Print Media & Mass Communication in 19th Century America

When discussing communication technology and mass media in the era before the internet and immersive digital multimedia projects, it is all too easy (and sadly, all too typical) to write off the entire period as hopelessly slow, full of mis-communication and as incomprehensible as Einstein would have been to Newton.  This entire notion is, of course, patently false. The nineteenth century was, much like today, a time of constant and barrier-shattering technological and social innovation.  Buoyed by new and improved technologies that transformed the transmission of information and population alike, the nineteenth century saw an astounding surge in both the printing and distribution of printed media in the United States.  Mass media, though present and reasonably available in the early 1800s, underwent an explosive growth in readership and diversity of content by the second half of the century that forever transformed the nature of mass communication. To put this growth in perspective, consider these statistics: In 1820, there were just over 500 newspapers printed in the United States, with a regular audience of roughly 300,000.  Within four decades, there were almost 3,000 newspapers being read by approximately 1.5 million people.  Magazines grew at an even more phenomenal rate than newspapers, jumping from just a dozen at the turn of the 19th century to more than a thousand at the outbreak of the Civil War.[1]  Coupled with the advent of other mass-market technologies, such as the first functional telegraph line in 1844[2] and the expansion of railroad networks nearly four-fold in the last quarter of the century[3], information and news could be transmitted throughout the United States with previously undreamt-of speed.   These developments, concurrent with a rapid rise in the population of the United States (growing from 5.3 million to 39.8 million between 1800 and 1870[4]), enabled news and communications in the form of mass print media to reach vast audiences. Within these increasing audiences, new markets opened for the consumption of more specialized news, information, and entertainment.  This proliferation was already in evidence by the 1820s and 1830s, with a new variety of inexpensive daily newspapers — the “penny paper” — aimed at niche markets: “workers, free blacks, women, immigrants, and Native Americans, … religious denominations, professions, [and] political causes like abolition and temperance”[5].  In addition to targeting specific audiences, the penny press could also provide a diverse range of content, typified by New York papers like the Sun, Herald, and Tribune, each of which boasted reporting on politics, crime, and scandals, along with classified ads[6], excepts and reviews of books[7], lectures, and poetry.[8] When discussing print media in the 19th century, researchers are truly spoiled for choice.  The diversity contained in works of the period is simply too immense to discuss without definite restrictions.  To that end, consider The Christian Recorder as an excellent representation of the role of print media in some of the broader social trends of the 19th century.  The Christian Recorder, a weekly publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, debuted on July 1, 1852, as a tool of mass communication and identity within the black population of the United States.[9] The centrality of the church within African American communities in the post-emancipation era has been exhaustively studied.  The accepted understanding is that the church served as “a foundation of the black public sphere”, serving as a venue for mass meetings, educational and recreational programs, social services, and communal bulletin boards.[10]  This position at the heart of community life made black churches ideal conduits for disseminating news and information.  Consequently, publications such as The Christian Recorder were able to reach wide audiences, through both direct readership and word-of-mouth. The Christian Recorder covered news and public interest stories deemed pertinent to its readership, and to the membership of its parent organization, the AME Church.  These included transcripts of sermons and theological studies, of course, but also more socially-oriented pieces.  One such piece, appearing in the April 14, 1866 issue, discussed the cultural differences and similarities in employing household servants both in the United States and in Great Britain, with citations of domestic and British news agencies alike.[11]  Another human interest piece, appearing in the March 31, 1866 edition, discussed the artistic exploits of Miss Edmonia Lewis, a black female sculptor cited by an English newspaper as now working in Rome, having previously lived and gained recognition in Boston.[12] Such an international sequence of events and its subsequent reporting within a Philadelphia-based national newspaper indicates the extensive global and regional communications networks made possible with the advent of effective international telegraphy and inexpensive, readily-available print media already discussed.

Left: Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) Right: “Forever Free” (1867) Source: QLiC Press

  This same nexus of global and interpersonal contact is much in evidence within the dense archive of public notices, advertisements, and announcements published in The Christian Recorder. In trying to understand just how extensive communications had become between distant communities, the pieces known as “Information Wanted” advertisements are of particular interest. These pieces were drafted by readers inquiring after the whereabouts and well-being of their family and friends. Separations within families and community groups were common in the antebellum era and the following upheavals of Reconstruction, largely as a consequence of the slave market and the displacement of civilians, respectively. With the “Information Wanted” ads, concerned citizens could call on the collective readership of The Christian Recorder to gather information on their missing loved ones. Often those placing the ads would request that ministers of member churches read the notices to their congregations, in an effort to cover more ground than would otherwise be possible. Consequently, persons now living as far away as Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Iowa could seek information from sources and about persons in Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana. As a direct result of the profusion of print media in the mid- to late-19th century, communities of free blacks and former slaves could work to find their missing friends and family with more hope of success than ever before. Drawing on available media to help develop and preserve their existing sense of community, African Americans were representative of the larger social and cultural developments during and after the Civil War. Reading and discussing had always been a part of American cultural even long before the Revolution, but it was in the 19th century that mass communication began to develop along a distinctly democratic notion that every citizen was free to participate in the discussion.


For further reading:

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The Church in the Southern Black Community

The Library of Congress, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers Accessible

Archives: Collections  (Requires subscription)


Resources Cited:

[1] Copeland, David. “Setting the Agenda in the Antebellum Era.” . (accessed July 22, 2014).

[2] Gray, Thomas. “The Inventors Of The Telegraph and Telephone.” In Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1893. (accessed July 22, 2014).

[3] Library of Congress. “Railroads in the Late 19th Century.” (accessed July 22, 2014).

[4] U.S. Bureau of the Census. “Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Part 1.” (accessed July 22, 2014).

[5] University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “American Newspapers, 1800-1860: City Newspapers.” Accessed July 21, 2014.

[6] New-York Daily Tribune, June 7, 1852. (accessed July 22, 2014).

[7] New York Daily Tribune, April 22, 1842. (accessed July 22, 2014).

[8] Library of Congress, “Chronicling America: New-York daily tribune.” Accessed July 22, 2014.

[9] The Christian Recorder, “The Christian Recorder History.” Accessed July 22, 2014.

[10] Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” Public Culture, no. 7 (1994): 107-146.

[11] “House Servants: Discussion of the Great Domestic Trouble.” The Christian Recorder, April 14, 1866. (accessed July 22, 2014).

[12] “The Colored Genius at Rome.” The Christian Recorder, March 31, 1866. (accessed July 22, 2014).


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