North, South, East, West:
Newspapers, Periodicals, and the Popular Press




hroughout the Union—North, South, East, and West—the states were soon awash in print. [figure 5.7] Advances in printing technology, transportation, lighting, and education, combined with lax postal regulation, nonexistent international copyright laws, and intense marketplace competition, helped facilitate the proliferation of cheap newspapers, periodicals, and popular books in antebellum America.  This freedom from restraint spawned exuberance in the market and on the printed page.  One social reformer was so concerned he complained that “The world is almost deluged with books.”  Others celebrated the fact that “papers are to be found in every street, lane, and alley; in every hotel, tavern, counting house, shop, etc.”  [figure 5.1]  Reading was no longer a luxury confined to the few but a pastime enjoyed by the many. [figures 5.4-5.5]

As America grew following the Revolution, so too did newspapers.  Slowly at first, but with ever-increasing speed, printers began to paper the land with news.  By the 1830s, dailies had sprung up in big cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, and Charleston. [figures 5.2-5.3]   Meanwhile, country papers continued to serve those more southerly and westerly bound.  Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio at first, and then across the Mississippi with the Louisiana Purchase, presses and publications moved ever westward through Texas and on into Mexico, or across the Great Plains, traveling the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Coast.

But it was the big cities back east that set the tone and pace of the newspaper business.  New York publications soon cornered the market with cheap penny papers.  Boy criers hawked penny papers filled with local news, sensational stories, and dramatic human interest features.  [figure 5.6] Circulation rose to unprecedented levels.  In 1836 the New York Public Ledger noted, “In the cities of New York and Brooklyn, containing a population of 300,000, the daily circulation of the penny papers is not less than 70,000.  This is nearly sufficient to place a newspaper in the hands of every man in the two cities, and even of every boy old enough to read.”  By 1850 circulation had more than doubled, and America had the highest per capita newspaper circulation in the world. 

As in the past, the majority of what people read was politically or commercially based.  However, what really caught the hearts and minds of readers were racy papers, filled with sensational news.   With names like Scrutinizer (1826), New York Flagellator and Police Bulletin (1828), Flash (1841–1843), Libertine (1842), Subterranean (1843–1844), and Life in Boston, Sporting Chronicle,and Lights and Shadows of New England Morals (1849), these papers were sure to catch the reader’s eye. [figure 5.8] Even the more mainstream New York Herald celebrated its “sauciness” and drew moralist ire with its “reckless depravity” in covering crime news, illicit sex, and tell-all scandals and by generally upsetting Victorian-era moral sentiments. 

The most blatant expressions of newspapers’ popularity and of the advances made in print technology were not so much risqué editions as mammoth, larger-than-life newspapers. [figure 5.9]  Composed of blanket sheets—as big as 4.5 × 10.8 feet—these papers were usually “Extras” or Saturday editions made possible by the newly available cylinder press. More often resembling periodicals than newspapers in content, they catered to all audiences. Touting something for everyone, from pirated works of drama and fiction to political debate, they were intended for communal reading and public display.  Their popularity, though short-lived and confined to the late 1830s to early 1840s, was so great that at one time they could boast over 20,000 subscribers.

Like newspapers, periodicals crisscrossed the nation as they catered to both mass audiences and special interest groups.  Some, such as Harper’s Weekly, rose to unprecedented heights of prominence, but the vast majority of Saturday and Sunday miscellanies, magazines, and journals were obscure, short-lived ventures circulating for just a year or two.  Despite these large failure rates, they remained popular venues for authors.  In 1833 a few hundred periodicals were published, and by 1860 this number had increased to well over a thousand in print at any given time, attesting to their popular—if ephemeral—success.  [figures 5.10-5.11]

In a parlor fifteen feet by fifteen—in some instances five or ten feet larger; ingrain carpet; mahogany center-table, lamp on it with green-paper shade … several books, piled and disposed, with cast iron exactness, according to an inherited and unchangeable plan; among them, Tupper, much pencilled; also, ‘Friendship’s Offering,’ and ‘Affection’s Wreath,’ with their sappy inanities illustrated in die-away mezzotints …; current number of the chaste and innocuous Godey’s ‘Lady’s Book.’ ”
 Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883.

Women, in particular, benefitted from the rise of the periodical press.  Godey’s Lady’s Book (1830–1898), for example, was an almost immediate success in both the North and the South with its hand-colored engravings of women’s fashions, sentimental stories and poems by American authors, music, and health and beauty advice.  Annual gift books for women also served as popular works of art and literature, and they conferred status upon the reader.  [figure 5.12] Such works reinforced white, middle-class values of domesticity for women, but they also offered cautionary tales that warned women against overindulging in reading and consuming inappropriate texts.  This was somewhat ironic, of course, as circulation for Godey’s Lady’s Book alone rose to 150,000 by the 1850s. [figure 5.13] 

Periodicals famously catered to certain niche markets.  Most notably, religious groups published their own annual quarterly, monthly, or weekly periodicals, but professional and trade groups also published relevant journals.  [figure 5.14] Perhaps the most controversial periodicals were antislavery papers and journals generally published in the North in the hope of encouraging a change of heart in Southern readers. [figure 5.15]     

“Quarter past twelve and the “breakfast things” still on the table! The cat is in the cream-jar; the dog stealing the day’s dinner, through the open window; the child crying in the cradle … the husband coming in from his work, and the mistress still reading her novel which she took up as he went out in the morning.  Ah, unhappy man!”
N. P Willis, “The Novel-Reader” in The Winter Wreath, 1853.

Novels also became increasingly popular, and they could frequently be found serialized in newspapers and periodicals or in cheap pamphlet form.  [figure 5.17] Often the novels were pirated works of British fiction such as the popular Waverly novels by Sir Walter Scott, but the writings of American novelists George Tucker, Caroline Howard Gilman, and Catherine Sedgwick, along with works of poetry and literature by such authors as Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were also available to meet the demands of the eager reading public.  However, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) that captured the hearts of American readers, at least in the North.  Numerous binderies raced to produce enough copies to meet public demand, and the book became an advertiser’s dream as the “brand” was sold to various audiences in multiple formats. [figure 5.16]  

“Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me an inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell.”
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, 1845.

“I do not know that anything impresses a visitor more strongly with the amount of books sold in the States, than the practice of selling them as it has been adopted in railway cars.”
Anthony Trollope, North America, 1862.

Despite laws and cultural taboos against teaching slaves to read, thousands of slaves learned to read in antebellum America. [figure 5.18]  Understanding well that literacy was power in a white man’s world awash in print, many slaves taught themselves how to read or “stole” this knowledge from others—more often than not from the children of plantation owners. [figure 5.19] Christian slave owners sometimes taught their slaves to read (but not to write), following proper religious principles that all should be able to read the Bible for themselves.  Literacy, however, was still very low for slaves, at about 5 percent.  Of course, neither slave teacher nor slave reader would openly admit to teaching or acquiring literacy, and this enforced secrecy has left the literacy rate for slaves open to much debate.  The Alabama house servant Sarah Fitzpatrick recalled how enslaved readers hid their literacy:  “de ke’ dat up deir sleeve, dey played dumb lack de couldn’t read a bit till after surrender.”  In the years following the Civil War, former slaves and free blacks alike would make great strides in acquiring literacy and education, accelerating from 70 percent illiteracy in 1880 to 70 percent literacy by 1910, completing the circle of literacy for nearly all Americans in the early twentieth century.  [figure 5.20]

As exuberance in reading manifested itself across the nation, it created a totally new and unique place of reading, the railcar.  [figure 5.21] Many industrious newsboys came off the streets and into the railcar peddling newspapers, periodicals, and pamphlet novels to travelers with time on their hands.  [figure 5.22] Soon whole industries grew up around this traveling phenomenon.  Booksellers quickly assembled newsstands in train stations, and publishers such as George Routledge and George Putnam issued railway “classics” or “libraries” in a compact and portable paperback form designed to sell at reasonable rates.   








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