Americans were once passionately devoted newspaper readers, and by 1881, as way of example, Bloomington was home to three daily newspapers — The Pantagraph, The Leader and The Bulletin (with the first two also offering weekly editions).
There were also more specialized “sheets” (as newspaper were called), including two local German-language weeklies and The Eye, Bloomington’s most successful 19th century foray into “Sunday journalism.” Back during a time when most newspapers did not publish on Sunday, The Eye gained a large and loyal local readership as a “welcome Sabbath day visitor.”
The Sunday Eye debuted on Jan. 20, 1878, running eight-pages and selling for five cents. Known as a “society and literary publication,” the paper provided ample space for subjects such as popular fashion, sports, humor and fiction (prose and poetry). That said, the editors also concerned themselves with traditional news, though in an era when most papers maintained strong ties to a particular political party, The Eye remained non-partisan. “Nothing in it to offend the political or religious belief of anybody,” it was said.
The Eye followed several short-lived Sunday Blooming-ton newspapers, including The Sunday Herald, which went belly up “after a painful struggle of three months.” And in the first half of 1880s, The Eye faced (and eventually outlasted) local competition from a paper called The Sunday Through Mail.
Although Bloomington’s competing newspapers often took pot shots at each other, both The Pantagraph and Leader welcomed The Eye, perhaps owing to the fact that both dailies published Monday through Saturday only. “The Sunday Eye will be out tomor-ow morning, neat, spicy, and entertaining,” noted The Leader the day before The Eye’s debut. The Pantagraph said “loud-tongued and vociferous newsboys” were out in force hawking the inaugural issue, which was once again described as “neat and spicy.”
That’s not to say there was some gentle ribbing from the city’s dailies. “The Sunday Eye man is something of an egotist; in point of fact he indulges in laudations of his paper to an alarming extent,” declared The Leader of The Eye’s first publisher, H.R. Persinger. “It is big Eye and little everybody else. But if his patrons can endure it we ought to. It cer-tainly is true that The Eye is a bright and sparkling sheet.”
In May 1879, experienced newspaper hand George L. Hutchin purchased The Eye, and as editor and publisher he would become the weekly’s guiding force for much of its two-decade run.
The Eye, with its many photographs, cartoons and illustrations, was certainly an eyeful. The May 25, 1890, issue, to cite a representative example, included a long list of features (both intriguing and intriguingly illustrated), including those on the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany; the leper colony of New Brunswick, Canada; the widow Vandergrift’s attempt to poison her son for insurance money; and the perils of airship travel. In some ways, the more graphically inclined issues of The Eye were like the full-color “infotainment” supplements that appear in today’s Sunday newspapers, such as Parade Magazine.
The biggest name associated with The Eye was Robert Sidney “Sid” Smith, who went on to become the nation’s first million-dollar newspaper comic strip artist. Smith dropped out of Bloomington High School and began contributing mostly lighthearted sketches and illustrations for The Eye, this in the mid-1890s and well before his glory days as creator of “The Gumps” for the Chicago Tribune.
In its latter years, The Sunday Eye expanded its weekend coverage to Saturdays, and owner George Hutchin and business partner Perry Cotnam even established a successful Chicago edition of The Eye.
In May 1899, The Bulletin’s Theodore Braley and Jimmie O’Donnell purchased The Eye, making use of the weekly’s subscription lists and advertis-ing contracts to boost the prospects of its own Sunday edition. “The Bulletin now covers the Sunday field so thoroughly that there is no longer need for special literary or society publications,” it noted at the time of the sale. The Eye, ventured one wag, had “winked out.” (The Pantagraph would not publish a Sunday paper until it absorbed The Bulletin in 1927.)
For those interested in getting a look at an old Sunday Eye, Bloomington Public Library has four complete issues and one partial on display. They have been “encapsulated” — that is, each page encased in a type of archival plastic that enables visitors to turn pages without damaging the paper. And the McLean County Museum of History’s local newspaper collection includes 19 complete or partial issues of The Eye, the earliest dated April 7, 1878 and the last Dec. 20, 1896.