Newspaper circulation in the 1700’s (revisited)…

June 13, 2016 by  
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columbian_centinelWe often get queries as to what the circulation numbers were of colonial and later 18th century newspapers. Clarence Brigham, in his book “Journals & Journeymen” provides some helpful information.

The earliest comment on newspaper circulation in America was by publisher John Campbell in his Boston News-Letter of 1719. He notes that “…he cannot vend 300 at an impression, tho’ some ignorantly concludes he sells upwards of a thousand…”.

Famed publisher Isaiah Thomas remarked: “In 1754 four newspapers only were printed in New England…weekly, & the average number of copies did not exceed 600 from each press.”

Circulation gradually grew as the days of the Revolution approached. Rivington’s New York Gazetteer of Oct. 31, 1774 boated his weekly impressions “… increased to 3600…”, and Thomas noted in his Mass. Spy of Dec. 21, 1780 noted he had a pre-Revolutionary circulation of 3500 copies, then was driven out of Boston by the British invasion & established the Spy in Worcester. In 1775-6 circulation was 1500, in 1778-9 it was 1200, and in 1781 it did 500 impressions. He also noted that: “It has always been allowed that 600 customers, with a considerable number of advertisements, weekly, will but barely support the publication of a newspaper.”

Later Thomas noted that the famous Connecticut Courant of Hartford had a circulation which exceeded his Mass. Spy, that: “…the number of copies printed weekly was equal to, if not greater, than that of any other paper on the continent.”

In the last decade of the 18th century the number of newspapers increased, but circulation did not keep step & in generally averaged from 600 to 700. A few papers from larger cities were exceptions such as the Maryland Journal of Baltimore which claimed a circulation of near 2000. And the very popular Columbian Centinel would top the list of all 18th century newspapers in circulation with over 4000 per issue. Other popular late-18th century titles & their circulations included the Aurora with 1700; the Farmer’s Weekly Museum with 2000 and Porcupine’s Gazette with over 2000 in circulation in 1799.

But given these numbers, how many copies of any single date survived? A good question as certainly the vast majority were read and discarded. Outside of those held by institutions in bound volumes those which exist in collectors’ hands today almost assuredly came from deaccessioned institutional holdings and likely will be the only issues to see the light of day for many years to come.

(originally posted in 2009)

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