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)
Interest by historians in Washington’s first newspaper may well be eclipsed by the press upon which it was printed, as it had a fascinating history.
The “Ramage Press” was well traveled. It originated in Boston, was sold to a printer in Hawaii only to never be used as the printer purchased another press before its arrival, then was sold to California where it was transported to Monterey to Sonoma and then back to Monterey where it printed California’s first newspaper, the “Californian”, on Aug. 15, 1846. Both the press and the newspaper moved to Yerba Buena where the newspaper continued printing, moved then to Sacramento City where it printed the first issue of the “Placer Times” in 1849. It then moved to San Francisco, then to Stockton, then to Sonora, eventually becoming the first press on which printing was done in Oregon, and then the same for the state of Washington.
During the 1850’s Washington was part of the Oregon Territory. The old Ramage press made its way to Olympia and on September 11, 1852 the first issue of the “Columbian” was printed, Washington’s very first newspaper. Just six months later in 1853 the Washington Territory was created causing the printers, James Wiley and Thorton McElroy, to change the name of their newspaper to the “Washington Pioneer”. After another name change the paper continued until 1861.
The second newspaper in Washington was the “Puget Sound Courier” which began on May 19, 1855 at Steilacoom but the newspaper lasted for just a year. Steilacoom was the location of Washington’s third newspaper, done by Charles Prosch and titled the “Puget Sound Express”, which began on March 12, 1858.
The Dakota Territory organized in 1861 encompassed both present-day North & South Dakota. It was in 1889 when statehood was gained that the Territory was split into North & South.
But it was during the Civil War, in 1864 when two solders issued at Fort Union (present-day North Dakota) a newspaper called the “Frontier Scout” Only a few numbers were printed at Fort Union. A bit later it reappeared with a “Fort Rice, D.T.” imprint and a date of June 15, 1865, noted as “vol. 1, No. 1”. It is not known to have continued after 1865.
It was not until July of 1873 when the first permanent newspaper appeared in the Territory, located at the capital of Bismarck and titled the “Tribune“. It started as a weekly but 8 years later became a daily, which it remains to this day. It boasts that it has never missed an issue, although because of a winter blizzard it was forced to reduce its size & one number was printed on wallpaper.
Not long thereafter the second newspaper in North Dakota began, titled the “Express“, printed at Fargo on Jan. 1, 1874. The third newspaper, and in yet a third city, was the “Plaindealer” which published at Grand Forks in 1874 as well.
The Nebraska Territory came about as an important event in American history, repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowing new territories to be slave or free as their citizens desired. It happened in 1854 and within the year three Nebraska newspapers were established, all in towns on the west bank of the Missouri River: Bellevue, Omaha City, and Nebraska City. Curiously, none of these towns had a printing office. Each newspaper was printed across the river in separate Iowa towns.
The first was in Bellevue, titled the “Nebraska Palladium” which began July 15, 1854 printed in St. Marys, Iowa. But in November of the same year a printing press was set up in town and on the 15th the first newspaper printed on Nebraska soil was issued.
The first newspaper in Omaha was the “Arrow“, printed in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It began just two weeks after the “Palladium” and only continued through the end of the year, succeeded by the “Nebraskian” which was printed in Omaha beginning January 17, 1855.
The Nebraska City “News” started in the fall of 1854 and was printed in Sidney, Iowa although the printing office would be moved to Nebraska City on Nov. 14.
The first daily newspaper in Nebraska was the “Telegraph” which began on Dec. 11, 1860.
Gold was discovered in Montana in 1858 and a “town” immediately sprang up, named Bannack. A newspaper, title the “News-Letter“, was started but not being successful only lasted a few numbers. (Given its format and short life it is not considered Montana’s first newspaper by some, that honor given more commonly to the “Montana Post“.)
The following year a richer strike was made in nearby Virginia City, where the first issue of the “Montana Post” was printed on August 27, 1864. Its publisher, John Buchanan, sold the newspaper just two weeks later to Tilton and Dittes, and 4 years later when Helena became the state’s capital the newspaper moved to that location where the first issue from Helena was dated August 25, 1868.
The next Montana newspaper was the “Montana Democrat“, printed in Virginia City from 1865. It would be followed by a few more in the 1860’s: the “Montana Radiator” in late 1865, the “Rocky Mountain Gazette” in 1866 and the first daily newspaper titled the “Herald” from Helena late in the same year.
Collectors prize issues of the “Montana Post” from Virginia City, although those with a Helena imprint are the more commonly found.
The first settlement in present-day Michigan was in Sault Ste. Mari in 1668, yet it was about one hundred years later before the first printing press arrived in the territory. Detroit was founded in 1701 and it was here in 1809 when the Rev. Father Gabriel Richard brought with him a printing press upon which Jame M. Miller, a printer from Utica, New York, would published the first issue of “Michigan Essay; Or, The Impartial Observer” on August 31. A portion of the issue was printed in French. Only four issues of this newspaper have survived and they are all the first issue so it is possible it may have been also the last.
The second newspaper in Michigan was also in Detroit, the “Detroit Gazette” which began on July 25, 1817. Three of the pages were in English while one was in French. It succeeded for about thirteen years, expiring on April 22, 1830. The third newspaper was again in Detroit, the “Michigan Herald“, which began in 1825 and lasted for four years. the first French newspaper in Michigan was the “Gazette Francaise, which also began in 1825, which was also the year the first newspaper outside of Detroit was begun, being the “Michigan Sentinel” in the town of Monroe. By the 1830’s newspapers in the Michigan Territory became more commonplace.
Being a French settlement from the early 1700’s, it would be of no surprise that the first newspaper in present-day Louisiana was French: “Moniteur de la Louisiane” which began in New Orleans on March 3, 1794. Three years later it became the official mouthpiece of the government, and continued to print until the publisher’s death in July, 1814.
Louisiana’s first newspaper done by a publisher of English or American extraction was the “Union: New Orleans Advertiser and Price Current” by James Lyon, of Vermont, which began on Dec. 13, 1803. Just one day later Louisiana’s third newspaper began–a French publication–“Le Telegraphe, et le Commercial Advertiser“. Both these latter two endeavors began just a few months after the Louisiana Purchase. Actually “Le Telegraphe” began as a French publication but later changed to both French and English, a tradition which held true for many Louisiana newspapers at least through the Civil War.
The state of Iowa had various “owners” over the last 300+ years. It became a French possession in 1682, in 1762 was ceded to Spain, in 1800 it was returned to France, who in 1803 passed ownership to the United States under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1804-5 as part of the District of Louisiana it was under the government of the Indiana Territory. During the next seven years it was in the Missouri Territory, and from 1821-34 it was a part of the unorganized territory of the United States. From 1834-6 it was part of the Michigan Territory, and from 1836-8 a part of the Wisconsin Territory. In 1838 the Wisconsin Territory was divided & the western portion was named the Iowa Territory, which in 1846 was admitted as a state.
The first printing in the district was in 1836 when John King, who moved from Ohio to Dubuque, believed the town should have a newspaper and on May 11, 1836 began printing the “Visitor“, the first newspaper in Iowa. A year later the name changed to the “Iowa News“, and 4 years later to the “Miners’ Express“. Iowa’s second newspaper was the “Western Adventurer and Herald of the Upper Mississippi” (not sure how they fit that in the masthead) begun by Dr. Isaac Galland on June 28, 1837 in Montrose. It lasted for just a few months when the equipment was sold to James Edwards who took it to Fort Madison & on March 24, 1838 the first issue of the Fort Madison “Patriot” was published.
Indiana was the first state to be named after America’s original inhabitants, meaning “land of Indians”. When the Indiana Territory was created in 1800 it encompassed all of the present states of Illinois & Wisconsin, nearly all of Indiana, and parts of Ohio, Michigan, and Minnesota.
In Vincennes in 1804 Elihu Stout, a Virginian, printed the first number of the “Indiana Gazette“, the first newspaper in Indiana. It continued until 1806 when the establishment was destroyed by fire. Stout purchased a new printing outfit and on July 4, 1807 he resumed publication under the new name of the “Western Sun“.
It was the custom, and a natural one, for printers, in seeking new locations, to choose towns with promise of a prosperous future. In the undeveloped western wilderness such towns were believe to be only those located on navigable rivers. Such towns as Madison saw the start of the “Western Eagle” in 1813, and tow town of Corydon had its “Indiana Herald” begin in 1816; Vevay had the “Indiana Register” by 1816, and Brookville had the “Plain-Dealer” also by 1816.
Kaskaskia, a thriving town on the Mississippi River and the territory’s first capital, was the place of the first printing done in Illinois while it was still a territory. Mathew Duncan, a printer who had moved from Kentucky, began publication of Illinois’ first newspaper, the “Illinois Herald” in 1814. The name would change to the “Western Intelligencer” in 1816, and again to “Illinois Intelligencer” in 1818. Two years later it would be moved to Vandalia which had become the capital of the state.
The second newspaper in Illinois was the “Illinois Emigrant” which began on June 13, 1818 at Sawneetown. A year later the title was changed to the “Illinois Gazette”.
The first newspaper in Chicago was a weekly paper titled the “Chicago Democrat“, which began on Nov. 26, 1833.