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article number 492
article date 10-08-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Penny Newspapers Change Our American People, 1830’s
by Roger Burlingame

From the 1942 book, March of the Iron Men, A Social History of Union through Invention.

§ 1

THE AMERICA Franklin dreamed was just coming into being at the mid-century. The new culture which he foresaw and inspired took a long time flowering. If some of its fruit is, today, rotting on the vine, that is because of the violence of changes in the social and economic climate.

For nearly a century the plant grew naturally and normally, then, in the century which followed, it was forced into a rank, luxuriant jungle.

To us it seems a long time from the inventions of Franklin to the new enlightenment of which they were the seed. But in that interval a new nation took form.

We were not a new nation in the European sense but a new kind of nation in the world. The pattern was loose, necessarily elastic and inexact. The original United States could not be compact or even, in fact, united. The concept was neither a nation like France nor an empire like Britain.

It was a confederation or association of distinct sovereignties. Its design must allow for constant and unpredictable growth: the mechanism must continue to function no matter how many new, different, oddly shaped parts might be added to it.

It is one thing to hold a pattern tight, to preserve its rigid uniformity; it is quite another to keep it elastic. Of the two, the first is easier.

Consider a national organism based upon a written plan which must first allow the political sovereignty of its thirteen parts, which must next permit an indefinite number of new parts to he added each with its own sovereignty . . .

Consider a national organism which must then devise the means of uniting those parts at a given moment for defence or other emergency—but at the same time a means for allowing them to fall apart the instant the emergency is past; which will, nevertheless, extend a constant control over violent differences due to climate, terrain, soil, natural resources, racial conflict . . .

Consider a national organism which will eventually absorb a colossal invasion of aliens bred in rigid and compact social systems, distributing it evenly over a new loose aggregation of society and which will finally adjust to that union demanded by mass production, quick communication and the invention of machines.

Consider this phenomenon and you must conclude that no braver undertaking has ever been performed by any portion of the human race.

Under the Circumstances, the time it took hardly seems long; regarding the retrospect of the detailed problems, it is scarcely reasonable to be impatient with the slow, uneven maturity of the thought, art, social philosophy, national consciousness or, for that matter, material ease which Franklin conceived.

Looking more closely at the growth—which we may do, for it is now, in a sense, complete—we see an anomalous aspect. Union was inevitable, yet disunion was first necessary or there would have been a dissolution of the whole.

A loose confederation was essential to the completion of a continental state. Any attempt at a tight control in the beginning—any forcing of union before its natural arrival would have split the country into separate nations, violently antagonistic.

This was what had happened in Europe in earlier centuries.

The two phenomena are not perhaps comparable because of the wilderness factor, but it may be safe to say that, for the very reason of this factor, the antagonism would have been still more violent and, but for the elasticity of the American pattern, we might have, today, in North America a hotbed of conflict even more dangerous than the one we know in Europe.

On the other hand, once the geography was complete, it was necessary that union should come, that the scheme should he drawn together. Otherwise there would, in time, have been a drifting apart of the pieces to form new nations. These nations would have been less antagonistic, perhaps, than if they had been forced into being by political pressure but they would have been nonetheless separate.

Granting, then, these premises, how did union actually arrive. It was not produced by disunion. Nor was it, indeed, created by the people. It must, therefore, have come from outside.


A century earlier, it would probably not have come at all. If we will, for the purposes of clarity, do a little scene shifting on the historical stage and set the whole act of the United States a hundred years earlier, we shall multiply the difficulty of union to a point where it is virtually impossible.

If the United States had come into being in 1675, the chances are it would have drifted into a number of separate nations, no matter how beautifully flexible its Constitution had been. That is because the dynamic force of union was a technological force.

Invention is not a local matter. It is a composite of world thought. Its history is human, not national. Thus at the precise moment when the United States became geographically complete, the world level of invention was such that it could be quickly and effectively applied to the tightening of the scheme. It was not deliberately or consciously applied, but it could not be kept out.

Thus it became inevitable that the confederation which had been held together by political tolerance should now become a union through applied technological force. Without that force, no pressure of popular feeling and no intellectual effort in political science could have levelled the peculiar unevenness of our continent-confederation.

Looking back we see all these elements coming together as if by some superhuman design. We must not take that concept too seriously, nor think of the resulting reaction as a smooth and easy matter. It is dangerous to oversimplify beyond the bare needs of clarity.

The coming together of the elements produced violent conflicts; there were misfits, maladjustments, long intervals of chaos. Waves look smooth from the air and from high hilltops war-torn valleys seem happy and somnolent in the sunlight. This is too often the viewpoint from which we look at history.

The idea of union and democracy, as we understand those things, spread. largely, through the medium of the press. Nourishing the growth of journalism were such inventions as the railroad, the steamboat, the telegraph, co-operation of communications, all of which played their own distinct Parts in the union.

More directly impinging on journalism were the inventions of fast presses, composing machines, machinery and material for the production of cheap paper.

The history of printing in America makes a long and complex story on which we can barely touch.

§ 2

The belief that the newspaper existed primarily as a means of disseminating news arrived late in the history of American journalism. Slow as communications were in the time, say, of Franklin, the news reached the ears of the populace long before it could be written, set up in type, laboriously printed on a screw-press and distributed.

There remained, then, nothing for the journalist to do but to correct this news, to comment on it and to draw conclusions.

What space remained must be devoted to the arts, philosophy, the slow march of science, political trends, personal eulogy or attack, religion, household or agricultural advice, business discussion and so on. Interspersed with these matters were bad doggerel verse, anecdotes and what passed in that dark and slow-thinking age as humor.

News reached the people through lookouts who watched the sea, through expresses which carried the mail, through village gossips with a kind of sixth sense, from the wharves and especially through the tavern, where all travellers stopped and all townspeople went.

Largely news moved by word of mouth, and this was easier then because there were fewer people.

Some of the more enlightened seaports, such as Boston, organized methods of news-gathering in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Marine news formed the nucleus for this activity. The Exchange Coffee House on Boston harbor sent a rowboat out to incoming ships and brought back the news before they docked. Interested people came to the coffee house to get it.


When young Samuel Topliff took over the Exchange, he started a reading room in that coffee house in which there were seven books. In these the chronicles of events were distributed as follows: the first contained general news of the world, the second recorded ship arrivals at Boston from foreign ports with statistics on cargo, etc., the third arrivals from United States ports, the fourth clearances from Boston for foreign ports, the fifth ditto for other United States ports, the sixth ship arrivals at other United States ports than Boston, and the seventh was a guest book.

Topliff charged subscribers to the reading room the immense sum of ten dollars a year, but subscribers could introduce non-resident guests—thus information reached the countryside. Subscribers were, for the most part, merchants, and both they and their guests must have been looked upon as wise men by the common herd.

By 1818 the reading room had acquired great prestige along with “a good clock,” and many maps and copies of newspapers printed in various parts of the country. Eventually the Boston papers sent reporters there for news. Other establishments grew up in other ports, notably New York and Charleston.

But all this time the papers were printing comment and “literature.”

Then they became political—party organs. In a way they had an easier time influencing public opinion than if they had printed more news. It was not difficult to comment on “facts” or events assumed to be common knowledge in such a way as to create partisan feeling, for there was no check on the basis of the comment.

Eventually another paper with opposite views would print an editorial calling the first commentator a liar—sometimes very precisely that with other epithets added—but still there was no check outside the coffee house or tavern.

With libel laws still operating vaguely, editors often had recourse to an old custom and honor was vindicated by an exchange of shots, sometimes fatal. This persisted, especially in the South, into the late sixties.

It must not be inferred, however, that because the papers had other, supposedly more important functions, they printed no news at all. The reports of remote or important events were indeed, printed at length usually from the stories of eye-witnesses, but these stories like those of later weekly magazines had a retrospective and, usually, an editorial cast.

They were intended to give details not available to the public by other means. This was especially true of battles, reports of which were often brought home by soldiers who, in the earlier military activities in America, used to wander away from their units in a manner which surprise the modern warrior.

Important political events were also reported, being written up from speeches, handbills and so on. But the ordinary local doings of a town: crimes, arrests, accidents, fires, and even the passage of municipal ordinances and deliberations of local government were considered beneath the notice of the press unless they served some political or personal purpose of the editor.

And this brings us into the kernel of the early journalism, socially speaking. The press, during the formative years of the new nation was a class, not a mass, organ.

Newspapers cost at least six cents, a price which limited their purchase to people of importance and influence. At first this price was a necessity because printing and paper were expensive and notwithstanding Franklin, the advertising business had not reached a point where it could finance the sale of a publication at a price below its manufacturing cost.

Nevertheless, it exactly served the purpose of the editors, for in those days suffrage had property qualifications attached. Thus, in general, only voters could buy papers and only the more powerful of those, and papers were not thrown about then as they are now but taken home and treasured.

So the editor might sway precisely the persons he wished to sway and the rabble was left without an organ of opinion.

As suffrage qualifications altered and general literacy increased, it occurred to a few prophets that the masses might also be interested in some sort of daily reading. Certain political trends may have inspired this notion. The growing power of Andrew Jackson, shown in the elections of 1824 and 1828, sprang from a movement of the masses. Or, perhaps, they had been stimulated by certain cheap English papers which were beginning to have a considerable vogue in the United States.

* In 1824, Jackson had a plurality but not a majority and the House decided on Adams; in 1828 he was elected with 178 electoral votes out of 261; in 1832 he was reelected by 219 out of 288.

Political cartoons could be seen by the masses if newspapers could be bought by the general public.

At any rate, a penny paper, ’The Cent,’ was published in Philadelphia in 1830 and three years later came ’The Morning Post’ in New York.

Both died early deaths, partly because they had too little capital but partly, too, because the journalism of a cheap press was so little understood.

The first person to understand it and put it in practice was Benjamin Henry Day who started ’The Sun’ in New York in 1833. He was, of course, a printer by trade, having begun his journalistic career with Samuel Bowles on ’The Springfield Republican.’

’The Sun’ began on a shoe-string in bad times. A cholera epidemic had just swept New York and business was so bad that Day was ready to give up the job-printing establishment he was then trying to manage in New York. It was anything but a propitious moment to start not only a new newspaper but a new kind of newspaper. Yet ’The Sun’ was a success from its first issue.

If we put especial emphasis on the penny press rather than upon the older, more respectable six-cent papers it is because the cheaper device is more closely connected with the history of invention. Also it started a new era in American journalism.

“The object of this paper,” announced Day in his first issue, “is to lay before the public, at a price within the means of every one, ALL THE IMPORTANT NEWS OF THE DAY. . . ."

Within four years, three of Day’s friends, Swain, Abell and Simmons, had taken this slogan to Philadelphia and Baltimore and by 1837, the penny press had become firmly established in America.

The three papers started by Day’s little group have, at this writing, all celebrated their centenaries. A fourth, which has since disappeared, was James Gordon Bennett’s ’New York Herald.’

Payne says that Bennett had in mind a paper for those who were unimportant, an entirely novel idea at that time . . ." This expresses the idea of all the successful editors of the penny press. That is why they were successful.

But how did they appeal to the unimportant man?

First by following Day’s slogan and letting the news dominate the paper. As Johnson and his collaborators tell us, ’The Baltimore Sun’ made a “vigorous effort to inform Baltimoreans of what was going on in their own town. The rich and well-educated might be interested more in what President Van Buren was thinking, or what was going on at the Court of St. James’s, than in what was happening in Gay Street; but not so the masses.”

Accordingly the first issue of ’The Baltimore Sun’ was 13 per cent local news while the respectable six-cent American of the same date carried no local news at all and three months later the ratio of local news percentages in the same papers was seventeen to one.

“The point that the elite habitually overlooked was that a vivid account of the beating administered to a constable at the Fish Market, while it may not be edifying, is far closer to the lives and interests of the masses of the city in which it occurred than are the complimentary letters exchanged between Daniel Webster and a welcoming committee at Pittsburgh.”

Secondly, the penny press achieved its purpose by being politically independent. “Our only guide,” explained Bennett in the opening issue of ’The Herald,’ “shall be good, sound, practical commonsense, applicable to the business and bosoms of men engaged in every-day life. We shall support no party—be the organ of no faction or coterie, and care nothing for any election or any candidate from president down to a constable.”

Such a policy was revolutionary. It was incredible to habitual readers of the traditional press. They prophesied the early defeat of Bennett’s enterprise. That defeat might have been expected for another reason, because ’The Herald’ began with a cash capital of only five hundred dollars.

Yet the defeat did not come and Bennett, in the long course of his journalistic career, made a fortune which has been estimated at thirty millions.

The masses cared little for political parties. They had had their heroes like Jackson, and Harrison was to be another, but they preferred the direct stimuli of parades and campaign speeches to flowery and obviously prejudiced dissertations in the partisan press.

They wanted news and they did not want it colored with political dyes. They wanted intimate news and truthful news and they wanted it avidly. They got it from the new press. Eventually, as we see, this press had a profound political effect in the spreading of democracy and that levelling process which made union inevitable.

Meanwhile, we must explore some of the inventions which made the penny press possible and some others which it made necessary.

The old process of invention giving birth to necessity is constantly visible in the background of the history of journalism.


§ 3

Probably it was because printing had always been expensive that, even when processes were cheapened, the tradition remained that it was not for the masses.

Processes and material had, of course, greatly cheapened by the time the experiment of the penny press was tried, but the moment that press proved a success, it was obvious that the cheapening must be again and quickly multiplied.

The inventors to do this were there; they had been working, all along, at the problem, but it required success in the field of journalism to provide them with money enough to make their schemes workable.

The principle of the Gutenberg press had lasted into Franklin’s day. This was the simple principle of the screw exerting pressure from above. The movement of this mechanism was slow. The first improvements were in impression, not in speed. It took invention of a high order to make an even impression.

Students of printing have been mystified for five hundred years at the excellence of the Gutenberg pages, but it has been obvious that the factor in this was the genius of the artist almost superhumanly overcoming the gross imperfection of his machine.

Blaeu of Amsterdam improved the impression by passing his screw through a block from which by springs the platen was hung. This was early in the seventeenth century, but really serviceable presses did not arrive until the Earl of Stanhope made one of cast iron in 1798, when, in England, iron was becoming available in quantity for machines.

But by this time it had become evident that a principle other than Gutenberg’s screw was desirable.

The screw, by the great effort of the man who turned it, exerted a gradually increasing pressure as he increased his effort. This made the impression almost the direct result of muscular effort.

The need which all inventors of machines understood by that time was that this dependence on muscular effort must be removed, at least for several stages, by a proper multiplication of levers.

Printing offered a peculiar difficulty because the pressure must be gradually increased. This was solved by the toggle joint, one of the most ingenious devices in the history of mechanical application. If two pieces of metal are joined and made to form an elbow, the straightening out of that elbow will exert a gradually increasing pressure.

That is the principle and it is simple enough. Who invented it and who first applied it to printing is not precisely known; it first appeared in America in perfected form in the “Washington” press of Samuel Rust in 1827.

It is doubtful if Rust could have brought it to this perfection, however, but for the work of George Clymer, who was invincibly determined to eliminate the screw principle entirely. ‘The toggle joint eliminated it forever. It is still used on hand presses.

The patent lever press, with toggle joint, of John L. Wells of Hartford, Conn. From the ’American Journal of Science and Arts,’ 1842.

But by 1827, Europe had moved a step ahead of the hand. England was already entering upon the age of steam. America, at this point, was still using steam only for transportation—her greatest need. England already had seen the vision of steam-powered factories.

As early as 1814, when Friedrich Koenig, disheartened by the industrial backwardness of his own Germany, had already patented a steam press in London, one of them was installed there by ’The Times.’ Now the application of power to printing required the scrapping of all the old-press principles.

Koenig’s device was a cylinder press. With it, though a German invented it, we are primarily concerned: it was the first departure on which rapid printing, developed to its highest point in America, depended.

We must not confuse the cylinder press with the earlier and later rotary press which printed from a cylinder.* (This was earlier because the principle was first used for printing cotton and later because it was also the principle of the great Hoe presses.)

* Collectors of “firsts” insist that this was invented by Sir Rowland Hill in a credit which is palpably absurd as he never even constructed a model to see if it would work.

The cylinder press, properly so called, employed the cylinder to roll the paper over the type and thus eliminated in fact, the entire “press” principle.

Into this press, Koenig also introduced the automatic ink roller, made of a mixture of glut and molasses, and so did away with hand inking.

It was a beautiful machine and caused such fear and anger among London pressmen that it had to be introduced and assembled secretly.

There was a reason, at this time, for England’s superiority in presses, apart from the industrial revolution. The Napoleonic wars had created an immense demand for news even among the masses, who were considerably affected; hence journalism had advanced there over an America still remote, still in a heterogeneous chaos.

But in the thirties, as we have seen, this situation began to change.

It was in 1830 that Robert Hoe, an English immigrant in New York, first became interested in the cylinder press when he was given the job of repairing one which had been imported. Hoe, a carpenter by trade, had already begun press-building.

With the help of Sereno Newton, a real inventor, he built a press better than the English ones. Soon after this, Hoe died, leaving children who would create the business of making presses in America—a great family to carry on printing improvement for four generations and we may not know how many more.

This Robert was not, himself, an inventor: he was a gifted mechanic and an indefatigable worker whose life was sacrificed, at forty-eight, to the beginnings of articulate America. He worked himself to death.

The demand was already urgent. The 1000 newspapers per hour produced by the cylinder press, though a remarkable advance over the 250 sheets turned out by the old screw-presses were not adequate in the larger cities. So Richard March Hoe, the son, a true inventor, worked on faster methods.

It occurred to him to transfer the type to the cylinder. This was Rowland Hill’s undeveloped idea; Hoe thought of it independently and went to work at once on a practical application.

It presented a nice problem, making straight cut type to fit the converging radial planes of a cylinder. He solved it by "V" or wedge-shaped rules. This was in 1846.

In December, 1848, an article in ’The London Times,’ commenting on a similar invention, said, “No art of packing could make the type adhere to a cylinder revolving around a horizontal axis and thereby aggravating centrifugal impulse by the intrinsic weight of the metal.”

By this time Hoe’s “revolving type” press had been working with great success for two years in Philadelphia.

Hoe’s four cylinder rotary revolving type press. The forms of type were securely fastened to the central cylinder. It required four feeders. One of these presses was installed in the ’Ledger’ office, Philadelphia, in 1846.

The new Hoe press produced double the number of papers per hour. But, by this time, as we know, the penny papers were well established in America. This speed was no longer adequate to the desperate need.

Hoe met it by multiplying his cylinders until, eventually, he had a press which supplied 10,000 per hour. It required, however, ten operators.

The reason these operators were necessary was that the paper had to be fed sheet by sheet into the press. When one side had been printed, the sheets were run back for the next printing.

There were several difficulties in the way. One was the smudging of wet ink. Another was the fact that Hoe, with all his genius, had not mastered the continuous roll of paper.

The web press as we know it carries paper in an unbroken continuity through all the complex printing machinery.

William Bullock of Philadelphia invented a printing machine in 1865 which would draw on a continuous roll but it cut the sheets before they were printed and his mechanical substitute for human feeders—a set of tapes and fingers—was unequal to the required speed.

But by this time the Hoes dominated the press industry in America. Finally, by producing quick-drying inks and with the collaboration of the paper manufacturers, who after long experiment were able to produce paper strong enough to form a long web to run over a multiplicity of cylinders, they evolved the true web press which printed first and cut afterward.

It would be extravagant to attempt a technical description of the perfected web press. We are, after all, primarily concerned with the way these inventions kept pace with the news demands.

By 1846, the electromagnetic telegraph not only increased the demand for quick news but caused the enlargement of the papers. In the fifties, the new enlightenment of the country, through education, scientific knowledge and the beginnings of literature, multiplied the articulation.

Added to this, the all-absorbing question of slavery called for new tons of newsprint as well as paper and presses for books, pamphlets and magazines. Large scale propaganda began in this epoch and it called for the work, not of sporadic inventors but of men who must devote long, hardworking lives to the special mechanical problems of printing.

Printing from plates or stereotypes, now universal in news work, became successful during the fifties. The stereotype answered the need for:
- a medium of impression more enduring than type under the new terrific strain to which type was submitted;
- as a means of duplicating type matter;
- as a means of preserving composition for later reprint without the necessity of resetting, and
- as an improvement on type for the rotary press.

A stereotype was simply the reproduction of a chase or of a page of type on a metal plate. This was done first by making a mould in plaster or papier mache which could be used for casting a replica of a mass of set type for printing. A better process was devised by electroplating, though this was first used primarily for the printing of pictures.

Yet all this time and with all these inventions for cheapening and labor-saving, the most arduous process in the whole performance was still in its medieval stage.

Whatever the need of haste in getting out a paper and however fast steam presses may have helped, the preliminary job of setting the type was still wholly a hand job.

It would seem at first that the title of this chapter demanded an explanation of the most difficult and certainly the greatest American invention in the story of printing, even at the expense of our chronology. But it is not a question merely of years. The conventional measure of time should not prove an obstacle to the social historian.

But the invention of a machine for the setting of type belongs in an entirely different era of thought. Before it was possible, mechanical science must move over a historical and social border into a realm where very different social forces were at work—where, indeed, all society, or civilization if you please, had a different shape.

Meanwhile, too, new sciences, such as modern metallurgy, must begin and these sciences were not wholly the product of men’s minds but of a cohesive, united society as well.

We are still in the individualist stage in which occurred the adolescence of America. What was done after the structure of the nation was complete is another story.

Our task, at the moment, is to show how technology brought us to maturity so that we should emerge after the last great conflict of disunion as a close-knit body ready for the finishing process. The minds of the men who evolved that process and the technology which perfected it were produced not by the adolescent but by the mature society.

Advertisement from printing trade magazine, 1883.

§ 4

Perhaps no other single development was so vital to the rnaturity of American society as that of printing. The popular, news-printing penny press was essential to democracy.

It was equally important to union. Unpolitical as it may have been in intent, the mere knowledge of events which it spread brought into men’s consciousness a sense of other men’s doings, hence their thinking, their emotion and the motive forces which worked in them.

The telegraph soon lifted news out of the local sphere and so people grew accustomed to thinking over large areas. The city fish market became the state market, then the national market.

Why did a drought to the westward affect prices on a New York exchange?

Why was anti-slavery being preached in Boston while riots against the abolitionists took place in Utica?

Was it not a crime for sensational anti-slavery newspapers to be allowed a disturbing circulation among the slaves themselves?

If the mirage of California gold was fading, was it not high time for Philadelphia speculation to draw in its horns?

See, they are rioting against political abuses in Boston—but have we not those same abuses in Pittsburgh?

There is a trade union in industrial New Haven, why not one in industrial Lancaster?

Men have unqualified suffrage in Vermont, why not in Tennessee?

These were a few of the questions the common man asked himself when the telegraph-nourished penny paper came into his hands.

As it grew, it seemed to make all men equal at least in knowledge of events. Further it made them dependent upon one another. It would be better to wait for news from the West before buying copper, selling silver. Miners on the Comstock lode would have reason to strike if Washington made certain decisions.

So the press brought the first great blow to individualism. United we stand! The lonely pioneer was nearing the end of his trail. His next steps must depend on some action far in his rear. The industrialist faced competition, not from his neighbor but from a remote abstraction called the West.

There were new questions of freedom. Freedom of thought and word were one thing when they affected only the lives in a little community, but here was the Freedom of the Press affecting an entire economic system, imperilling the lives of an enormous section of the country.

If northern papers were handed freely about in the South there might be insurrection, revolution, race war. If hot words were printed too fast for them to cool—the same day, indeed, that they were uttered and hundreds of miles away—might not there even be war between whole sections?

The force of the press was uniting, to be sure, but what would happen when that force came into conflict with age-old, strong, climate-and-soil-determined economic forces? Would it not merely unite the people of a section where the other forces were alike against the people of a section where the other forces were also alike but utterly different from the first set of forces?

And this, as we know, was precisely what happened. The deep underlying factors were climate, soil, means of livelihood and old economic traditions aided by new inventions.

The cotton gin and Slater’s mills were remote causes of the Civil War. But the news-press was an immediate cause. It united the North about the factory and the South about the cotton field. It united the North about the tariff and the South against it.

Inventions in transport and industry had already united the North and West on fundamental needs of livelihood, but the press united them mentally and emotionally.

The final spark ran along the fuse of journalism.

But in our story we have not yet arrived at union. There was one more step. Eli Whitney had taken the first one when he thought of standardizing, making interchangeable, the parts of machines.

The development of his thought was one of the profound, inevitable causes of the union—the synchronization of the parts of a national entity.

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