitely more humane to suppress Mr. Burgess himself.”

Sarah Harvey Porter, another writer, agreed with the Times, and sent the paper a takedown of Burgess defending Queries and Answers a few months later. The letter throws so much shade, one wonders if Burgess ever saw the sun again after it was published; it also stands as a defense of nostalgia, specifically the type that makes sure that the junk drawer of our mind is always too full to close. “The years that one lives in the present are few,” Porter writes. “By the age of thirty most men and women begin to look backward. The tendrils of the heart are as willful as those of the wild-grape vine, clinging to all sorts of objects, worthless and otherwise. Often a bit of verse absolutely without intrinsic literary value, a fragment of an old song, even an absurd byword may bring ‘thoughts that do lie too deep for tears.’”

The Queries and Answers department no longer exists, having died shortly before the paper published an obituary for Felleman in 1975. As technology advanced, the answers started appearing elsewhere. CBS News had a radio segment called “Ask Dimension” where Walter Cronkite would answer questions from listeners, explaining the difference between a civil liberty and a civil right and finding the number of home runs hit by Mel Ott. Eventually the internet came along, and now we all live in a Queries and Answers column, rabbit holes fueled by nostalgia (What are the lyrics to “Magic Dance” by David Bowie?) and the answer to nearly every question (Where is Ambrose Bierce?) at our fingertips.

But the algorithms do not pretend to be infallible. Even now, there are queries that only another human being can answer. So when kavya needed the answer to the immortal question, “how is babby formed? How girl get pragnent?” he or she went to Yahoo! Answers. On Quora, the post Y2K incarnation of Yahoo! Answers for those who have opinions on the term “millennial,” users are still trying to figure out what happened to Ambrose Bierce. Genius brings together lyrics that have been unfortunately separated from the rest of their song. And on Twitter, teens look for the poems they memorized in sixth grade and can no longer remember. The New York Public Library runs a “human Google” service, answering tens of thousands of phone calls, chats, and emails. Among the queries considered over the past few decades are “What does it mean when you dream you’re being chased by an elephant?” and “How many neurotic people in the US?”

The agony of waiting for your question to appear in the New York Times, and the anticipation of waiting to see if there was someone out there who could help, may now be compressed, but it has just been replaced with another form of torture. With the internet, questions breed like invasive species, sprouting in HTML and devouring all of our time. There can never be only one, a Wikipedia page turns into ten, and suddenly you’ve found a page listing all the snakes in South Dakota and are posting everything on the “Lists of unsolved problems” page on Twitter to try and crowdsource answers. And if you look up Nostradamus in the Times archives, there’s always a danger you’ll learn of a defunct column about poems and start wondering if J.R.W. ever found that book by a humorist with a description of a crawfish, or if B.M.C. ever located her poem about Irish potato cake, or whether it’s time to take to Yahoo! Answers to finally find them, along with the key to time travel, so they can finally be returned.