Search/Browse Primary MaterialsAllInteractive ResourceSoundVideoImageText

Search/Browse Interpretive Materials Historical Themes Lincoln's Biography Teacher's Parlor Cultural Tourism About this Site

Historical Themes

Print Culture

By Julie Roy Jeffrey, Ph.D.

Print this Page

Nineteenth century religion and reform were inextricably linked with the transformation of the means of communication in the early decades of the century. It is hard to imagine the spread of religious enthusiasm or reform sentiment without understanding how each effectively exploited print culture and contributed to technological change such as the development of paper making machines and the steam driven printing press. And it is hard to understand the character of print culture without seeing how both evangelical religion and reform promoted reading by creating easily understood and cheap forms of literature that could spread their message simply and quickly.

In 1838, Grenville Nellen announced to an audience in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that they were living in "an ERA OF PAPER, and the AGE OF PRINT." While this news could hardly have been a surprise, many of those in the audience could doubtlessly remember a time when neither paper nor printed materials were especially plentiful and when printed matter reinforced what was already known rather than conveying what was novel and new. Perhaps some also recalled a time when books were so costly that they were to be read over and over again and implicitly contrasted that earlier day with the contemporary habit of reading widely and less intensively, of hurrying through the latest newspaper or novel, and then laying it aside permanently.

The evangelical community, as part of its effort to spread Protestant values and beliefs, took the lead in this transformation of print culture. Statistics suggest the extent of the changes. In 1800, only a few religious magazines were being produced, but by 1850, there were 181 religious periodicals, millions of tracts, pamphlets, books of hymns, and other forms of religious literature in circulation. In 1830 alone the American Bible Society was printing over one million bibles a year while the American Tract Society was turning out six million tracts. While some of these materials were sold, the desire for profit was tempered by religious objectives. Rejecting the view of the market place that suggested that only those who had the necessary funds should have reading materials, the American Tract Society, for example, was determined to put its religious literature into the hands of all Americans. In a similar spirit of reaching readers whether or not they could pay, the American Antislavery Society would put in the mail more than a million free pieces of antislavery propaganda in 1835.

"Shall we content ourselves with the post-coach speed of the eighteenth century, in the schemes for evangelization, while all worldly schemes are propelled with the locomotive speed of the nineteenth century?" asked the American Tract Society. "Shall we creep along . . . neglecting all the increased facilities Providence has given us for publishing the great salvation, while steam, and electricity, and the printing press are left to become the agents of ambition, avarice, and revolution?" The answer was a resounding no.

Not only did the American Tract Society (along with other evangelical groups) contribute to the development of new technologies which enabled the organization to take full advantage of the economy of scale (it installed the first steam powered press in New York City), but it also introduced new and efficient ways of getting its literature into the hands of ordinary people. In the 1840s, deciding to move away from dependence on voluntary associations as the main means for distributing its publications, the American Tract Society created a highly organized system of paid agents who visited families and provided them with religious reading matter. By 1851, its agents had called on almost half of all Americans, selling 2.4 million religious books, donating 650,000 books to those who wanted them but could not pay, and giving away millions of tracts for free. (Tracts were always free.) The work of the American Tract Society alone created a large popular audience, perhaps the earliest mass media audience in American history.

If evangelical organizations led the way in the new print culture, others were not far behind. In 1790 92 newspapers were produced in the United States. Only eight were issued on a daily basis. A mere 70 years later, when Abraham Lincoln was about to become president, there were 3,725 newspapers. Of these 387 were daily newspapers while 3,173 appeared on a weekly basis.

In 18 30s, the production of a cheap newspaper costing only a penny created a new type of popular reading material and a new mass audience for newspapers. The New York Herald (1835), one of the first of these newspapers, was not affiliated with any political party and, like other penny papers, sought to amuse rather than encourage religious improvement or political partisanship. The newspaper offered a daily mix of sensational news, especially accidents, murders, and love gone wrong, with a plethora of ads (ads allowed the low price). The format was both direct and sensational with an emphasis on local private tragedies rather than on impersonal distant events. The local character of the penny press not only captured the imagination of its readers but also contributed to a new sense of community based on shared reading habits. The sense of connection that the penny papers fostered encouraged readers to write letters to the editor as if the editor was a friend or counselor

Only four pages in length, the paper appealed to a broad audience of readers, many of whom were members of the urban working class. While unable to afford the yearly subscription price of higher toned newspapers of the day, working class readers were able to spend a penny a day for the paper which they could pick up from one of the many newsboys selling the paper in the city streets.

Story and family newspapers, books and journals for children, new women's magazines, papers appealing to a specific religious or reform audience, highbrow literary magazines, political newspapers all poured forth from the printing presses. They widened the appeal of reading at the same time that they also created specialized markets and audiences. Godey's Lady's Book is one example of a publication developed for a particular group of readers, in this case, middle class women. Featuring full page colored prints that depicted middle class women in fashionable clothes in genteel settings, the magazine implicitly conveyed the message of women's centrality in middle class domestic life and gave visual form to the idea of the lady. Stories and articles reinforced a sentimental vision of womanhood although reform issues were also discussed (dress reform was one of the topics the editor favored.) While some women may have read the magazine for moral instruction, many must have read it for pleasure.

The idea of reading for pleasure rather than improvement or necessary instruction made some conservatives uncomfortable. Although popular printed materials directed at working class readers were designed to be read in the few hours of free time available, some critics felt that working class readers should be using this time to study something that would contribute to social or religious betterment. Other critics condemned novels, especially those aimed at female readership, as a waste of time and possibly morally corrupting. Despite the supposed threats of new genres and new attitudes to reading, however, the new print culture thrived as more varied and cheaper materials continued to become available in antebellum America and as improvements in transportation carried them to readers in many different parts of the country.

©Copyright 2000 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project