The first half of the 19th century brought dramatic changes in transportation and communications to the U.S. The introduction of the railroad and the telegraph greatly accelerated the transmission and dissemination of information. At the same time, the demographic structure of the country was changing rapidly, with the population spreading to the West and concentrating in cities. These changes both increased the demand for newspapers and facilitated their production. In 1800 there were 200 newspapers being published in the United States. By 1860 there were 3000.1 Many of the new urban papers that were founded in the 1830s and 40s reached unprecedented circulation numbers. According to one estimate, the total annual circulation of all newspapers between 1828 and 1840 doubled from 68 million to 148 million copies.2 Some scholars also speculate that this expansion of the press was due to increased political participation of the working and middle classes, higher rates of literacy, and increased leisure time.3 Advances in printing technology, such as the Fourdrinier paper-making machine and steam printing presses, were equally important, since they allowed for newspapers to be printed faster and more efficiently.
At the beginning of the century, journalism in cities was dominated by the political and mercantile press, which tended to cater to particular groups of elite readers. But the 1820s and 30s saw the establishment of many new papers intended specifically for working men, free blacks, women, immigrants, and Native Americans, as well as for particular religious denominations, professions, or political causes like abolition and temperance. In this video, we will focus on one of the most significant developments in journalism of this period—the penny paper. These one-cent daily newspapers that began appearing in the 1830s were cheaper than the six-cent mercantile and political papers that preceded them, and they sought a new mass audience of middle and working-class readers. They proclaimed their political independence and strove to entertain their readers. They did not invent cheap pricing, the idea of political independence, or sensational reporting, but they took these elements of early American journalism and combined them in a new way. In doing so, they became some of the most successful and influential papers of the nineteenth century.
These new penny papers combined major innovations in pricing, distribution, format, and content. Instead of being subsidized by political parties, they began operating independently and targeting new audiences. Instead of merely reprinting foreign news or speeches, they expanded coverage to local news, human interest stories, court reports, and scandals. Partisan papers charged higher prices and also received extra support from political patrons or government printing contracts. Because the penny papers were cheaper and generally didn’t receive outside help, they depended more on advertising revenue, which was tied to circulation rates. The shift in the business model from offering expensive yearly subscriptions to vending individual copies by newsboys meant that the audience for these papers now included any literate person who happened to be walking down the street. Although the penny papers continued to report on “serious” subjects like politics and finance, the choice of content was not driven by party affiliation, but rather by what would sell the most papers. Benjamin Day, who got his start in the working class press press, founded the New York Sun in 1833, but its motto–“It Shines for All”–also indicates that he intended to reach a wider audience not limited to any particular group. With only 3 columns, the Sun’s early issues were about half as wide and half as tall as the typical political or mercantile papers. The Sun first popularized publishing police and court reports, which consisted of short descriptions of arrests for drunkenness, theft, and violence. Popular stories like these, delivered in brief paragraphs in a direct style, proved to be an enormous success. The Sun’s example was widely copied by competitors. As many as 35 penny papers were founded in New York during the 1830s, but only two–Benjamin Day’s New York Sun and James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald–managed to survive the decade.4
Bennett was one of the most colorful figures of American journalism, and his Herald attempted to surpass the Sun in its sensationalism. The Herald also pioneered the use of specialized columns and sections for financial news, sports, and local, state, and national news. Since the Herald and the Sun soon became major rivals, the two editors often attacked each others’ papers, citing errors, delays, and dullness, while proclaiming the superiority of their own publication. Although they claimed political independence, the penny papers were certainly biased, and, like the partisan papers of the 1820s, their content was strongly associated with the personality of the editor. Bennett was especially outspoken. For example, in this column from October of 1835, he taunted the Sun, casting aspersions on its success and reputation.
Despite their difference in size and content, the Sun and Herald would have looked very much like other city papers. Under the nameplate were nearly unbroken columns of close-set type, and there was often no discernible logic in the ordering of news items. Sometimes the items were listed by size5 or in the order in which they were received.6 Any illustrations were small and simple, and could be repeated many times on the same page. For example, a drawing of a boat could be used to draw attention to all notices about the arrival of ships. There was also little differentiation between ads and articles, so you might see an advertisement for sugar or leeches alongside a news item. Surprisingly, the front page did not always contain the most important news, since it could be filled with advertisements or stock material, such as poetry. The second page often included a summary of the most important news under the masthead. For example, an early issue of the New York Herald states that an arriving ship had brought what it called “highly important” accounts of upheaval in Spain, but “no important intelligence” from France. The ends of columns were typically filled in with short items about local events. As penny papers became more popular, they often expanded in size and price, eventually becoming as large as their competitors. The Herald grew from 4 to 6 columns, and weeklies could grow especially large, as you can see from this comparison of the original Sun in 1833 and the size of its eight-column weekly edition in 1846.
When Horace Greeley founded the New York Tribune in 1842, he wanted to make the penny paper respectable. Although the Tribune is often considered a penny paper, it sold for 2 cents an issue and received support from the Whig party in order to counter the pro-Democrat slant of the other penny papers.7 But Greeley was also too politically eccentric to fit within one party, and he tended to support idealistic causes such as temperance, labor unions, and women’s suffrage.
Despite their claim to speak for the common man, the penny papers also excluded some voices. In the autobiography of Willis Hodges, an early black newspaper editor, describes an incident in 1846, when Hodges wrote a letter to the New York Sun protesting its position on African American suffrage. According to the autobiography, the Sun refused to print it without a fee, telling him that the Sun “shines for all white men” only. The following year Hodges started his own newspaper, the Ram’s Horn, which received support from John Brown and Frederick Douglass.8
Because of the time and expense involved, there were few original illustrations in newspapers, and the use of decorative type and white space for emphasis was first seen in advertisements.9 Illustrations did not become common until the 1850s, and photographs did not appear regularly until the 1880s.10 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper was especially famous for its large, eye-catching illustrations. The tremendous growth of the penny papers also had important consequences for their organizational structure and business model. New printing presses allowed newspapers to print many more copies much faster, but the high cost of this equipment also made starting a new paper much more expensive.11 Newspaper staff also grew in size and became more specialized. The bulk of original material in early penny papers could be written by just 1 or 2 people. But by 1845, the Herald had a staff of 13 editors and reporters, in addition to 20 compositors.12 A large newspaper in the 1850s could employ 100 or more.
It’s important to remember that, despite the tremendous success of the penny papers, the majority of newspapers during the 1830s and 40s were partisan. Until the 1870s, political papers like the Washington Globe, the Albany Argus, and the Charleston Mercury continued to be important sources for information about political speeches, elections, and legislative activity. What took place in 19th-century American newspaper publishing was not a simple replacement of one kind of paper by another, but a process of mutual influence. The partisan papers became more like the penny papers by publishing more timely news, seeking wider audiences, and relying more on advertising revenue. At the same time, some penny papers adopted partisan practices, especially as editors became more managerial and had more time for politics.13
Penny papers often made claims about their own truth and impartiality, but, especially in their early years, they were filled with items that later proved to be invented. The most famous example of this was the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835, when the Sun published a series of articles claiming that astronomer John Hershel had discovered the presence of trees and rivers on the moon, not to mention blue goats and a hybrid race that was half man and half bat. The hoax was finally exposed by the New York Journal of Commerce, but not before the articles had been widely reprinted and the Sun’s circulation had nearly doubled. Even when it came to more local news, there was a great deal of room for invention.
One of the biggest stories in the 1830s was the trial of Richard Robinson for the murder of Ellen Jewett, a fashionable prostitute. One night in April 1836, Jewett’s body was discovered in a burning bed with a deep gash in her head. The trial attracted unprecedented attention, and the penny papers outdid each other in supplying lurid and conflicting stories about Jewett’s upbringing and character, and claiming to have inside information about the trial.14
The penny paper soon spread to other cities. The Boston Herald, the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and the Baltimore Sun were all founded as penny papers in the mid 1830s and early 1840s. Although certain characteristics of the penny papers also spread further south and inland, they were primarily a big city phenomenon. Because large eastern cities already had many established political and mercantile newspapers, the penny papers there had an entrenched rival from which they were compelled to distinguish themselves. In smaller cities in the South and West, however, the divisions between different kinds of papers were less distinctive.15 The example of Chicago illustrates this difference. As distinguished from Eastern cities, penny papers in Chicago met with little success. Instead, the political papers that became dominant in the 1850s, such as the Democratic Chicago Times and the Republican Chicago Tribune, gradually took on features of the penny press, such as sensationalism and the coverage of local news, but also preserved their party ties.16 One of the closest counterparts to the Eastern penny papers was the New Orleans Picayune. Established in 1837 by George Kendall and Francis Lumsden, and named for the smallest unit of Spanish currency, it became especially important during the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 as the principal source of information on the war for newspapers across the country. One of its most noteworthy contributions to journalism was its use of correspondents, many of them soldiers, to provide the most complete eyewitness coverage of any American war to that time.
Like today, city papers circulated beyond their home base. Many city papers were distributed regionally, and the biggest papers circulated across the country, typically as a weekly edition.17 In the 1840s and 1850s the city papers, especially the New York Weekly Tribune, had become quite successful at attracting country readers.18 Whereas country papers had traditionally focused on reprinting national and foreign news, they responded to this outside competition from city weeklies by publishing more local news. Thus, like the political dailies before them, the country papers also evolved in response to the tremendous popularity of the metropolitan penny papers. The penny press revolutionized the distribution, business model, and content of American city papers, and they set the stage for the newspaper as a mass-market commodity. This concludes Part 2 of the tutorial. The next video will cover the role of country papers.
Learn more about antebellum American newspapers from our guide to American Newspapers, 1800-1860.
1. Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690-1940 (New York: Macmillan, 1941), 216.
2. Dan Schiller, Objectivity and the News: The Public and the Rise of Commercial Journalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 12.
3. Michael Schudson, Discovering the news: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 35-39, 43-50; and Schiller, Objectivity, 15-17.
4. William Huntzicker, The Popular Press, 1833-1865 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999), 32.
5. Kevin G Barnhurst and John Nerone, The Form of News: A History (New York: Guilford Press, 2001), 62.
6. Huntziker, Popular Press, 165.
7. John Nerone, “The Mythology of the Penny Press,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 4 (1987): 391.
8. Huntzicker, Popular Press, 74.
9. Barnhurst and Nerone, Form of News, 78.
10. Barnhurst and Nerone, Form of News, 114.
11. Gerald J. Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 5.
12. Baldasty, Commercialization of News, 44.
13. Huntzicker, Popular Press, 35.
14. Andie Tucher, Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America’s First Mass Medium (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 27-45.
15. Nerone, “Mythology of the Penny Press,” 85.
16. Gordon Mayer, “Party Rags? Politics and the News Business in Chicago’s Party Press, 1831-1871,” Journalism History 32 (2006): 138-146.
17. Tucher, Froth and Scum, 171; and Richard B. Kielbowicz, News in the Mail: The Press, Post Office, and Public Information, 1700-1860s (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989), 62.
18. David J. Russo, The Origins of Local News in the U.S. Country Press, 1840s-1870s (Lexington, Ky: Association for Education in Journalism, 1980), 6-7.
Baldasty, Gerald J. The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
Barnhurst, Kevin G., and John Nerone. The Form of News: A History. New York: Guilford Press, 2001.
Barth, Gunther. City People: The Rise of Modern City Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Crouthamel, James L. Bennett’s New York Herald and the Rise of the Popular Press. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1989.
Hodges, Willis. Free Man of Color: The Autobiography of Willis August Hodges. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982.
Huntzicker, William. The Popular Press, 1833-1865. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Junger, Richard. Becoming the Second City: Chicago’s Mass News Media, 1833-1898. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.
Kielbowicz, Richard B. News in the Mail: The Press, Post Office, and Public Information, 1700-1860s. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1989.
Mayer, Gordon. “Party Rags? Politics and the News Business in Chicago’s Party Press, 1831-1871.” Journalism History 32 (2006): 138-146.
Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690-1940. New York: Macmillan, 1941.
Nerone, John. The Culture of the Press in the Early Republic, Cincinnati, 1793-1848. New York: Garland, 1989.
Nerone, John. “The Mythology of the Penny Press.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 4 (1987): 376-404.
Reilly, Tom. War with Mexico! America’s Reporters Cover the Battlefront. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.
Russo, David J. The Origins of Local News in the U.S. Country Press, 1840s-1870s. Lexington, Ky: Association for Education in Journalism, 1980.
Saxton, Alexander. “Problems of Race and Class in the Origins of the Mass Circulation Press.” American Quarterly 36 (1984): 211-234.
Schiller, Dan. Objectivity and the News: The Public and the Rise of Commercial Journalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.
Schudson, Michael. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books, 1978.
Tucher, Andie. Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America’s First Mass Medium. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.