Collectible 1600s & 1700s Newspapers
“History is never more fascinating than when it’s read from the day it was first reported.”
It might not be your first thought, but newspapers from the 1600s and 1700s are very similar content-wise to modern newspapers. Early newspapers contained reports on wars, natural disasters, listed items for sale, and published death notices. Sound familiar? Newspaper content hasn’t changed drastically in 300-plus years. It is interesting to read accounts from this era and realize how similar we modern folk are to our ancestors. It seems that people at their core are mostly the same, and to this day, want to read news covering similar topics. That being said, some aspects of newspapers definitely have changed.
What has changed are the dimensions (smaller then, larger now), the number of pages (fewer then), paper quality (higher quality rag linen then), and the format. Newspapers of this period typically had an inflexible format, meaning that if page three was dedicated to foreign news, even if the most amazing foreign event occurred, it would appear on page three, not page one—period.
Due to the time it would take to typeset and print an issue, breaking news of major events would often be printed on a separate sheet called an “Extra” or an “Extraordinary” that was delivered with the daily issue or sometimes was not distributed until the following day.
Much more can be said regarding newspapers from the 1600’s and 1700’s, but for now, please enjoy the Rare Newspapers dedicated page dedicated to original and historic issues from this era:
Catalog 250 is now available. This latest offering of authentic newspapers is comprised of nearly 350 new items. Some of the noteworthy content includes: a printing of the Constitution of the United States, an issue of The Royal Gazette from Charleston (1782), a 1659 newsbook we’ve never offered before, Winslow Homer’s famous “Snap The Ship”, an issue with the British response to the Declaration of Independence, coverage of Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown, and more. Key items which include the remaining items from the above may be viewed at: Noteworthy Catalog 250
Whereas the entire catalog is shown at Catalog 250, the following links are intended to aid in quickly finding items from the catalog based on era:
To view items from both the current and the previous catalog, go to: Combined Catalogs
This article is primarily taken from the April, 1996 edition of “Collectible Newspapers” edited by Rick Brown, whom we thank for this contribution. It offers some interesting insights into the printing & distributing of newspapers in the colonial and post-colonial era of the United States.
Newspapers from the latter half of the 18th century were relatively scarce. One factor was that early settlers were busy clearing the land & otherwise making the land habitable & sustaining. Plus only a small percentage of the population had reading skills beyond that of the basic rudiments. Although most towns of any size by 1715 had tracts of land set aside for schools, few actually had schools built & in operation.
Nearly all 18th century newspapers were edited & published by printers that had a general printing business and also printed pamphlets, books, broadsides, lottery tickets, etc. Many also sold merchandise, groceries, patent medicines, and a variety of other goods. Rags, which were used to make the paper , were scarce in the colonies so most of the paper was imported from England.
Newspapers were printed on wooden hand presses with each application of ink to paper requiring a pull of by lever and screw. It was not until around 1816 that the new iron Columbian press came into general use. Instead of a screw it used a series of compound levers that multiplied the pull of the operator. But still, all hand presses were slow & laborious. The forms had to be laid by hand and the ink was poor and of uneven quality. Types were frequently old and worn.
After the newspapers were printed, distribution difficulties were encountered. Circulation was confined, for the most part, to the towns in which they were published. They were distributed to the rural areas by post-boys on horseback and by stagecoach drivers. The roads were bad & the postal system was slow. Subscribers were few & the cost of an issue relatively expensive so newspapers were typically handed around from one to another so that a single copy was ready by many. Even those who subscribed often failed to pay for their subscriptions.
It has been estimated that the largest circulation of a single newspaper during the earlier colonial period was about 350 and that only a few reached this high of a number of circulation. By the 1750’s circulation for larger city newspapers reached upwards of 600 of each issue printed and during the Revolutionary War some newspapers boasted circulations in excess of 2000. By 1790 most newspapers were printing less than 1000 copies but the very popular “Columbian Centinel” from Boston was printing over 4000 copies of each printing date.
Despite poor equipment, limited circulation, nonpaying subscribers, poor distribution facilities & the general unprofitability of publishing a newspaper, the number of newspapers being published continued to increase as the years went by. There were numerous failures, but new newspapers were established to replace them. From 1704 to 1820 about 1634 newspapers came to life and died. Of that number only two-thirds of them lived beyond three years.
(originally posted in 2009)