A folded sheet of rag paper circulated around the wharves and warehouses of Baltimore the morning of Wednesday, May (( 17, 1837. A little engraving of a three-masted sailing ship sat between two bold and black words, "THE SUN."
The legible columns were meant for anyone who could read and wanted to learn something new about Baltimore or a dozen other cities mentioned in that first issue of an otherwise untried newspaper that sold for one cent.
Arunah Shepherdson Abell, a canny Rhode Island-born printer, was the paper's founder. He had arrived in Baltimore from Philadelphia at age 30 only weeks before with the intention of bringing out a newspaper designed for the middle-class workers who were filling the city's streets, wharves and new train yards.
Abell had no desire to imitate Baltimore's richest paper, The Baltimore American & Commercial Advertiser, a dignified organ of limited appeal. Its columns were stacked with the colorless legal and mercantile shipping notices of a busy young seaport. The American cost 6 cents. The Sun sold for a penny. And while it spoke clearly to its audience, settled Baltimoreans regarded penny papers at best as an experiment or with out-and-out disdain.
In a manifesto on May 19, 1837, Abell declared The Sun to be everyman's paper, aimed at a middle-class audience imbued with a "laudable desire for knowledge." He asserted that his paper would make the reader a better person.
Abell's roots in Yankee rectitude would allow nothing tasteless or vulgar. He was also fascinated by national politics in that era dominated by Andrew Jackson, and he was determined to make the most of new technical devices to bring his news out first. Railroads were coming into their own in the 1830s, and Abell capitalized on the newly opened Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to rush Washington news to his printers.
Abell had two partners, William M. Swain and Azariah H. Simmons, who were industriously publishing the Philadelphia Public Ledger. All three were friends and keen observers of Benjamin H. Day, whose New York Sun was a model for the Baltimore venture.
Life in Baltimore
The infant Sun brought its readers vivid accounts of Baltimore: Jan. 3, 1843: "A Pauper -- A woman named Kirkland, about 50 years of age, was discovered at a late hour on Sunday night, lying upon the broad step before the door of Mrs. Hack's boarding house in Pratt street. The family humanely received the miserable creature into the house, where, upon examination, her feet were found to be partially frost bitten. Dr. Bodder gave her his attendance and she was last evening sent to the alms house."
July 21, 1851: "Launch Today -- Another Beautiful Ship. The Messrs. Bell, from their ship yard at the lower end of West Falls Avenue, will at one o'clock today launch the beautiful clipper ship named the Seaman's Bride."
Abell's plucky, reliable and just plain newsy Sun found a willing audience and was soon a stunning commercial success. Abell gave his paper a remarkable new temple of print. The Sun Iron Building, at the southeast corner of South and Baltimore streets, opened Sept. 13, 1851. Its cast-iron facade was painted in elegant pigments and embellished with likenesses of Presidents Washington and Jefferson, and of Benjamin Franklin.
A free-standing clock mounted on a pole stood at the corner. Lest anybody forget who paid for the clock, its face was surrounded by a gilt sunburst.
The Sun's headquarters was an instant hit, the first large iron building in the country, a much-celebrated commercial landmark that emitted a tone of strength for the comparatively young paper. It was also one of the first structures in town to have electricity.
When in 1875 the Baltimore American built its own iron-facade office across the street, The Sun's older structure was the address that retained the cachet. Reporters from both papers aired rivalries from their facing windows across South Street. Both plants, Sun and American, melted in the city's great fire in 1904.
A divided city
Although born in New England, A. S. Abell's sympathies were with the South. He believed that Baltimore's fortunes were intertwined with the states below the Potomac River. An 1849 editorial asserted, "Slavery is a domestic institution. It belongs to the states, each for itself, to decide whether it shall be abolished or not. " The paper devoted little coverage to Abraham Lincoln's early political ambitions.
But the national conflict became a local one. Federal troops occupied Baltimore in 1861 immediately after the outbreak of hostilities. Openly pro-Southern newspaper editors were carted off to Fort McHenry jail cells. Sun editors escaped incarceration by muzzling their sentiments. The Sun sent none of its own reporters on the road and relied on other papers' accounts of bloody Civil War battles.