The Rise of the Newspaper

THE AMERICAN PRINTER was the servant of literacy rather than of literature. While he produced few literary books, his presses turned out countless other items more urgently needed for business and government. In these he was at least the equal of his English contemporaries. His job was not the same as that which tradition and aristocracy had cut out for his fellow-craftsmen on the other side of the ocean.

The colonists, as we have seen, possessed a ready-made body of belles-lettres which they simply imported from the mother-country, and the leading books of English literature were probably just as available in the principal colonial cities as in the English provincial towns. If a printer could import and sell a book from London, why should he strain to produce an inferior and more expensive colonial edition? Colonial printers did not produce a complete Bible in English until 1782, but by 1663 they had already issued over a thousand copies of John Eliot’s famous translation of the Bible “into the Indian tongue.” Bibles in English could easily enough be procured from England, but the Indian translation essential to New England’s mission could be had nowhere else. The American printer was left free to serve the special needs of his community. Jefferson, with some exaggeration, boasted that, while Americans were saved from the “swarm of nonsense” which issued from the European presses, they were far ahead of Europe in the production of useful scientific matter.

As we shall see, it was the needs of the colonial governments that supported printers in the beginning. Also, the dispersion of government into several colonial capitals very early diffused agencies of literacy and of public information. The printing press did not spread generally into English provincial towns until after 1693, when the last restriction acts finally expired; there were still no presses in such English towns as Liverpool, Birmingham, and Leeds. But, by the end of that year in the American colonies, presses had already appeared in Cambridge, Boston, St. Mary’s City (in Maryland), Philadelphia, and New York. If each colony had had to wait for presses until the demand for books or for commercial printing produced an adequate income, many decades would have passed, but American presses were flourishing by the mid-18th century. Everywhere they owed their first establishment to government subsidy. In 1762 when Georgia, the last of the thirteen colonies to acquire a press, attracted James Johnston to Savannah as government printer, there were already about forty presses operating throughout the colonies.

In the earliest years the bulk of what issued from the presses was government work: statutes and the votes and proceedings of colonial assemblies. The first item printed in English America was not a poem or a sermon; it was a printed legal form, the Freeman’s Oath of 1639. Legal and commercial forms were a staple commodity, for their demand did not fluctuate with the tides of literary taste. When Franklin opened his stationer’s shop in about 1730, his first stock included many such blanks, which his Autobiographymodestly describes as “the correctest that ever appear’d among us.” The numerous colonial governments, each with its own regulations and its own system of courts and records, multiplied the number of forms required.

Poor Richard’s fame has overshadowed the myriad other almanacs which served daily needs; every ambitious colonial printer issued his own. Almanacs offered an 18th-century American farmer the services now performed by agricultural extension, urban newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. The hours of the rising and setting of the sun, the cycles of the moon and the tide, and the prospects of weather were the time-table of his life—as necessary to him as the railroad schedule to a modern commuter. For many a farmer, the almanac was the most important printed matter he possessed other than the Bible. It told him the dates of court-sessions and the schedules of post-riders, coaches, and packet-boats. It combined features of Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Mechanics, and The Reader’s Digest. It contained practical hints, like the recipe offered in Jonas Green’s Almanack for the Year 1760 “by which Meat, ever so stinking, may be made as sweet and wholesome, in a few Minutes, as any Meat at all.” Few printers failed to offer sage, if shopworn, advice, and special thoughts for “the solitary dwellings of the poor and illiterate, where the studied ingenuity of the learned writer never comes.” Old issues were preserved, to pass the long winter days, to amuse the overnight guest, or to use for notebooks and accounts. A thumbed-over accumulation of a dozen or more back numbers, with their ever-relevant snippets of advice, information, and literary gems, became the staple of remote readers. Almanacs spread up-to-date political information, opinion, and arguments in the years just before the Revolution.

While no printer could make his mark without publishing an almanac, the larger income and future lay with the newspaper. The account-books of Franklin’s printing partnership (1748-1765) with David Hall show that income from the Pennsylvania Gazette in this period was much the largest single item (over sixty per cent) of their business; the remainder was about equally divided between public and job printing and miscellaneous publishing, including Poor Richard’s Almanack. While the size of Franklin’s business was unusual, its proportions were probably typical—a heavy emphasis on contemporary and topical works, a meager list of “literature.” Before the end of the 18th century, an English observer who had made a survey of American printed matter could report:

The newspapers of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, are unequalled, whether considered with respect to wit and humour, entertainment or instruction. Every capital town on the continent prints a weekly paper, and several of them have one or more daily papers.

In the early decades of the 18th century, when the first English provincial newspapers were being printed, newspapers had already become a familiar institution in the American colonial capitals. By 1730 seven newspapers were being published regularly in four colonies; by 1800 there were over 180. The New York Gazette or Weekly Post Boy boasted (April 16, 1770):

’Tis truth (with deference to the college)

News-papers are the spring of knowledge,

The general source throughout the nation,

Of every modern conversation.

What would this mighty people do,

If there, alas! were nothing new?

A news-paper is like a feast,

Some dish there is for every guest;

Some large, some small, some strong, some tender,

For every stomach, stout or slender.

At the end of the 18th century, the Rev. Samuel Miller noted that although the population of the United States was but half that of Britain, the number of newspapers circulating here annually, estimated at over twelve million, was more than two-thirds the number circulated in the mother country. “The Reading Time of most People,” Franklin wrote from Philadelphia in 1786, “is of late so taken up with News Papers and little periodical Pamphlets, that few now-a-days venture to attempt reading a Quarto Volume.”

This precocious development of the American newspaper was in some ways merely- a colonial expression of what was also taking place in England, but it was further stimulated by many local circumstances: the spread of literacy, the extent of the country, the existence of several capitals each with its own political news, and the competition among a number of seaboard cities. Much that Americans said about their reading habits was patriotic exaggeration, but there were plenty of facts to confirm the Rev. Samuel Miller’s portrait of America about 1785:

A spectacle never before displayed among man, and even yet without a parallel on earth. It is the spectacle, not of the learned and the wealthy only, but of the great body of the people; even a large portion of that class of the community which is destined to daily labor, having free and constant access to public prints, receiving regular information of every occurrence, attending to the course of political affairs, discussing public measures, and having thus presented to them constant excitements to the acquisition of knowledge, and continual means of obtaining it. Never, it may be safely asserted, was the number of political journals so great in proportion to the population of a country as at present in ours. Never were they, all things considered, so cheap, so universally diffused, and so easy of access.

The most appropriate literary expression of an American life so shifting, so full of novelty, motion, and variety was the kaleidoscopic, ephemeral, miscellaneous newspaper. A newspaper has to be useful and relevant, but it cannot require long study or concentration; it must be literate, but it cannot separate the artistic and expressive from the commercial and productive areas of living. It must mix public and private; it must take the community into account, but with a view to action and the specific event rather than to the universal principle. The newspapers were a symbol of how America broke down all distinctions. “They have become the means of conveying, to every class in society,” a contemporary printer observed, “innumerable scraps of knowledge, which have at once increased the public intelligence, and extended the taste for perusing periodical publications.”

In saving newspapers from becoming too “literary” nothing was more important than the advertisement, which tied it to daily commercial concerns. “The advertisements, moreover, which they daily contain, respecting new books, projects, inventions, discoveries and improvements,” Isaiah Thomas, the colonial printer-historian explained, “are well calculated to enlarge and enlighten the public mind, and are worthy of being enumerated among the many methods of awakening and maintaining the popular attention, with which more modern times, beyond all preceding example, abound.” Very early the American newspaper had to justify itself as a commodity rather than as a purveyor of orthodoxy. While in France Robespierre and Mirabeau each owned his own newspaper to address his constituents, this was not the American style. Jefferson indignantly denied any control over the press that defended his point of view. Only for an interlude of about a half-century after 1790 was the American press dominated by a bitterly partisan spirit. For most of the history of American journalism, the independence and high quality of the American press have been tied instead to the commercial spirit and the need to offer his money’s worth to a purchaser in the open market.

While the earliest American magazines bore some mark of their locality, they were far less essential than the newspaper to the round of daily life. And so they were slower to flourish on the American scene. The magazine, like the book, is a “mixed” literary form, containing miscellaneous entertainment and instruction; it approaches the book in format, in permanence of interest, and in demands made on the printer. Its unprecedented success in America did not come for another century and a half, when it became a sign of the pervasively literate though emphatically non-literary character of our culture. In 18th-century England the magazine still bore the flavor of that small circle of literati for whom it was designed.

Not until 1741 did the first American magazine with a continuous history begin to appear. Until the era of the Revolution, American magazines were few, short-lived (the longest had lasted three years), and pallid. It was almost the end of the 18th century before a viable, widely-distributed, distinctively American magazine made its appearance. Most early American magazines frankly imitated the English Gentleman’s Magazine and London Magazine; they were, as Frank Luther Mott says, little more than “British magazines published in the Colonies.” Their lack of literary invention was impressive; they seem to have been composed primarily with the scissors rather than with the pen. American periodicals were in the habit of copying at least three-fourths of their content from other (mostly English) books, pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines—a means of composition easier in the days before copyright made plagiarism disrespectable.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!