A Brief History of Newspapers in Illinois

Newspapers have played an important role in Illinois history since their introduction four years prior to statehood. In 1813, Matthew Duncan, a friend of Illinois Territorial Governor Ninian Edwards, secured a contract to print the first edition of the Illinois Territorial Laws. In 1814, Duncan began publishing the Illinois Herald at Kaskaskia, subsequently the state’s first capital.

During the early 1800s, the population of Illinois was small, means of communication were rudimentary, and both money and labor were scarce. Population growth was slow until after the War of 1812 and the Preemption Act of 1813, when the influx of people into Illinois increased significantly. By 1815, there were nearly 20,000 settlers widely scattered throughout the southern part of the state along the Wabash, Ohio, Kaskaskia, and Mississippi Rivers. The relatively late introduction of newspapers in Illinois was probably due to its location between two larger population centers. To the east, Vincennes had begun publishing newspapers in 1804. To the west, St. Louis issued the first newspaper for Missouri in 1808.

The second newspaper to be published in Illinois was the Illinois Emigrant. It was established in Shawneetown on the Ohio River and was followed in 1819 by the Edwardsville Spectator. At that time, Edwardsville was the seat of Madison County. The town had about seventy houses, a courthouse, a jail, a bank, and a land-office which were all subtle indications of the rapid northward shift in population growth. Within the next few years, the number of newspapers increased along with the number of residents.

After 1824, the population of the Illinois River Valley increased rapidly as did the central portion of the state and the lead region of the northwest corner. Until the mid-1820s, there were no newspapers north of Vandalia, but in 1827 the Sangamo Spectator appeared in Springfield. In 1828, the Miner’s Journal appeared in Galena over two hundred miles to the north. Around 1834, the focal point for immigration shifted to Chicago, from which point the northern part of the state was settled. By 1840, the number of newspapers in Illinois had increased to forty-three titles that included daily, weekly, semiweekly, and triweekly editions.

The first weekly newspaper in Chicago was the Democrat, which was established in 1833. In 1839, the first daily, titled the American, emerged. During the next 20 years, 28 more newspapers appeared. John L. Scripps bought a third interest in the new Chicago Tribune in 1848, and the newspaper began to reflect his ideals. As senior editor, he originated distinctive editorials and market reviews and extended the scope of news service. Through his efforts, the Tribune increased in journalistic prestige, which would continue through later proprietors Horace White and Joseph Medill.

At the time of the Civil War, there were nearly 300 newspapers in Illinois. The first “patent inside” was issued from the office of the Herald of the Prairies in Chicago. The idea of the patent inside was to publish a supplement of articles that could be purchased by other publishers. Chicago quickly became the center of the patent inside industry. The Herald of the Prairies office was also used by Luther Stone to print his Watchman of the Prairies; both papers carried three pages of identical text.

The decade from 1870 to 1880 witnessed not only a doubling of the number of newspapers, but also the growth of the Chicago press. In 1871, the great Chicago fire almost totally destroyed the Chicago press by burning out every newspaper establishment in town. Amazingly, all of the major dailies reappeared on small sheets within 48 hours. Because of the devastating fire, the number of Chicago newspapers was reduced considerably, but those that were revived became prosperous again.

The 1880 census recorded 1,017 newspapers in the state, with each of the 102 counties in Illinois boasting at least one. There were publications in a variety of foreign languages, including French, Polish, and German. In addition to those newspapers devoted to news and politics, there were newspapers devoted to topics such as agriculture, commerce and trade, finance, and religion.

Particularly in Chicago throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, a large number of newspapers championed various political views, ethnic groups, and economic interests. Around the turn of the century, Chicago claimed one of the nation’s few Democratic African-American presses, the strident Broad-Ax. It was followed in the 1920s and 1930s by another important African-American title called the Chicago Defender. The Chicago Tribune took on an isolationist perspective in the 1930s, so the Field family decided to found the Chicago Sun to reflect a more internationalized perspective.

Due primarily to financial problems, the number of newspapers in Illinois had declined significantly by the last half of the twentieth century. Small town and special interest publishers increasingly had to accept mergers or simply cease publication. In 1880, a population of three million people was served by more than one thousand newspapers. By 1989, the number of current Illinois newspaper titles had declined to 745. The decrease in Illinois newspaper publication is a reduction of about one third of the titles that existed in the 1880s. Since statehood, the population of Illinois has increased almost fourfold to 11.5 million residents. Today there are more than 450 current newspaper titles published in Illinois.

Centralia Sentinel Original Press
Centralia Sentinel Original Press.
The original press of the Centralia Sentinel published in Centralia (Marion County) Illinois. This press is now located in the collection of the Centralia Area Historical Museum.

Learn More

Family Legacies: Celebrating Illinois Newspapers’ Heritage. Springfield, Ill. : Illinois Press Foundation, 2003.

Family Newspapers: Celebrating Illinois History. Springfield, Ill. : Illinois Press Foundation, 2005.

Family Traditions: Celebrating Illinois Newspaper History. Springfield, Ill. : Illinois Press Foundation, 2002.

Family Values: Celebrating an Illinois Newspaper Tradition. Springfield, Ill. : Illinois Press Foundation, 2000.

Illinois Press Association. Illinois newspaper directory. History of the Illinois Press Association. Springfield, Ill. : printed by Hartman-Jefferson printing company, 1934.

James, Edmund Janes. A Bibliography of Newspapers Published in Illinois Prior to 1860. Springfield, Ill. : Phillips Bros., State Printers, 1899.

McMurtrie, Douglas C. The Contribution of the Pioneer Printers to Illinois History; The Address to the Illinois Day Meeting of the Illinois State Historical Society at Springfield, on December 3, 1937. Springfield, Ill. : Private printing, 1939.

Scott, Frank W. Newspapers and Periodicals of Illinois, 1814-1879. Springfield, Ill. : Illinois State Historical Library, 1910.

Walker, Teresa J. & Erlandson, Rene J. From pen to press: women diversifying Illinois newspapers.

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