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American Newspapers, 1800-1860: An Introduction


Note: Images referenced directly in the transcript are identified in square brackets.


Consider these two newspapers. [graphic: New York Times (New York, NY). March 8, 2012, p. 1; and National Enquirer (New York, NY). March 19, 2012, p. 1.] You probably make judgments about the type of content and the quality of information each contains simply by seeing the covers: how each is distributed, whether the information it reports is reliable, and what viewpoint it tends to emphasize. These judgments likely shape the way you interpret and use the information you find in each.

When using historical newspapers, it’s helpful to possess a similar knowledge of each newspaper’s quality, affiliations, coverage, and biases. This can be difficult when you are unfamiliar with a newspaper, especially if the newspaper is first encountered in a newspaper database, as a list of articles in a results set. Databases like 19th Century U.S. Newspapers enable you to search across a wide range of newspapers, but what you get is a jumble of articles. So while newspaper databases undoubtedly make it easier to discover articles in historical newspapers, they can also make it more to difficult to see each article as part of a whole newspaper, as its original readers would have. When you find a particular article, it is helpful if you can place it in its original context, and see it as its first readers might have seen it.

To help you put newspaper articles in their social and cultural contexts, we have prepared this brief overview of antebellum American newspapers. We will cover developments in the production and distribution of newspapers, and in the evolution of the concept of journalism. The full scope of this topic would include the construction of news as a cultural practice, and its reception by readers, which goes beyond what we can cover in a tutorial. We hope this introduction will help you begin thinking about newspapers in terms of their authors, publishers and intended audiences.

In the early 1800s, newspaper publishing bore little resemblance to the business it is today. Most newspapers had a small circulation, and were staffed by a very small number of workers. Division of labor in the newspaper publishing process – newsgathering and reporting, editing, and printing–was uncommon, though it became more so as the period progressed. Even in the larger, urban newspapers, the owner of the paper would usually serve as the reporter and editor. Apprentices often assisted with printing and delivery.

Although men continued to dominate newspaper work in this era, women sometimes worked on newspapers as writers, editors, compositors, and even publishers. If a woman did work on a newspaper, it was usually a country newspaper. On frontier newspapers especially, a publisher’s wife would assist her husband, and in some cases she assumed complete control when he died. Other women were writers, editors, and publishers in their own right, usually on a newspaper connected with a religious denomination, a voluntary association, or reform movement1. Margaret Fuller is probably the most famous newspaperwoman from this period, serving as a correspondent for the New York Tribune. In 1850 the Tribune’s editor hired another woman, Jane Swisshelm as his Washington correspondent2. During her career Swisshelm was published in many newspapers, including the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune3. For the most part, though, the city dailies were closed to women, especially on the printing side4. Women contributed more heavily to country, religious, and reform newspapers. The full scope of women’s contributions to antebellum newspapers will probably never be known, due to lack of documentation. Most newspaper articles were either unsigned, or signed only with initials or pseudonyms. This newspaper was published by a woman named Augustina Parsons5, but the publisher statement identifies her only as “A. Parsons” [graphic: Alabama Watchman (Cahawba, AL). Aug. 8, 1820, p. 1.].

The business of newspaper publishing was highly political politicized. While modern-day newspapers claim to be impartial sources of fact-based journalism, antebellum newspapers were often explicitly affiliated with a political party, and focused on delivering that party’s point of view. In return, the political parties subsidized their newspapers, and those subsidies were important to the business model of newspaper publishing. One way to subsidize a newspaper was through government printing contracts and other forms of political patronage. These printing contracts remained a significant source of funding for smaller and rural papers throughout this period. These newspapers then became papers of record for the communities they served. Given the smaller circulation and profits, newspaper publishers depended on the postal service as a means of distribution, and the government encouraged this practice by reducing the postage on newspapers. In contrast to higher rates for letters and other correspondence, a 1792 law set the postage rate for newspapers circulating in state or within 100 miles of publication at 1 cent, and out of state or beyond 100 miles at 1.5 cents. This law was modified several times throughout the 1800s, leading to the development of official classes of mail. Post office officials often worked as newspaper agents, soliciting subscriptions and collecting remittances.

Now that we have introduced the publishing process, let’s look at the newspapers themselves. Although you will find considerable variation, newspapers from this time shared some physical characteristics. First, all newspapers had a front page, at the top of which was a nameplate bearing the newspaper’s title. The nameplate also included information like place of publication, as well as the date, volume, and number of each issue . Some nameplates identified the publisher, price, and terms of subscription. A nameplate might also include a motto. Another common feature of newspapers was the masthead, sometimes called the publisher’s box. The masthead usually appeared inside the newspaper–in a 4-page newspaper, it usually appeared on page two or three. The masthead gave the name of the newspaper, often in shortened form, and sometimes repeated information from the nameplate, like the date, place of publication, or name of the publisher. The masthead might also identify other personnel associated with the newspaper, such as the editor. Editorials often appeared beneath the masthead. There was less consistency in how content was organized–some newspapers filled their front pages with advertisements, relegating news to the second and third pages; some reserved the front page for news; still others combined news and advertisements throughout. Even when the front page carried news, the most current news usually did not appear there, but on pages 2 or 3. That’s because the front and back pages were usually printed first, so that they would have time to dry before entering the mails. In this 1849 issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette, the latest-news was printed on page 3, while the front page [graphic: Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette (Milwaukee, Wisc.). Feb. 28, 1849, p. 1.] carried advertising. Most newspapers reprinted articles from other newspapers, and expected that their own articles would be reprinted elsewhere. With the introduction of the machine printing press in 1814, it became possible to print larger sheets of paper, and this became the standard for nineteenth century newspapers6. In urban areas such as New York or Philadelphia, papers competed with each other to be the largest, both in number and size of pages. Although smaller city papers printed fewer, smaller pages to keep down costs , the large commercial dailies expanded to six or eight pages, each with eight to ten columns of text7. This issue of the New York Journal of Commerce from the 1850s [graphic: New York Journal of Commerce (New York, NY). Jan. 1, 1856.] is 10 columns wide, and 8 pages long–a massive paper for its period. The New York Journal of Commerce was exceptionally large even for its day. More typically, articles were displayed in 5 to 8 columns, which ran the full length of the page. As mentioned earlier, it was not uncommon for a publisher to fill the front page with advertisements. The advertisements, which often occupied up to 50% of the available space8, were set in single columns with little graphic display, making them difficult at times to distinguish from news items. Half of this page is filled with advertising, though it’s difficult to tell from looking which are the advertisements and which the news stories [graphic: Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette (Raliegh, NC). Mar. 5, 1819, p. 3.]. Occasionally an advertisement might be embellished with a woodcut illustration, and the number of illustrations increased towards the end of this period. Even by the late 1850s, however, newspapers consisted primarily of text. Newspapers carried surprisingly little local news, sometimes none at all. Much of the news dealt either with government, politics, or commerce, but you can also find news about wars, disasters, science, medicine, agriculture, social controversies, religion, and crime. In addition to news, you’ll also find literary works like fiction and poetry.

There were different types of papers for different audiences. Political papers were especially popular in this period. A political paper, as the name suggests, covered politics and government. For example, the Washington Globe was a political paper affiliated with Andrew Jackson’s administration [graphic: Globe (Washington, D.C.). March 4, 1841.]. Looking closer, we can see that the majority of this page is devoted to reporting on the activities of Congress. Reading through the newspaper, we encounter overviews of election results, and notices of presidential appointments. This newspaper would be a good source for information on the Jackson presidency, the Democratic Party, or the federal government; but is probably not the best source for news about businesses or rural life. Because political newspapers were often operated by people close to the political leaders they covered, they can be both valuable and unreliable sources of information. For example, you would expect the Washington Globe to document accurately the Jackson Administration’s views on the Second Bank of the United States, but you would treat with skepticism any factual information about the Bank itself. As a Democratic party organ, the Globe was committed to advancing Jackson’s Bank policy.

You might be wondering how you can identify a paper’s political alignment? It’s not always easy, but there are tell-tale signs. For example, a motto on the nameplate might suggest a political ideology. In the case of the Globe, its motto “The World is Governed Too Much” declares the Democratic party’s anti-government stance. Sometimes, a newspaper will reveal its political affiliation in its title. This newspaper is obviously a Whig party organ [graphic: La Porte County Whig (La Porte, Ind.). May 17, 1845, p. 1.]. A newspapers might also publish its party’s ticket right below the newspaper masthead: this newspaper is a Democratic party organ [graphic: Mississippian (Jackson, Miss.). July 28, 1837, p. 3. ]. This newspaper, on the other hand, is a Whig newspaper [graphic: Vermont Watchman and State Journal (Montpelier, VT). Sept. 21, 1848, p. 2.] Keep in mind, though, that this was a period of rapid changes to the party system, so sometimes you’ll need to do a little detective work: this newspaper says it’s publishing the Republican party ticket–that would be the “Old Republicans” [graphic: Providence Patriot and Columbian Phoenix (Providence, RI). January 21, 1832, p. 2,]–not the National Republican party of John Quincy Adams, and definitely not the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln! If these measures fail, an examination of the newspaper’s editorials will usually reveal its stance: this paper, was probably not a Democratic party organ [graphic: no.070. “The President Has Refused His Signature to the Maysville Road Bill.” New Hampshire Statesman and Concord Register (Concord, NH). June 5, 1930, p. 3, col. B ,], though you would want to examine several editorials before deciding for sure. In any case, you can be fairly confident that a newspaper of this era won’t hide its political agenda, if it has one.

Some other political papers include: the Washington National Intelligencer, the New York Evening Post, the Baltimore Republican, the Philadelphia North American, and the Ohio Statesman.

Another common type of antebellum newspaper was the commercial paper. An example of a popular commercial paper is the New York Mercantile Advertiser. Commercial papers focused on the world of business and commerce. Looking at the first page, we see that it is entirely devoted to advertisements [graphic: Mercantile Advertiser (New York, NY). May 1, 1820, p. 1.]. The rest of this paper covers shipping news, prices current, and business information, often reprinted from other commercial newspapers. Newspapers like these were published for merchants and financiers. Some commercial papers include: the New York Journal of Commerce, the Boston Daily Advertiser, and the Charleston Courier.

One reason for the narrow focus of these early political and commercial papers was that they were published largely for commercial and political elites. They did not try to attract a general audience. These large daily newspapers cost 8 to 10 dollars for a yearly subscription, and were not sold as individual issues. Keep in mind that one dollar in 1840 would be approximately twenty dollars today, and that the daily wage for a laborer at that time ranged from 40 cents to 1 dollar9. These high prices made political and commercial newspapers too expensive for many people. By the 1830s, however, this situation had changed, and newspapers started reaching out to a broader audience.

Founded in 1827, Freedom’s Journal was the first black newspaper in the United States. Although Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspapers are probably the best known of the 19th century black newspapers, most African American newspapers of this period were not really abolitionist organs10. Instead they addressed the concerns of African Americans in the Northern communities they served: racism, violence, self-defense, the various colonization schemes, and strategies for self-improvement11. The black newspapers were published by and for the educated black middle class, which was characterized less by material wealth than the promulgation of middle-class respectability and morality. They were culturally and socially conservative in that they promoted temperance, self-help, education, and moral reform as solutions to the problems facing the black community, rather than resistance or revolution12.

Black newspapers had much in common with other newspapers of the era. They were founded to advance a particular platform13 and often advocated moral reform14. Like other newspapers of that time, they were usually short-lived.

Historians have not been able to identify any southern black newspapers from this period. There were communities of free blacks in the south, and it would be incorrect to assume that there were no newspapers serving these communities, especially since so many black newspapers were never preserved15. A newspaper might have been published in secret, possibly even without a printing press. We have, for example, a hand-written black newspaper from New Orleans, published in 186516.

The first Native American newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, began publication in 1828. This newspaper was an official tribal newspaper, and was founded in part to defend Cherokee land rights against the federal government’s emerging policy of forced removal. Other so-called “Native American newspapers” were published for Native Americans, often by church missionaries, like this newspaper published by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions [graphic: Ne Jaguhnigoagesgwathah = The Mental Elevator (Cattaraugus Reservation, NY). Nov. 9, 1848, p. 1.]. This newspaper was published for Indians living on an Iroquois reservation in New York . Native American newspapers of this period could be in a native language, or in English. If English was used, it was often because the publisher hoped to influence government policy toward Native Americans17. Historians have been able to identify approximately 15 Native American newspapers published between 1828 and 186018. Like many other newspapers from this era, particularly black newspapers, few Native American newspapers were preserved, and at most only scattered issues survived.

Shortly after the launch of the first African American and Native American newspapers, the first inexpensive daily newspapers began to appear These newspapers, called “penny papers”, further expanded the newspaper audience, and are the subject of the next tutorial.

Learn More

Learn more about antebellum American newspapers from our guide to American Newspapers, 1800-1860.


1. Robert F Karolevitz, Newspapering in the Old West: A Pictorial History of Journalism and Printing on the Frontier (Seattle: Superior Publishing, 1965), 173-79; Lewis A. Pryor, “The ‘Adin Argus’: The End of the Hand Press Era of Country Weeklies,” Pacific Historian 17, no. 1 (January, 1973): 6; Marion Marzolf, Marion, Up From the Footnote: a History of Women Journalists (New York: Hastings House, 1977), 12; Milton W. Hamilton, The Country Printer: New York State, 1785-1830 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), 71; Patricia Okker, Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth Century American Women Editors (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), 7; Clarence S. Brigham, Journals and Journeymen: A Contribution to the History of Early American Newspapers (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950), 71, 78.

2. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 847; “A Staunch Foe of Slavery” [Obituary for Jane Grey Swisshelm],” New York Times, 23 July, 1884, p. 1; Sylvia D. Hoffert, Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 3.

3. Hoffert writes that Swisshelm was also published in the Atlanta Constitution, the Washington Evening Star, the Boston Commonwealth, the Lily, the Liberator, the Kaleidoscope, the Ohio Cultivator, and the New England Farmer, in Jane Grey Swisshelm, 191.

4. Madelon Golden Schilpp and Sharon M. Murphy identify at least three other “great” newspaperwomen of this period: Anne Newport Royall, Cornelia Walter, and Jane Cunningham Croly. Great Women of the Press (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 21-36, 62-73, 85-94. Clarence S. Brigham identifies 15 women newspaper publishers working between 1800 and 1820 in Journals and Journeymen, 73.

5. Attribution by Brigham in Journals and Journeymen, 73.

6. Ralph Green, “Early American Power Printing Presses,” Studies in Bibliography 4 (1951-1952): 145.

7. Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History, 1690-1960, 3d ed. (New York: MacMillan, 1962), 294-95.

8. Fred F. Endres, “‘We Want Money and Must Have It’: Profile of an Ohio Weekly, 1841-1847,” Journalism History 7, no. 2 (Summer, 1980): 69.

9. Scott Derks and Tony Smith, The Value of a Dollar: Colonial Era to the Civil War, 1600-1865 (Millerton, N.Y.: Grey House, 2005), 307.

10. Frankie Hutton, The Early Black Press in America, 1827 to 1860 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993), ix.

11. Martin E. Dann, The Black Press, 1827-1890: The Quest for National Identity (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971), 16, 33.

12. Hutton, The Early Black Press, x-xiii. The portraits in this section are of: Justin Holland, musician, educated at Oberlin College, fluent in Spanish and English. See David K. Bradford, “Holland, Justin,” in African American National Biography, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e4897; Alexander Crummell, priest in the Protestant Episcopal Church, orator, educated at Queen’s College, Cambridge. See Benjamin Brawley, Early Negro American Writers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935), 299-305; Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, renowned musician. See Eric Gardner, “Greenfield, Elizabeth Taylor,” in African American National Biography, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e0231; Sarah Parker Remond, abolitionist, physician, educated at Bedford College for Ladies in London. See Karen Jean Hunt, “Remond, Sarah Parker,” in African American National Biography, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e0481; and Edward James Roye, son of an affluent merchant, educated at Oberlin college, became an advocate for black emigration to Liberia, and eventually served as that country’s fifth president. See Peter J. Duignan, “Roye, Edward James,” in African American National Biography, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e1186.

13. James P. Danky, and Maureen E. Hady, African American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), xxxi.

14. Hutton, The Early Black Press, ix-xvii.

15. Danky and Hady, African American Newspapers, xxxi; Hutton, The Early Black Press, xiv.

16. Handwritten newspapers were unusual, but not completely unheard of. See Roy Alden Atwood, “Handwritten Newspapers on the Iowa Frontier,” Journalism History 7 (1980): 56-67; and Warren J. Brier, “The ‘Flumgudgeon Gazette and Bumble Bee Budget’,” Journalism Quarterly 36 (1959): 317-320.

17. Daniel F. Littlefield, and James W. Parins, American Indian and Alaska Native Newspapers and Periodicals, 1826-1924 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984), xii; James P. Danky, and Maureen E. Hady, Native American Periodicals and Newspapers, 1828-1982: Bibliography, Publishing Record, and Holdings (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984), xv.

18. The number depends on how one distinguishes between a newspaper and a periodical (e.g. magazine). Littlefield and Parins, American Indian and Alaska Native Newspapers, 425-26; Danky and Hady, Native American Periodicals, xv.


African American National Biography. Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.  

Brigham, Clarence S. Journals and Journeymen: A Contribution to the History of Early American Newspapers. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.  

Brown, Warren. Check list of Negro newspapers in the United States, 1827-1946. Jefferson City: School of Journalism, Lincoln University, 1946.  

Danky, James P., and Maureen E. Hady. African American Newspapers and Periodicals: A National Bibliography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.  

——. Native American Periodicals and Newspapers, 1828-1982: Bibliography, Publishing Record, and Holdings. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.  

Dann, Martin E. The Black Press, 1827-1890: The Quest for National Identity. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971.  

Derks, Scott, and Tony Smith. The Value of a Dollar: Colonial Era to the Civil War, 1600-1865. Millerton, N.Y.: Grey House, 2005.  

Endres, Fred F. “‘We Want Money and Must Have It’: Profile of an Ohio Weekly, 1841-1847.” Journalism History 7, no. 2 (Summer, 1980): 68-71.  

Fogelson, Raymond D. “Sequoyah.” In Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.  

Green, Ralph. “Early American Power Printing Presses.” Studies in Bibliography 4 (1951-1952): 143-153.  

Hamilton, Milton W. 1936. The Country Printer: New York State, 1785-1830. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.  

Hoffert, Sylvia D. Jane Grey Swisshelm: an Unconventional Life, 1815-1884. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.  

Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.  

Hutton, Frankie. The Early Black Press in America, 1827 to 1860. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993.  

Karolevitz, Robert F. Newspapering in the Old West: A Pictorial History of Journalism and Printing on the Frontier. Seattle: Superior Publishing, 1965.  

Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr., and James W. Parins. American Indian and Alaska Native Newspapers and Periodicals, 1826-1924. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.  

Marzolf, Marion. Up From the Footnote: a History of Women Journalists. New York: Hastings House, 1977.  

Moran, James. Printing Presses: History and Development from the Fifteenth Century to Modern Times. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.  

Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism: A History, 1690-1960. 3d ed. New York: MacMillan, 1962.  

Nord, David Paul. Communities of Journalism: a History of Newspapers and Their Readers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.  

Okker, Patricia. Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth Century American Women Editors. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.  

Potter, Vilma Raskin. A Reference Guide to Afro-American Publications and Editors, 1827-1946. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1993.  

Pride, Armistead Scott, and Clint C. Wilson, II. A History of the Black Press. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.  

Pryor, Lewis A. “The ‘Adin Argus'” The End of the Hand Press Era of Country Weeklies.” Pacific Historian 17, no. 1 (January, 1973): 1-18.  

Schilpp, Madelon Golden, and Sharon M. Murphy. Great Women of the Press. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.  

“A Staunch Foe of Slavery” [Obituary for Jane Grey Swisshelm].” New York Times, 23 July, 1884, p. 5.