A Brief History of Newspapers

A Collector Information Web Page Provided by
Phil Barber, Cambridge, Mass. 02139 Telephone (617) 492-4653

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. -Thomas Jefferson, 1787.

For my part I entertain a high idea of the utility of periodical publications; insomuch as I could heartily desire, copies of ... magazines, as well as common Gazettes, might be spread through every city, town, and village in the United States. I consider such vehicles of knowledge more happily calculated than any other to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry, and ameliorate the morals of a free and enlightened people.- George Washington, 1788.

Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press... -Article One, Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution, 1789.

Here is the living disproof of the old adage that nothing is as dead as yesterday's newspaper... This is what really happened, reported by a free press to a free people. It is the raw material of history; it is the story of our own times. -Henry Steel Commager, preface to a history of the New York Times, 1951

The Origins of Newspapers

The history of newspapers is an often-dramatic chapter of the human experience going back some five centuries. In Renaissance Europe handwritten newsletters circulated privately among merchants, passing along information about everything from wars and economic conditions to social customs and "human interest" features. The first printed forerunners of the newspaper appeared in Germany in the late 1400's in the form of news pamphlets or broadsides, often highly sensationalized in content. Some of the most famous of these report the atrocities against Germans in Transylvania perpetrated by a sadistic veovod named Vlad Tsepes Drakul, who became the Count Dracula of later folklore.

In the English-speaking world, the earliest predecessors of the newspaper were corantos, small news pamphlets produced only when some event worthy of notice occurred. The first successively published title was The Weekly Newes of 1622. It was followed in the 1640's and 1650's by a plethora of different titles in the similar newsbook format. The first true newspaper in English was the London Gazette of 1666. For a generation it was the only officially sanctioned newspaper, though many periodical titles were in print by the century's end.

Beginnings in America

In America the first newspaper appeared in Boston in 1690, entitled Publick Occurrences. Published without authority, it was immediately suppressed, its publisher arrested, and all copies were destroyed. Indeed, it remained forgotten until 1845 when the only known surviving example was discovered in the British Library. The first successful newspaper was the Boston News-Letter, begun by postmaster John Campbell in 1704. Although it was heavily subsidized by the colonial government the experiment was a near-failure, with very limited circulation. Two more papers made their appearance in the 1720's, in Philadelphia and New York, and the Fourth Estate slowly became established on the new continent. By the eve of the Revolutionary War, some two dozen papers were issued at all the colonies, although Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania would remain the centers of American printing for many years. Articles in colonial papers, brilliantly conceived by revolutionary propagandists, were a major force that influenced public opinion in America from reconciliation with England to full political independence.

At war's end in 1783 there were forty-three newspapers in print. The press played a vital role in the affairs of the new nation; many more newspapers were started, representing all shades of political opinion. The no holds barred style of early journalism, much of it libelous by modern standards, reflected the rough and tumble political life of the republic as rival factions jostled for power. The ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791 at last guaranteed of freedom of the press, and America's newspapers began to take on a central role in national affairs. Growth continued in every state. By 1814 there were 346 newspapers. In the Jacksonian populist 1830's, advances in printing and papermaking technology led to an explosion of newspaper growth, the emergence of the "Penny Press"; it was now possible to produce a newspaper that could be sold for just a cent a copy. Previously, newspapers were the province of the wealthy, literate minority. The price of a year's subscription, usually over a full week's pay for a laborer, had to be paid in full and "invariably in advance." This sudden availability of cheap, interesting reading material was a significant stimulus to the achievement of the nearly universal literacy now taken for granted in America.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution, as it transformed all aspects of American life and society, dramatically affected newspapers. Both the numbers of papers and their paid circulations continued to rise. The 1850 census catalogued 2,526 titles. In the 1850's powerful, giant presses appeared, able to print ten thousand complete papers per hour. At this time the first "pictorial" weekly newspapers emerged; they featured for the first time extensive illustrations of events in the news, as woodcut engravings made from correspondents' sketches or taken from that new invention, the photograph. During the Civil War the unprecedented demand for timely, accurate news reporting transformed American journalism into a dynamic, hardhitting force in the national life. Reporters, called "specials," became the darlings of the public and the idols of youngsters everywhere. Many accounts of battles turned in by these intrepid adventurers stand today as the definitive histories of their subjects.

Newspaper growth continued unabated in the postwar years. An astounding 11,314 different papers were recorded in the 1880 census. By the 1890's the first circulation figures of a million copies per issue were recorded (ironically, these newspapers are now quite rare due to the atrocious quality of cheap paper then in use, and to great losses in World War II era paper drives) At this period appeared the features of the modern newspaper, bold "banner" headlines, extensive use of illustrations, "funny pages," plus expanded coverage of organized sporting events. The rise of "yellow journalism" also marks this era. Hearst could truthfully boast that his newspapers manufactured the public clamor for war on Spain in 1898. This is also the age of media consolidation, as many independent newspapers were swallowed up into powerful "chains"; with regrettable consequences for a once fearless and incorruptible press, many were reduced to vehicles for the distribution of the particular views of their owners, and so remained, without competing papers to challenge their viewpoints. By the 1910's, all the essential features of the recognizably modern newspaper had emerged. In our time, radio and television have gradually supplanted newspapers as the nation's primary information sources, so it may be difficult initially to appreciate the role that newspapers have played in our history.

For Further Reading

I. General Reference. American Journalism History.

-Emery, The Press and America, Prentiss Hall, 1972. A college level journalism text; fairly available, a detailed introduction to the subject, with very useful bibliography listing most important titles on the history of U.S. journalism.
-Thomas, Isaiah, The History of Printing in America. 1810, since reprinted many times. Classic, first work on the subject, by the famed publisher. Some inaccuracies but fascinating reading.
-Mott, Frank L., American Journalism, Macmillan, 1941. The most detailed general reference book on the topic, a one volume library.
-Mott, F.L., A History of American Magazines, Harvard, 1957. Extremely detailed 4 volume set, a marvel of scholarship.,

II. Union Lists. These are censuses of known surviving copies of early publications, used as rarity guides and general references.

-Brigham, History and Bibliography of American Newspapers, 1690-1820. American Antiquarian Soc., 1947. Very important 2 vol. set, extensive historical data on these earlier newspapers is included.
-Gregory, American Newspapers: A Union List of Files Available in the U.S. and Canada. Important reference for modern papers, first printed in 1936, listing papers 1820-1935. Reprint available from Kraus Reprint, Millwood, NY 10546, (914) 762-2200. Approx. List price $144.00
-Brown, E.T., Union List Of Serials in Libraries of the U.S. and Canada, 1965. Superb 5 vol. set lists magazines, periodicals of all kinds, U.S. and foreign, incl. some foreign newspapers; 156,499 titles in all. Available in reprint from H.W. Wilson Co., 950 University Ave., Brooklyn, NY 10452, (212) 588-8400. Cost $175.00.
-Stewart, British Union Catalog of Periodicals (1955 and supplements).

We have a modest Book List of new reference books available for purchase.

Internet Journalism Resources

The Internet is rich in resources of history, both of journalism and of the nation. We suggest you visit the following sites to begin your tour. You will discover many others; let us know about good new URLs you may come across!

Select the links below to go from this page to
Our Home Page Website Index Send Us E-Mail
Introductory Catalog
New Arrivals Index Early Leaf Catalog

Contents ©2001 Phil Barber.