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)
Today, June 14th, is Flag Day, which is based on the Continental Congress’ adoption of the 1st version of the American flag on June 14, 1777:
“Resolved, That the Flag of the Thirteen United States, be Thirteen Stripes, alternate Red and White; That the Union be Thirteen Stars, White in a Blue Field, representing a new Constellation.” signed in by the Secretary: Charles Thomson (as reported in the May 29, 1783 issue of The Connecticut Journal).
A major revision of the flag began on July 4, 1817:
“The flag of the United States is to be altered. — The Stripes are to be reduced permanently to their original number of thirteen; but the stars are to be constantly increased in number, equal to the number of the States in the Union. The first change to take place on the 4th of July next, and the change of every additional star after that to take place on the succeeding 4th of July and not before.” (as reported in the January 16, 1817 issue of the Boston Commercial Gazette).
Of course other more minor alterations have occurred as states have been added, but regardless of its exact form, today we are reminded to Fly ’em high and fly ’em proud!
Memorial Day – a day/weekend set aside in the United States to remember and give thanks for those who gave life and limb so we might have the freedom to enjoy what our Founding Fathers called “self evident inalienable rights” which had been bestowed on us by The Creator. In times of peace and abundance it is easy to forget the great cost that was paid by so many – that others might be free. It is with thin in mind I was struck by a March 20, 1861 issue of the Western Christian Advocate from Cincinnati, Ohio which provided details of General George Washington’s famous “Prayer at Valley Forge” (see below). The link above provides access to the full text of the article. Please enjoy (and appreciate) a blessed Memorial Day Weekend.
Just because the odds are stacked against us doesn’t mean we shouldn’t move forward. There are times when sticking to our guns is the right choice – regardless of our chances of success. This point was driven home in 1777 when Lord George Germaine presented his reasons why the American colonists had no chance of succeeding with their revolutionary effort before Parliament. If the American rebels had weighed the odds against them as itemized by Lord Germaine, they may have raised the white flag of defeat – and world history would have been forever altered. The full list of his reasons why the Americans would fail were printed in The London Chronicle of May 17, 1777. Thanks to our forefathers, they were driven by principle and not by the odds-makers of the day. Perhaps we should take a page from history and be driven likewise.
While reports of the events surrounding the skirmish at Lexington & Concord (1775) are few and far between, due to their undisputed importance, authentic newspapers with first-hand accounts are highly prized. A current archaeological effort in and around the area are sure to only increase public interest. The following article brings to light some of the recent finds:
Finding reports in centuries-old newspapers which read like they came from today’s papers are always fascinating. They provide interesting evidence that life today, in many ways, is not necessarily so much different from years ago.
A report in the October 12, 1776 issue of “The Pennsylvania Ledger” newspaper (see below) of Philadelphia contains a very interesting piece which accuses the manipulation of news, reading: “It is astonishing to see daily the insults offered by the Tories…since the news of the skirmish on Long Island; on the first report…congratulate each other…They have the effrontery to assert that it is much worse than reported, that it’s so bad that the Sons of Liberty are afraid to let it be known least the people should be discouraged. Is not this intolerable?…they propagate every intelligence they receive, taking care to calculate it so as to serve their own turn; its beyond a matter of doubt that they keep up a secret correspondence through the colonies in order to comfort one another to keep up their sinking spirits and to propagate falsehoods…” (see).
In light of on-going accusations by political parties today that news reports are manipulated to serve their own interests, it is fascinating to find the same happened during the Revolutionary War so many years ago.
Newspaper reports from the “other side” always provide some fascinating reading, such as Confederate vs. Yankee accounts of Civil War battles, or Allied vs. Nazi reports of World War II battles.
The same is true of the Revolutionary War. The “Pennsylvania Ledger” was a Loyalist newspaper and they spared little in criticizing the American, or “rebel”cause as they called it, for freedom. The January 21, 1778 issue has a fascinating letter which heavily criticizes Washington’s letter to Congress of October 5, 1777 (see below or go to this issue for full details). In the letter Washington puts an admittedly positive spin on his tragic loss at the battle of Germantown, which gives this writer a cause to respond.
He begins: “Mr. Washington’s letter to Congress…is perhaps the most extravagant piece of Jesuitical quackery that has been exhibited during the present rebellion. This heroic epistle abounds in deception, and incongruous contradiction in the extremely; it is calculated to mislead…”. His treatment of Washington doesn’t get any nicer. “This military quack…” is his next reference to the American leader, and he takes on one of the more famous quotes from Washington’s letter: ” ‘Upon the whole, it may be said the day was rather unfortunate than injurious.’ what a delicate and nice distinction here is held forth!…Who can help laughing at such an heterogeneous jumble of inconsistencies. Mr. Washington & his confederates have gained immortal honour by being suddenly put to flight by his Majesty’s troops…”.
Todd Andrlik, founder and editor of Journal of the American Revolution, and curator, author and editor of Reporting the Revolutionary War: Before It Was History, It Was News (Sourcebooks, 2012), has assembled and written a great piece of scholarship in regards to Paul Revere – specifically, how he was viewed by his contemporaries, using the lens of original newspapers of his day. An excerpt is as follows:
Because of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” most people think that Revere was critical to the start of the Revolutionary War. In trying to dispel Longfellow’s myth of a lone hero, modern scholars have portrayed Revere as just one rider among dozens on 18-19 April 1775, and argued that his previous rides for the Patriot cause might have been more important. A survey of newspapers from 1774 and 1775 shows that in fact those earlier rides had made Revere prominent enough that he did stand out in reports of the fighting at Lexington and Concord, even as Massachusetts authorities kept the extent of his activities quiet.
Paul Revere was a man who wore many hats. He was well known throughout New England for his engravings, his silver work, his Masonic fellowship and his political activity. Plus, in 1774 and early 1775, Revere worked as an express rider for the Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Massachusetts Committee of Safety. He frequently carried letters, newspapers and other important communication between cities, including Boston, Hartford, New York and Philadelphia. Revere’s early dispatches related to some of the biggest American events of the eighteenth century, including the destruction of the tea, the Boston Port Bill and the Suffolk Resolves. In December 1774, at the age of 39, he rode to Portsmouth to alert local Patriot leaders that the Royal Navy was on its way to seize gunpowder and arms from Fort William and Mary. Newspaper printers would eagerly print Revere’s tidings, frequently attributing…
This is a must-read article! View Todd’s scholarship in its entirety at:
Tabloid journalism was alive and well in 18th century America. If you thought “sleazy” reports were a concoction of the 20th century, you would be wrong, as newspaper editors had, for hundreds of years, few concerns about slandering those they found offensive or who were on the other side of the political fence.
The “Pennsylvania Ledger And Weekly Advertiser” of December 24, 1777” was a Tory newspaper (loyal to the King, not the American cause of independence) and on page 2 the editor printed portions of a letter from George Washington to his wife, intercepted on its route. Obviously no friend of Washington’s, he even publishes the letter as a separate piece and offers for sale in his shop: ” “The printer has received from New York a few copies of an intercepted letter from General Washington to his Lady, dated June 24, 1776, which he is now selling at his shop in Market Street. The following is an extract.”