Manhattan, Ink

From a pigeon’s point of view, the most obvious sign of New York’s metropolitan transformation was the bulky physicality of its railroads, steamboats, factories, warehouses, and department stores. However, the city’s metamorphosis could be measured as well by its production and distribution of something less tangible than clipper ships or steam boilers. In the 1840s and 1850s Manhattan became the nation’s information center, a fountain from which news and novels, stock quotes and lithographs flowed in ceaseless profusion. A mountain of printed matter, generated by a growing army of publishers and printshops, was delivered by rail. But data was also dispatched, almost magically, through an expanding latticework of wires, itself the progeny of New York’s scientific and commercial cultures.


After painter Samuel F. B. Morse returned from Europe in 1832, the renaissance New Yorker devoted himself, more or less simultaneously, to art, politics, and science. He served as professor of the literature of the arts of design at the University of the City of New York. He joined the crusade against popery and ran for mayor on the Native American ticket. And he set out to design a device that would “transmit intelligence by electricity.”

Morse was no theorist, though he had picked up the rudiments of electromagnetism at New York Athenaeum lectures. But in 1837, after years of dogged experimentation, he and his colleagues succeeded in transmitting signals through the hundreds of feet of wire Morse had looped around his university rooms overlooking Washington Square. Patenting their “telegraph,” the inventors developed a dot-dash code system and set out to convince a skeptical public the machine was practicable.

In October 1842 Morse insulated two miles of copper wire with tar, pitch, hemp, and India rubber, put it on board a rowboat, and paid it out, one moonlit night, while a boatman paddled him over to Governors Island. In the morning the New York Heraldannounced that at noon Morse would transmit a message back to Castle Garden. The receiver worked for a bit, then died when the wire snagged on a departing ship’s anchor and was hauled up and sliced apart by puzzled sailors. The crowd, believing itself hoaxed, dispersed with jeers.

Morse had better luck in 1844 when, having convinced Congress to underwrite a telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, he inaugurated the hookup with an exultant “What hath God wrought!” Morse, a good republican, offered to sell his invention to the government for development as a public network, but Congress in its laissezfaire wisdom declined to accept. Some businessmen shied away too, thinking Morse’s device too risky an investment. Jacob Little, worried that vandals would make short work of poles and wires, preferred carrier pigeons. But scores of other entrepreneurs plunged with gusto into developing a new industry.

Morse himself rounded up enough backers, including the owner of a Nassau Street beanery, to establish the Magnetic Telegraph Company and begin service between New York and Philadelphia (actually, the line ended at Jersey City and messengers rowed telegrams across to Manhattan). In 1846, when speculators used stock and commodity news relayed from New York to manipulate prices on the Philadelphia exchange, even Jacob Little became a believer.

By 1846, also, independently owned telegraph lines were converging on New York from Washington, Boston, and Albany. Less than a decade later, better than fifty companies had sprung up around the country, and thousands of miles of wire coupled New York to such far-away places as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

The city’s commanding position in the new communications web was bolstered by establishment of a telegraphic link with Europe—the project of Cyrus West Field. A Massachusetts migrant, Field had worked as an errand boy at A. T. Stewart’s store, then gone into paper manufacturing. Given the explosion of the penny press, the market for bank notes and bonds, and a surge in long-distance letter writing, Field’s firm flourished, making him one of the city’s richest men. At thirty-four he retired, bought a house in Gramercy Park, and turned to telegraphy.

In 1854, encouraged by the recent discovery of a shallow submarine plateau between Ireland and Newfoundland, Field teamed up with industrialist Peter Cooper (his Gramercy Park neighbor), ironmaster Abram Hewitt, banker Moses Taylor, and Morse. After securing a charter and a fifty-year monopoly, the New Yorkers subscribed $1.5 million, hired battalions of laborers to hack an eight-foot-wide path through four hundred miles of rugged Canadian wilderness, and succeeded in linking St. John’s, Newfoundland, with Nova Scotia, then the terminus of lines from the United States.

In 1855, anticipating the European connection, Field, Taylor, Cooper, and Hewitt formed the American Telegraph Company to expand their control over the U.S. network. The New York-based firm quickly swallowed up smaller lines, Morse’s among them. By the end of the decade its consolidated system stretched from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, making it the largest telegraph company in the eastern states; its only rival was Western Union, a Rochester-based firm that had acquired lines in the Midwest.

In 1857, having raised additional capital in England, two sidewheel steamships provided by the U.S. and British governments began spooling out 1,950 miles of cable. After several setbacks, the mighty work was completed in 1858. On August 16 Queen Victoria sent President Buchanan a congratulatory message in “Morse” code officially opening the line; it was shortly followed by the first transatlantic news dispatch: “Settlement of Chinese Question; Chinese Empire open to trade; Christian religion allowed; Mutiny being quelled, all India becoming tranquil.”


The Eighth Wonder of the World: The Atlantic Cable. When the cable was finally hooked up again in 1866, this print hailed the event—an iconographic echo of earlier Festivals of Connection in the city’s streets. (Library of Congress)

In a keystroke, what the Times hailed as the most “wondrous event of a wondrous age” had solidified New York’s position as principal link between New World and Old. In a jubilant Festival of Connection, cannons boomed, church bells pealed, and public buildings were illuminated. The fireworks at City Hall were so tumultuous they touched off a conflagration that destroyed the cupola before it was brought under control. On September 1 a parade with Field and the mayor in the lead carriage marched from the Battery to the Crystal Palace, past stores, hotels, and businesses festooned with banners, placards, and transparencies; the celebration was capped that evening by a torch-lit procession. The ecstasy proved a mite premature, however, as the cable fell silent at the beginning of September, spurring accusations of humbuggery, and would not be reconnected until 1866.


The telegraph, nurtured to fruitful life in New York City, in turn helped reshape the metropolis. By the 1850s the city’s railroads had adopted the device to route and dispatch trains, all police stations were telegraphically interconnected, and the New York Stock Exchange was setting securities prices for the entire nation. Nowhere, however, did the new technology have greater repercussions than in journalism. New York’s newspapers, driven by their mania for speed, became the telegraph’s most crucial supporters. In doing so, they won for themselves and their metropolis an insurmountable advantage in the collection and dissemination of information.

The rise of the penny press in the 1830s had put a premium on ever swifter access to news. Newsboy-hawked “extras” that scooped rivals by even an hour could harvest a bonanza in street sales. By the mid-1840s, New Yorkers were being bombarded by fastbreaking stories—garnered by pony express, chartered locomotives, express steamships, or carrier pigeons—and the race for news had itself become good copy.

Telegraphy accelerated the frenzy. Morse himself, after marveling at what God had wrought, had promptly tapped out a second message: “Have you any news?” Soon James Gordon Bennett of the Herald was paying a five-hundred-dollar bonus to news entrepreneur Daniel Craig for every hour his dispatches preceded those received by other papers, and when the Mexican War broke out in 1846, Bennett bankrolled an extension of telegraph lines to get up-to-the minute intelligence from the front.

No one was more adept at speeding news to press than Moses Yale Beach, proprietor of the Sun. But it was obvious to Beach that telegraphy required rewriting the rules of the news-gathering game. Wire companies swamped with usage demands had restricted each paper to a scant fifteen minutes of transmission time before passing the wire to competitors, effectively eliminating electric scoops. As the construction of private lines was beyond the capacity of even the biggest metropolitan dailies, cooperation, not costly competition, was now in the interest of the New York papers—especially as they faced a collective threat from Boston, where Cunard’s vessels still made first landfall in the States, bearing the latest news from Europe.

In June 1846, accordingly, Beach brokered an arrangement among six leading papers (the Sun, Tribune, Herald, Journal of Commerce, Courier and Enquirer, and Express). They agreed to collaborate in procuring Mexican War updates and, as well, to share the cost of transmitting political and congressional news from Washington. The associated papers also deftly bypassed Boston in 1849 by spurring Britain’s Maritime Provinces to link New York to Halifax, the Cunarders’ first hemispheric port of call. The group also formally established a Harbor News Association and jointly chartered a steamer—the Newsboy—to intercept incoming vessels off Sandy Hook. New Yorkers had locked in their control over the collection of information from Europe.

In the 1850s, the combination—soon to be known as the Associated Press (AP)—moved to dominate news distribution as well. AP agents, placed in major cities, gathered stories produced by local papers, then flashed them to headquarters in New York. There they were consolidated and wired back out to a client base that soon included the great majority of America’s newspapers. Opponents cried monopoly, and they were right. The AP, in conjunction with New York City’s cable and telegraph companies, had cornered the information market. Subscribing newspapers were forbidden from any independent use of telegraphy, barred even from receiving dispatches written by their own reporters.

Manhattan’s papers thrived. By 1853 the circulation of Bennett’s Herald had jumped to fifty-two thousand, making it the country’s most profitable daily. Horace Greeley’s Tribune was running a close second, and its weekly edition was probably the most widely circulated journal in America. Within the city itself, combined daily circulation shot from one paper per every 16 residents in 1830 to one for every 4.5 in 1850 (and 1 per 2.2 on Sundays).

The rise was due in no small part to the penny papers’ explicitly addressing themselves to both sexes as readers, unlike the older, strictly male-oriented commercial press. The newspapers proved hospitable to women writers as well. In 1841 the Boston abolitionist Lydia Maria Child was a rarity when she moved to New York to edit the National Anti-Slavery Standard, and as the first woman to edit a journal of public policy, she was kept at arm’s length by the male New York press. But after Child dramatically increased the Standard’s circulation and published her urban reportage as Letters from New York (1843, 1845), professionals like Bryant accepted her claim to a literary vocation.

Margaret Fuller, another pioneer, had been a highly respected editor of the Dial, the literary magazine founded by Emerson up in Concord. In 1844, at Horace Greeley’s urging, she moved to New York and joined the Tribune’s staff. Mostly she wrote on acceptably female subjects like literature and music, but Fuller also did pieces on slums, prisons, and almshouses—becoming the Tribune’s woman-about-town. In 1846 Greeley even dispatched Fuller, an avid supporter of Garibaldi and Mazzini, to cover the fight for an Italian republic. (In 1850 the ship bringing her back to New York sank off Fire Island in a storm; a search party including Walter Whitman combed the beach, but her body was never found.)

Along with new readers and new writers, new technology made the expansion possible. What the telegraph was to getting a story, the rotary press was to getting it out. Patented in 1846 by New York City’s Richard Hoe, it could produce over twenty thousand copies per hour, permitting a paper to be printed far more quickly, with far fresher news. In the 1850s, moreover, papermaking machines emerged to provide Hoe’s “Lightning” presses with newsprint made from wood pulp rather than scarce cotton and linen rags, breaking another bottleneck.

The housing of mammoth presses, the steam engines to power them, and growing numbers of correspondents, bookkeepers, typesetters, and press operators required ever larger accommodations. By the 1850s the Tribune employed fifty people (not counting the hundred employees it shared with the Associated Press) and filled a five-story Park Row building. Bennett had moved the Herald to larger quarters on Fulton and Nassau in 1842, but after 1848, when he switched to Lightning presses and his workforce topped two hundred, he was forced to expand into three adjoining buildings.

Large premises, costly presses, sizable staffs, and telegraphic services—all drove expenses skyward. To offset rising costs, owners boosted advertising rates, justifying hikes by pointing to increased circulation. As Greeley noted in 1841, “We lose money on our circulation by itself considered, but with 20,000 subscribers we can command such Advertising and such prices for it as will render our enterprise a remunerating one.” In the late 1840s, while a firm might still pay sixty dollars a year for ads in the oldfashioned Journal of Commerce, a similar amount of copy in the Herald could cost over a thousand.

The increase in business precipitated the first advertising agencies. Enterprising young brokers tramped lower Manhattan’s publishing district, buying space from newspapers, then hawking it to patent medicine manufactures and dry-goods emporiums. No one touted the new profession’s benefits more ardently than Volney B. Palmer, selfstyled “Morse of commercial intercourse.” By the end of the 1840s Palmer had established offices in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Baltimore and was proclaiming that “the day will come when a man will as readily think of walking without feet. . . as of success without advertising.”

Even with enhanced ad revenues, it now required substantial capital to establish a newspaper. It was still possible—at least in Brooklyn—for artisan printers to enter the business, especially when backed by politicians. The Brooklyn Eagle and Kings County Democrat, established in 1841 to promote the party’s fortunes, would remain more or less a one-man operation for years. But in Manhattan, only one entrant in the mass circulation sweepstakes succeeded during the mid-century boom: Henry Jarvis Raymond’s New-York Daily Times.

Unlike the founding generation of penny press entrepreneurs, Henry Raymond had no links to the Trades. He came to work for Horace Greeley straight from college, then moved to James Watson Webb’s Courier and Enquirer, where he rose to become managing editor. Here Raymond established solid conservative credentials by attacking socialism (a “stupendous humbug”) in a six-month print duel with his former employer. In 1849 he was elected as a Whig to the Assembly. In 1851, as a leader of what Bennett called the “Wall Street clique,” the thirty-year-old Raymond was chosen as speaker.

That summer a group of Whig bankers surveyed the penny press field with disaffected eyes. Bennett’s Herald seemed too flamboyant, the Sun too plebeian, and Horace Greeley, though a stalwart Whig, had dedicated the Tribune to promoting social justice “causes.” The dailies’ collective prosperity, however, suggested there might be room for another penny press—more agreeably conservative in style and politics. The Whig magnates, accordingly, chose the reliably orthodox Raymond to found the Times (the eighth to bear that name). They raised $i 10,000, making the Timesthe most amply funded newcomer in American journalism.

Raymond acquired a Lightning press, hired a large staff, and joined the Associated Press. He also set out to establish a clear identity for the Times, one professing objectivity, detachment, and bourgeois respectability. The paper’s first issue, in September 1851, declared, with unmistakable reference to Greeley’s tubthumping, that “we shall make ita point to get into a passion as rarely as possible.” Raymond’s mix of prudent politics, good manners, and sober design found a readership at once—ten thousand in ten days—drawn, he claimed, from “business men at their stores” and “the most respectable families in town.” Advertisers flocked in, circulation doubled, and the Times replaced the Tribune as the favored organ of New York Whiggery.

Raymond and his backers had entered an extremely influential circle. By 1860 the five leading New York dailies, with a combined per diem circulation of 250,000, wielded immense power. Printing House Square had become the hub of American journalism, and city editors and publishers would become national celebrities—better known than manufacturers, department store moguls, or clipper ship captains.


Newspaper publishing, the city’s fourth largest manufacturing sector by the late 1850s, proved crucial to making the printing trade New York’s fastest growing industry. But a vast array of quite different kinds of material also rolled from the city’s presses, helping make Manhattan an ink-drenched town.

Ads were everywhere. Aleksandr Lakier, a Russian visitor in the 1850s, was struckby the steady flow of “notices and announcements [that] are thrust in your hands” along Broadway. Trade cards—four-by-six-inch handbills promoting everything from patent medicines to prostitutes—blossomed with the spread of lithography. “Bill-stickers” with paste buckets mades their rounds late at night, plastering their posters over those of their rivals, creating a patchwork of odd and quintessentially urban juxtapositions.

“New York is distinguished for its display in the way of signs,” noted chronicler John F. Watson in 1846; “every device and expense is resorted to, to make them attractive.” Not only were stores festooned with ever more and ever bigger placards and announcements, but so were warehouses, carriages, buses, fences, lampposts, trees—and people: men walked the streets with sandwich boards on their shoulders. One commentator noted with mock surprise that umbrellas had as yet been left blank, “their ample and conspicuous surface bearing no announcement of any new pill, new adhesive gum, bankrupt’s sale, or What is it?”

Civic text added to the visual pageant—banners draped over buildings for celebration, broadsides for political campaigns, and “Direction Boards” erected at the Board of Aldermen’s insistence “for the accommodation of the whole public, and especially strangers.” Often these street signs appeared only on gas-light stanchions, making it difficult, complained visiting novelist Anthony Trollope, to know when to get off the horsecar. There were, however, remarkably few injunctions in the cityscape—little by way of traffic regulations or health warnings telling people what they should or should not do—though omnibuses did post warnings to BEWARE OF PICKPOCKETS.

Some of the cleverest trade bills on the street were designed to resemble paper money—no surprise, given the city’s role in producing the real thing. Manhattan was headquarters for the nation’s three largest banknote manufacturers, whose clients included many of the over ten thousand institutions empowered to issue currency. It was also home to those who produced bogus bills. “We have never known counterfeiting carried on to a more alarming extent than at present,” wrote the Sun in 1840. “We were shown yesterday a one dollar bill on the Atlantic Bank of Brooklyn, altered to a ten in so ingenious a manner as to have deceived all but the most wary.” This in turn gave rise to an impressive array of daily, weekly, and monthly journals—like Day’s New-York Bank Note List and Counterfeit Detector—produced by more than a dozen different publishers to help store clerks and bank tellers identify failed banks and fraudulent currency. By the late 1850s, as well, ninety-four engraving establishments and twenty-three lithographic works were churning out such other print-tools of the commercial and financial trades as checks, bills of lading, and bills of exchange.


“The Bill-Poster’s Dream,” an 1862 cartoon spoofing the proliferation of signs in the city. When read down, beginning in the upper left, the juxtaposition of messages makes an amusing commentary on local persons and events: “People’s Candidate for Mayor . . . The Hippopotamus,” “Miss Cushman will. . . take Brandreth’s Pills,” “The American Bible Society will meet at the. . . Gaieties Conceit Saloon,” “$ioo Bounty Wanted . . . A Jewess for One Night Only,” etc. (Eno Collection. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)


The widespread assumption, by all these print publicists, of near-universal literacy was largely accurate. During the 1840s and 1850s—thanks to the country’s growing number of schools and colleges, a general conviction that literacy was essential to republican citizenship, the tremendous evangelical commitment to teaching sacred texts, and the emergence of a cheap popular press—the literacy rate among white adults climbed past 90 percent in the city and throughout the nation.

With the national market for reading matter growing briskly, and with the economy rising, postal rates dropping, and railroads affording inexpensive access to the interior, New York publishers flourished as never before. By 1860 seventeen book-printing firms were manufacturing over three million dollars’ worth of volumes for the national marketplace. New York City, with 2 percent of the country’s population, produced over 37 percent of its total publishing revenue.

Harper and Brothers retained its preeminence. By 1853, when its workforce of five hundred issued more than four and a half million volumes, it had become the largest employer in New York Qty. After its Cliff Street plant burned down that year, the firm immediately set James Bogardus to building two splendid five-story cast-iron structures, which between them covered half an acre on Franklin Square. One combined all of Harpers’ editorial, management, inventory, and wholesaling operations. The other, the factory, devoted a separate floor to each stage of the production process. This powerhouse secured Harpers’ position as the largest publisher in the world.

The company distributed its tremendous output with smooth efficiency. Advertising extensively—it placed notices in 844 local papers during 1856 alone—Harpers circulated its wares through a network of over a thousand booksellers and a phalanx of colporteurs (peddlers of religious material). Harpers, indeed, had great success with religious works, especially Harper’s Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible (1846) a giltedged, gold-embossed, morocco-bound edition that set new (and rococo) standards for taste and elegance. The firm did well, too, with inexpensive book sets: the 150 volumes of the Harper’s Family Library could be had for sixty-five dollars. And state legislative appropriations underwrote widespread and profitable purchase of the two-hundredplus titles in its Harper’s School District Library series.

The firm continued to pirate European authors: Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, and above all Thomas Babbington Macaulay, whose confident assertions in the History of England from the Accession of James II (1848) about the benefits of industrial progress helped it to sales of four hundred thousand copies. It also extended growing attention to a wide array of American texts embracing Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico (1843), a miscellaneity of geographies and travel accounts, including Harper’s New York and Erie Rail-road Guide Book (1851), and the domestic advice books of Catharine Beecher.

Harpers’ success spurred competitors. The House of Appleton retained its number two status by producing Spanish-language books for the Latin American trade, commencing the New American Cyclopedia (the greatest literary enterprise yet attempted in the United States), and securing rights to Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book (which became the number two seller in the world, right behind the Bible). Behind the Appletons lay a pack of up-and-coming rivals including A. S. Barnes, Charles Scribner, David Van Nostrand, E. P. Dutton, and, scrappiest of all, the youthful George Palmer Putnam.

Putnam teamed with John Wiley in 1840 and quickly established an agency in England to forage for European books with which to rival Harpers. He also propelled Wiley and Putnam into building a strong domestic list, a focus he continued after setting up on his own in 1848.

Again, women writers and readers proved crucial to the expansion of the publishing world, particularly after 1850, when Putnam published Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World. Warner had grown up in the fashionable town house of an affluent and genteel New York family, received an excellent education, and thrived on the city’s cultural offerings. In the Panic of 1837, however, her father lost his fortune and took the family into impoverished upstate exile. Warner took to writing in hopes of making money and submitted a pious and sentimental novel to Harpers, which rebuffed it with the single word “Fudge.” Brought out by Putnam, however, Wide, Wide World became a publishing phenomenon. It went through fourteen editions in two years, becoming the most successful novel yet written in the United States, and touched off a flood of domestic parlor books by and for women. Despite the strictures against women speaking in public, which if anything had sharpened since Fanny Wright had been howled from her platform, writing for the public became an acceptable extension of woman’s sphere. Male publishers were simply not prepared to turn down the kind of revenue ladies generated, and “scribbling women,” with the help of their consuming sisters, carved out a niche in the flourishing industry.

By 1857 there were at least 112 publishers in New York City. While most were “respectable” houses, emphasizing genteel, religious, and domestic literature, others catered to a rougher readership. These outfits churned out blood-and-thunder adventures, sadomasochistic romances laced with sex and horror, and lurid accounts of patrician villainy or plebeian roguery. Nearly 60 percent of all fiction published in the United States between 1830 and 1860 was of this ilk.

In 1846, four years after the federal government banned importation of erotic material, an indigenous pornographic publishing industry arose when William Haynes, an Irish surgeon who immigrated to New York, reinvested the money he’d made publishing Fanny Hill in the United States in the production of cheap erotic novels like Confessions of a Lady’s Waiting Maid (1848). Most such paperbacks—usually octavosized pamphlets with yellow or pink wrappers, priced at twenty-five cents—were aimed at a youthful male audience and written by men, some of whom achieved heroic levels of productivity. In the 1850s New York sensationalist George Thompson whipped off nearly one hundred steamy potboilers—with titles like City Crimes (1849), New-York Life(1849), and The Gay Girls of New-York (1853)—portraying group sex, nymphomania, miscegenation, and incest in the Five Points. This plethora of pornographic confections, often replete with lustful woodcuts, led one New York reformer to wonder: “Will not the steam-presses create licentiousness faster than police regulations can drain it off?”

In the 1850s New York’s competing book publishers discovered, as had their counterparts in journalism, that cooperation could be in the interest of all. The market’s growth in size and scale had made it ever more difficult for companies to inform backcountry stores about new titles. Nor was it easy for distant booksellers to get to New York for the fall and spring trade sales. Some of these problems were alleviated by the establishment of a trade paper in 1851, Norton’s Literary Advertiser, which included book news, ads, and reviews, and in 1855 the city’s bookmen decided to establish the New York Publishers Association. It was inaugurated with a banquet for six hundred at the Crystal Palace, the biggest-ever gathering of literary personalities in American history. This self-congratulatory conclave of authors and editors marked publishing’s arrival as a full-fledged metropolitan industry.

Book selling flourished too. Stores along Broadway between Pine and Houston concentrated on new titles. Secondhand volumes were found at shops on Nassau Street and Pearl or farther uptown along Canal, Mulberry, and the Bowery. When the Astor Library opened, Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and 14th Street became the city’s used-book center; and it remained so for a century. In addition streetcorner bookstalls served as outlets, especially for the fledgling pornography trade: in 1843 one paper claimed that nearly every stand sold “libidinous books with the most revolting and disgusting contents.”


The efflorescence of book publishing boosted magazine production as well. Political, literary, domestic, and religious journals had long flourished in New York. Now commercial periodicals began to circulate at a hitherto unmatched pace. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow noted as early as 1839, in “the Great Metropolis. . . new literary projects in the shape of Magazines and Weekly papers are constantly started, showing great activity, and zeal, and enterprise.”

Two of the grandest were offshoots of great publishing houses. In June 1850 Fletcher Harper set up Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, in handsome format, with sumptuous engravings. The raw material was filched from the best English authors, supplemented occasionally by local talent. The magazine also featured columns of light commentary—including “The Editor’s Easy Chair,” a seat filled in the late 1850s by George William Curtis—and offered travel sketches by genteel tourists just back from perambulating Italian art galleries and classical ruins. The formula worked to perfection in a culture that still set its course by European stars. Harpers printed seventy-five hundred of the first number; in six months circulation hit fifty thousand; by 1860 it reached two hundred thousand.

With figures like these it wasn’t hard for Charles F. Briggs, the New York editor (and author of Harry Franco), to convince Harpers’ rival George Palmer Putnam to found another monthly. Putnam’s Magazine, with Briggs at the helm, sought out Amer­ican authors, compensated them well, and attracted sophisticated contributions on art, literature, and society.

Robert Bonner’s unaffiliated New York Ledger outpaced both Harper’s and Put-nam ‘s. An Irish immigrant printer turned entrepreneur, Bonner purchased the Ledger in 1851 when it hung on the brink of collapse. Over the next several years he aggressively improved its circulation by lowering the price to three cents a copy and offering a class and gender-straddling mix of adventure stories, domestic romances, and first-rank writing.

Bonner, an advertising genius, spent twenty-five thousand dollars a week on promotions. A pioneer in the use of “white space,” he took out full pages in the Herald, Tri-bune, and Times, only to leave the entire space blank but for a single line in the center or a corner: “Read Mrs. South worth’s new story in The Ledger.” In this manner, Bonner promoted a star system that featured the writer as much as the written word. He paid unprecedented sums—thirty thousand dollars for a novel by Henry Ward Beecher, three thousand for a poem by Longfellow—then advertised his expenses. In 1855 Bonner signed Fanny Fern to write for the Ledger. Born Sara Payson Willis, Fern had won national acclaim in Boston for a volume of essays, Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio(1853), that sold over a hundred thousand copies. Now she moved to New York, where Bonner paid her one hundred dollars a column, making her the most highly paid newspaper writer in the country. By 1860, with circulation topping three hundred thousand, the Ledger was the most widely read magazine in the nation.

Below these Everests lay ranges of more specialized weeklies and monthlies. New York published fifty-two religious periodicals at mid-century. There were magazines devoted to ethnic affairs, banking, sports, ladies’ fashions, politics, culture, science, humor, trade and industrial technology. Even the American Agriculturalist made its home in Manhattan, noting that “more Farmers and Planters resort here than to any other city in the Union.”

The magazine spectrum too had its spicier bandwidth, represented most notoriously by the National Police Gazette. In 1845 journalist George Wilkes, the New York-born son of an artisan cabinetmaker, was convicted of criminal libel while coediting the Sub-terranean with the pugnacious Mike Walsh. After serving four weeks in jail, Wilkes penned a pamphlet (Mysteries of the Tombs) exposing corruption in the city’s criminal justice system, then founded the Gazette to continue and extend his investigations. Imitating London’s Police Gazette, Wilkes gave his readers lurid capsule reports of crimes in the city and around the nation (in columns titled “Seductions,” “Rapes,” and “Murders”), interspersed with criminal biographies (“The Lives of the Felons”), trial coverage of crimes involving sex and violence, and a glossary of criminal slang (the “Rogue’s Lexicon”). Lively, at times quasi-pornographic graphics helped boost Police Gazette sales to over forty thousand by 1850.

The Gazette and its hundreds of periodical rivals made New York’s literary marketplace intensely competitive. With journals being founded and folded almost daily, Manhattan was perilous for entrepreneurs but a magnet for would-be professional authors, whose arrival further altered the process of literary production. Writing had long been an amateur affair. Gentlemen authors wrote for their friends and peers; they lived for literature, not offit. Now, as one disgruntled Boston literatus put it in 1843, “literature begins to assume the aspect and undergo the mutations of trade,” with authors hoping to sell their literary goods to impersonal and far-flung audiences, addressed by advertisement.

Writers found themselves advertised as well; they were packaged as commodities, their portraits and biographies promoted. Horace Greeley, acting as Henry David Thoreau’s informal literary agent (an emerging profession), told him: “You may write with an angel’s pen, yet your writings have no mercantile, money value till you are known and talked of as an author.” Marketing, in turn, increased the importance of reviewing—another budding profession. When Margaret Fuller moved to the city to work on Greeley’s Tribune, she became the first full time book reviewer on an American paper. Laudatory excerpts were cited in ads or the book itself, and while most were honestly come by, others were bought and paid for.

Writers were ambivalent about publishing’s transformation into a capitalist enterprise. Formerly authors had financed their own books, kept the profits, and paid publishers a percentage for printing and distributing the work. Now the flow of funds had reversed itself, with publishers fronting costs and paying only “royalties” to authors. Yet the new system, along with the creation of a national market, clearly increased potential sales. Authors might therefore be simultaneously dismayed at being encouraged to tailor their output to the marketplace and exhilarated at the chance to become self-supporting.

As writers poured into the city, supply outstripped even the surging demand and further tilted the balance of power from authors to publishers. By 1851 editor Nathaniel Parker Willis warned that New York City was the “most overstocked market in the country,” noting, “I have tried to find employment for dozens of starving writers, in vain.” Horace Greeley cautioned one upstate hopeful: “You do not realize how little the mere talent of writing well has to do with success or usefulness. There are a thousand at least in this city who can write very good prose or verse,” he added, “while there are not fifty who can earn their bread by it.” Few heeded such advice, for it was clear, as a writer in the Literary World noted in 1847, that “the seat of commerce” was fast becoming “the centre of literary power.”


One thing this “centre” lacked was a center. New York’s literary world was fissured into warring factions, each with its own complement of writers, critics, and magazines. The two leading circles—Knickerbockers and Young Americans—disagreed on almost everything. The former were Whigs, Episcopalians, anglophiles, and hostile to all political and literary radicalisms. The latter were Jacksonians seeking a democratic literature and politics and an end to America’s cultural subservience to Europe.

Knickerbockers and Young Americans also related differently to the marketplace. Knickerbockers were prosperous gentleman amateurs—businessmen and professionals who dined well, told good stories at table, and wrote lightly ironical essays in the style of Charles Lamb. At the center of their circle was man-about-town Lewis Gaylord Clark, who since 1834 had piloted the Knickerbocker magazine, a literary monthly. Clark’s chatty “Editor’s Table” kept the nation apprised of the Rabelaisian wit of his glamorous circle, which included Henry Brevoort and Charles Astor Bristed (J. J. Astor’s grandson).

Clark didn’t pay his well-heeled writers; he considered publication its own reward. But the Knickerbocker wasn’t utterly divorced from the marketplace. Clark often “puffed” books for favored authors or publishers, tossing off glowing reviews of volumes he hadn’t necessarily bothered to read. Whig newspapers then circulated his opinions to the nation, which meant a Knickerbocker puff could sell out a book in several weeks or, conversely, kill it. By 1840, much to the annoyance of Young Americans, the conservative Knickerbocker was the most influential literary organ in America.

Clark’s nemesis, Evert Augustus Duyckinck, represented the young professionals. He himself had been bred to the business—his father was a Water Street bookseller and publisher—and unlike Clark, an upstate New Yorker, Duyckinck was an authentic Knickerbocker (his name in Dutch meant “diving duck”). An ample inheritance allowed him to attend Columbia, study law, and do the Grand Tour of Europe, after which, in 1840, he settled down in a Clinton Place town house, surrounded by a ducal library of seventeen thousand books.

Around Duyckinck gathered the first generation of New York intellectuals for whom literature was a vocation. These youthful writers shared a generational distaste for the clique of conservative critics, publishers, and magazine editors whose mutual backscratching made it difficult for newcomers to penetrate the market. But Duyckinck’s circle focused on more than moneymaking. At rollicking Saturday night suppers they debated the future of U.S. culture. They adopted the name Young America, emulating and expressing solidarity with Mazzini’s Young Italy and Daniel O’Connell’s Young Ireland. Most mere young, in their late twenties or early thirties. Like Duyckinck’s fellow Columbia alumnus Cornelius Mathews, an ardent (verging on shrill) literary nationalist, they considered New York “the seat and stronghold of this young power.” From their metropolitan base they set out to foster an American literature.

In 1840 Duyckinck and Mathews established Arcturus, a monthly literary magazine that quickly rivaled Clark’s Knickerbocker. Two years later they organized an American Copyright Club, hoping that if Harpers and other pirates were forced to pay their European sources, they might turn more often to American authors. In 1845 Duyckinck urged city writers to develop the kind of labor solidarity common in other New York trades, for only a “union among authors, bringing together the force of their aggregate works, would create a sentiment, a feeling in their behalf, a voice to which booksellers would be compelled to listen.”

In 1845 Duyckinck became literary editor of the Democratic Review, a broad-circulation political magazine edited by John Louis O’Sullivan, a fiery and charming Irishman. O’Sullivan was a vigorous supporter of western expansion and European revolution. In both cases, he said, it was America’s “manifest destiny” to extend the domain of democracy (though as a staunch Democrat, O’Sullivan exempted black slaves from this destiny). The swashbuckling O’Sullivan reached out to the scholarly Duyckinck because the latter’s literary vision dovetailed perfectly with the former’s political project. Both believed New York to be the ideal seedbed for a new American culture because it was home to writers from the West, South, and North, thus a more representative American city than provincial Boston. And New York, Duyckinck pointed out, was the country’s “true publishing center,” the only place technologically and financially capable of underwriting a people’s art.

George Palmer Putnam, the aggressively entrepreneurial publisher, was Young America’s perfect ally. Putnam was eager to promote America’s cultural independence, especially if it could help him contest Harpers’ domination of the literary marketplace, and he was prepared to pay authors fair dividends while distributing inexpensive edi­tions of their books to ordinary American audiences. Duyckinck became general editor of Wiley and Putnam’s watershed project, the Library of American Books, and enlisted some of the city’s (and country’s) outstanding younger writers in forming a new literary canon. In 1847, moreover, Wiley and Putnam joined Appleton and Company in launching the Literary World, with Duyckinck at the editorial helm. The new magazine would survey and publicize the nation’s burgeoning literary output. It would assess, as well, the accomplishments of America’s visual artists, who, like the writers, had been profoundly affected by technological and social developments in New York City.


The Panic of 1837 had disrupted Manhattan’s patronage system. Cole, Sully, and Asher Durand found that merchants laughed wanly at the notion of buying paintings with their businesses facing bankruptcy. Spurred by hard times, artists fashioned new and more collective ways of supporting their work.

In 1838 portraitist and engraver James Herring established the Apollo Gallery, where painters could exhibit and share in the proceeds of a twenty-five-cent admission fee. When this foundered, Herring decided to reach out to a far broader audience. In 1839, drawing on a model developed in several European cities, he created the Apollo Association, a noncommercial joint stock company. Subscribers contributed five dollars each to a fund, which then purchased works from artists. These were exhibited to the public free of charge and, at year’s end, distributed by lottery to subscribers. Association members also received engraved reproductions of some of the artworks, as well as the group’s Bulletin, the first magazine devoted exclusively to American art. In 1844 the enterprise, now going strong, was renamed the American Art-Union (AAU).

The AAU was run by managers whom Herring drew at first from the pool of gentleman art enthusiasts—among them Philip Hone, rentier James W. Beekman, and editors Henry Raymond and William Cullen Bryant. Some were attracted by old republican ideals of stewardship and civic patronage; others hoped art might exert what the Rev. Henry Bellows called “exalting, purifying, calming influences” on the increasingly agitated masses. Young America rallied to the AAU, seeing in it a democratizing project akin to their own. Duyckinck, Mathews, Putnam, and O’Sullivan, delighted to make art available to the many, also hoped that artists freed from dependence on Eurofixated patrons might create an American art.

By the late 1840s the American Art-Union was the nation’s primary market for U.S. paintings other than portraits. Each year roughly nineteen thousand subscribers purchased an average of four hundred artworks, benefiting painters, sculptors, and the engravers and die casters who prepared prints for reproduction. The AAU’s gallery, one paper reported, had “grown to be a kind of municipal Institution, visited by the whole people.” The managers had established a luxurious setting on bustling Broadway, replete with ottomans and gas lights, that stayed open at night when working people could come. The gallery drew from “every section of the social system,” the press noted, “from the millionaire of 5th Avenue, to the B’hoy of 3d.” Half a million people visited in 1848, the organization claimed, a number roughly equal to the city’s entire population.

The AAU collected enemies too: envious and profit-seeking private art galleries; disgruntled rejected artists; connoisseurs who sniffed at the sometimes mediocre work submitted by sign painters, itinerant portraitists, lithographers, and banner painters; and the National Academy of Design, which, though many of its members participated in AAU affairs, worried about dwindling attendance at its own exhibitions. What finally brought the AAU down, however, was an assault by powerful antigambling forces (backed by Bennett’s Herald) who managed in 1852 to have its lottery ruled illegal.

The private art market now flourished. The National Academy’s annual spring exhibit blossomed into a major event. Galleries catered to wealthy collectors like department store owner A. T. Stewart, and Broadway showrooms attracted a steady patronage—occasionally a spectacular one: when Edwin Church’s Niagara was first exhibited in May of 1857 thousands crowded into the gallery each day. The Art-Union had left its mark, however, in a heightened public interest in art, in the precedent it had set for a municipal museum, and in boosting the growing popularity of reproductions and strengthening the city’s role in their supply.

Engraver and printer Nathaniel Currier, who had long been producing and marketing images from his Nassau Street shop in the heart of the newspaper district, was joined after 1852 by James Merritt Ives, a self-trained artist, who became his partner in 1857. Currier and Ives used the latest in steam-driven press technology to churn out lithographs from sketches drawn by staff artists. They also hired hundreds of women to hand-color the prints. Their inexpensive “Colored Engravings for the People” provided uplifting images of family life for moderate-income households.

They also portrayed New York City. Currier and Ives views of Broadway, the burning of the Crystal Palace, P. T Barnum’s galleries, and the clipper ships all sold briskly. The firm’s success spurred competitors into providing urban imagery. Specialized producers turned out lithographed advertisements for ironworks, inexpensive wall prints of tourist spots, engravings of local scenes for guidebooks, and—for banks, shops, hotels, real estate promoters, and tourist operators—the bird’s-eye views that presented a coherent and comprehensible metropolis, laid out for delectation and consumption.

The great national monthlies like Harper’s and Putnam’s joined in the preening. In 1853 Putnam’s offered an illustrated series called “New-York Daguerreotyped” that depicted the emblematic edifices—the Crystal Palace, the department stores, the newspaper headquarters, the monster hotels—deemed “worthy of her pretensions as the metropolis of the Union.” In 1854 another running commentary appeared in Putnam’s—“The World of New York”—which hailed the city’s energy, wealth, and culture. City sights and scenes also saturated the popular press, with Harper’s, Putnam’s, and journals like Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (1855) and the New York Illustrated News (1859) helping make New York the most represented city in the country.

The process of urban imaging was further accelerated by the debut of photography. When news of Louis Daguerre’s success in fixing images on silver-coated copper plates arrived in New York City in 1839, the omni-capable Samuel F. B. Morse, together with scientific instrument maker George W. Prosch, devised a rudimentary camera. From the doorway of Prosch’s workshop, Morse captured an image showing City Hall, the Park, and a “coachman sleeping on his box.” Then he established a glass-walled rooftop studio on a Nassau Street building. From here he produced some of the first urban cityscapes, including one, a visitor reported, with “very clear, distinct views of Brooklyn in the distance.”

The novelty of daguerreotypy, along with its low start-up costs, attracted many to commercial photography during the depression. In 1843 the New York correspondent of a Washington newspaper wrote whimsically that “in these Jeremiad times” only two classes were making money in Manhattan: “the beggars and the takers of likenesses by daguerreotype.” Indeed, he added, ever since a Frenchman had set up shop selling apparatuses, “any pedlar can take up the trade.”

Mathew Brady was no peddler, though he did clerk for A. T. Stewart after moving to Manhattan from upstate New York in 1839. Then the young Irishman met Morse and discovered his life’s profession. In 1844, aged twenty-two, Brady opened the Daguerrean Miniature Gallery at Broadway and Fulton, on the top floor of a building directly across from Barnum’s.

Brady was an instant success, thanks to his talent and a Barnumesque flair for selfpromotion. Taking up residence at Astor House, he pursued and captured visiting celebrities so successfully that it was soon considered a mark of social standing and public distinction to be daguerreotyped by “Brady of Broadway.” He and his peers also made photography a public art form by opening their galleries to passersby. Strollers headed for Brady’s (or Gurney’s, Edward’s, or Anthony’s—all on Broadway near City Hall Park) to socialize and gaze at likenesses of the famous and notorious.

Brady had little interest in depicting ordinary working people (though in 1846 he did photograph inmates of the Blackwell’s Island penitentiary for a book on “reading” criminal heads). But others soon jumped into the business of providing “occupationals”—pictures of artisans in daily dress holding the tools of their trade. By 1850 there were seventy-one daguerreotype studios (employing 127 “operators”) ready to take one’s picture, and at least one that advertised a willingness to make house calls in order “to take Likenesses of sick or deceased persons.” By 1853 there were more such studios in Manhattan than in England, more on Broadway than in all London. By then, one magazine writer remarked, it was hard “to find the man who has not gone through the ‘operator’s’ hands from once to half-a-dozen times, or who has not the shadowy faces of his wife and children done up in purple morocco and velvet, together or singly, among his household treasures.”

As mechanized “daguerreotype factories” sprang up, driving down prices and speeding up delivery, photographers who sought an upscale clientele proclaimed themselves artists, not mechanics. Brady, to underscore his superior status and keep up with his migrating market, repeatedly moved uptown into ever finer surroundings. By 1853 his gallery on upper Broadway boasted satin walls, gilded chandeliers, and a mirrored parlor for the ladies.

The streets themselves continued to draw droves of daguerreotypists, especially in the latter 1850s, when new technologies made collection and dissemination of outdoor images easier. Such photographs could now be turned into lithographs, for reprinting in newspapers, and in the 1850s photographs became the basis of urban scenes published in Harper’s and Leslie’s.

Seizing on the latest technical improvements, Edward Anthony snapped freezeframe images of Broadway street life (including pedestrians caught in midstride) and mounted two such shots, taken from slightly different angles, on a double print card called a stereograph. Viewers could insert these into an inexpensive and widely available stereoscope, a double magnifier that produced the illusion of three-dimensionality. Oliver Wendell Holmes raved at Anthony’s ability to “snatch at the central life of a mighty city, as it rushed by in all its multitudinous complexity of movement!” By 1859 Anthony had over two hundred stereographs on the mass market and was hard at work on factories capable of producing thousands of such cards a day. Within five years there would be stereoscopes in parlors across the country, further enhancing New York’s position as the most visually represented city in the country.

Photographs of street life and urban residents were also touted as enabling a new, more veracious knowledge of reality. Soon, inspired by the new way of seeing, journalists and novelists were busy turning out what they claimed were “daguerreotypes” of city life.

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