In 1830, a gangling, tall man named William T. Porter came to New York City from the peaceful countryside of rural Vermont. His towering height (six feet, four inches) gave him the nickname “Tall Son of York,” and Porter (1809-1858) was a man with a dream. He had a vision of launching his own newspaper dedicated to sports of all kinds, modeled after the fashionable London newspapers that chronicled the day-by-day activities of popular horse races, prominent fox hunts, and gave advice on raising dogs, fly fishing, shotgunning trips, and even billiards matches.
By 1831, Porter made his dream a reality with the launch of Spirit of the Times. Porter was the owner and editor, and his four brothers were his business partners in the venture. Spirit of the Times grew a large audience in the American southwest, focusing on the active racing scene in the antebellum South. Porter encouraged humorous and satirical entries, and the Spirit played a significant role in popularizing the American tall tale and by 1839, Spirit of the Times was the most popular sporting periodical in the United States. Porter longed to establish a formal stud book for the United States, in similar vein to the General Stud Book in Britain. The goal would not be achieved in his lifetime.
The history of Spirit of the Times is fractured and difficult to trace in its earliest roots, but things became complicated in the 1850s. In 1856, Porter sold his ownership of Spirit of the Times to George Wilkes (1817-1885), staying on as editor until his death in 1858. Abraham Dayton, a former employee at Spirit, launched his own rival publication in 1859, called Porter’s Spirit of the Times, creating a confusing rivalry of weekly sporting newspapers with very similar names. After a court case regarding the use of Porter’s name, the original Spirit was re-christened Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times.
The Civil War tore apart American society, including the sporting and publishing world. Porter’s Spirit of the Times struggled through the war, andwas eventually reunified as Spirit of the Times under Wilkes, who served as editor and publisher until his death in 1885. However, as the war raged, another luminary of sporting newspaper history was rising to military prominence.
Sanders D. Bruce (1825-1902), originally from Lexington, Kentucky, had joined his state’s militia as a captain in 1859, following John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. When the Civil War began, Bruce chose to fight for the Union, taking a promotion to Colonel in the 4th Division of the Army of the Ohio. The highlight of Col. Sanders Bruce’s military career was leading his brigade in the Battle of Shiloh, but he was obliged to resign his commission in 1864 due to heart trouble.
Following the war, Bruce relocated to New York and launched his own sporting newspaper called Turf, Field and Farm. The new paper received an instant boost by purchasing much of its infrastructure and equipment from Spirit of the Times, which was struggling through reduced wartime readership. The two papers vied with each other for decades, and within a few years of the war, Turf, Field and Farm and Spirit of the Times made up two of New York’s three most popular newspapers.
Bruce would go on to write extensively on horse breeding, finally fulfilling William Porter’s dream with his production of the American Stud Book in 1873.
John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Head Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail