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Society in Antebellum Period

The Penny Press

By 1860, the United States was one of most the literate societies in the world. Even counting slaves, who were mostly illiterate, the U.S. ranked behind only Denmark and Sweden in literacy rates. Clearly this created a lucrative market for novels, magazines, and print journalism, all of which were produced at record rates and sold to a much larger audience than ever before in Western civilization.

Popularity and Unexpected Consequences

In the 1830s, newspapers underwent a critical transition in America; the number of daily papers more than doubled. The average circulation doubled as well, and single copies of a magazine could sell as many as 300,000 issues. This rapid expansion was facilitated by new steam-powered presses that could print 4,000 sheets per hour by 1825, and 20,000 sheets per hour by 1847. Thousands of city dwellers developed the habit of reading the newspaper every day, and newspapers competed to obtain the latest information possible. Before this transition, papers had functioned as expensive merchant sheets mailed through the post office that gave shipping and price quotes, but not local news. With the transition in journalism that reflected the growth of cities, the daily newspaper-and the information it contained-was disseminated more rapidly to a wider audience. It contained all the developments of the previous day, which helped to establish the day as a key temporal unit of orientation in a rapidly industrializing country that increasingly relied upon clock time, rather than the natural patterns of daylight. Farmers did not have to "clock in" anywhere, though they certainly had to rise before dawn in order to complete their work; they toiled in sync with the seasons to get their crops planted and harvested. But the new class of industrial workers labored indoors and depended upon a salary that they could earn only through starting and stopping work at specific, pre-specified times. School quickly became the same routinized, clock-reliant process; thus we tend to take our form of time-telling for granted, but it was not always this way.

Beginnings and Obstacles

In 1833, Benjamin Day started the trend of successful one-cent papers with The New York Sun. The New York Herald followed two years later, as did several other papers in places like New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Newsboys sold the papers in the city streets, calling out the headlines, which became increasingly sensational as competition heated up and the papers tried to maintain their advertising revenue. Yet these papers were an urban phenomenon, restricted to the largest cities, and most Americans still lived in small towns, so their association with the penny press was usually indirect. When the Alamo fell to the Mexican army in 1836, it took over a month for many towns to get the news, as it migrated from paper to paper. Yet the advent of this new journalistic style helped to introduce the concept of the public's "right to know," which quickly became lauded as central to democracy and rooted in the free press.

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