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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Newspaper Records by Rhonda McClure. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
A Look at the History of American Newspapers
Though the American colonies began in the 1600s, the first newspaper that was regularly published was the Boston News-Letter, begun April 24, 1704. Boston’s second newspaper began on December 21, 1719, the Boston Gazette On December 22, 1719, Philadelphia published its first newspaper, The American Mercury and then on October 16, 1725, New York published its first, The New-York Gazette. These early newspapers were published weekly or semi-weekly. Shortly after the American Revolutionary War, daily newspapers began appearing, first in Philadelphia and New York.
The Publick Occurrences
| “The first and only issue was that of Sept. 25, 1690, with the title of “Publick Occurrences,” and at the bottom of the third page the imprint “Boston, Printed by R[ichard] Pierce for Benjamin Harris, at the London-Coffee-House. 1690.” It was headed “Numb. 1,” and was announced to be published once a month, or oftener. Since it offended the authorities and was without license, an order was issued by the Governor and Council suppressing it and forbidding its further publication.” (Brigham, History and Bibliography, p. 340).
This is considered to be the very first “genuine” newspaper to have been published in America.
Transcript of Early Boston News-Letter
Much of the news of those early colonial newspapers came by ship from England, and could be many months old by the time it appeared in print in the colonies. When it came to local news, it was often the culled from private letters or other newspapers.
| Benjamin Franklin was more than an inventor; he was also a trend setter. While he was postmaster of Philadelphia (1737-1753) he also still a printer. During much of the eighteenth century, it was not uncommon to find the local printer also acting as postmaster. This allowed the postmaster-printer to send out his publications using the postriders. |
While there were approximately fifty weekly newspapers being published by 1765, about half of those would cease production by the beginning of the American Revolution. Of those newspapers launched from 1690 to 1820, at least half would last for only a year or two. This brings the continuous publication of the weekly Connecticut Courant (now the daily Hartford Courant) from December 3, 1764 to today into perspective.
After the American Revolution, as the settlers began to look and go west, newspapers soon followed. The Pittsburgh Gazette began publishing in 1786 and the Kentucky Gazette, one of the earliest frontier newspapers, began publishing weekly in 1787 in Lexington.
The Virginia Gazette is one of those that would cease publication before the end of the American Revolution, but the information published in its forty-four years has become a valuable source of historical and genealogical information not only for Virginia but for some of the other colonial states as well.
The Virginia Gazette
As settlers continued to move West, heading out to California after gold was discovered, for instance, the newspapers soon followed. By 1860 there were about three thousand newspapers being published across the United States. Most of these were weeklies, with a few adventuresome printers publishing a daily.
Most of those early publishers operated on a true shoestring budget, many staying just one step ahead of bankruptcy. This probably explains why there are so many newspapers that did not survive their second year of publication. Though many of the newspapers were begun as a business enterprise, most of them struggled financially, at least in the beginning, and many of them never got the needed profits that would help them to continue.
By 1914 there were more than fifteen thousand weekly and daily newspapers being published in America. And if you consult the annually published Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media, you will have a reference to the current print media published not only in the United States, but also in Canada, along with radio, television and cable companies.
Small Town vs. Big City
Today, many of the newspapers that we find available are published by the bigger cities. It is not unusual to live in Orlando, Florida, and to have a subscription to The New York Times. With big cities comes a major change to how the newspaper is published and the information that is included.
Small town newspapers and those begun during the early settlement of a town or county may often contain more personal news about its residents than larger cities. As newspapers have grown, even the space allotted for local news events have been reserved for more pressing items such as politics or major news events.
Smaller town newspapers, especially during the nineteenth century would often have gossip and mention of church bazaars and other items of interest to the tiny community.
If you have used newspapers in any way while researching your family history, it is possible that you have wasted some of that valuable research time, especially when it comes to those newspapers published in the latter half of the 1800s in small towns and other rural areas.
Publishers in these smaller areas often purchased preprinted paper stock, known as “preprinted covers” by genealogists, but in the newspaper trade by the term “a patent outside.” Why is this important to the genealogist? It determines where in the newspaper you are most likely to find the local information. Preprinted covers made publishing the local paper easier, faster and more economical. The cost of the preprinted stock was cheaper than if the publisher had to go out and find and then pass along all of that national and international news.
Preprinted covers saved the publisher hours when it came to setting the type for the newspaper. Setting of time is a very time consuming job, requiring each letter of each word to be selected and placed in a form. Each of these letters was on a separate piece of metal type, thus the term typesetting. Because each word required its own letters, the publisher often could not afford as much typeface as he may have needed to actually print the whole paper. Consider how many of our words use the same letter two or three times. Publications on a shoestring budget then had to consider the cost in addition to the time in typesetting each page of their own paper.
The preprinted covers were not just purchased from a single company. By 1890 there were approximately twenty-eight cities that supplied such paper stock, so the information could vary, which meant that neighboring communities didn’t have the exact same paper with the exact same preprinted news.
| The father of the preprinted cover is generally considered to be A.N. Kellogg. In 1861 when he was publishing his own weekly in Baraboo, Wisconsin, his printers enlisted in the army, which left him severely short handed. In an effort to keep going he contacted a press in Madison and asked for half sheet supplements (printed in Madison) of war news to help fill out his paper. He quickly decided that this supplement would look much better if it were printed on one side of a full sheet and the pre-printed covers were born. By 1869 there were fiver hundred preprinted covers in the country and by 1890 Kellogg’s company was printing two thousand of them, which was about one-third of the total preprinted covers, and his company was supplying these preprints to twenty-nine different states and territories.|
Those early weekly newspapers were usually four pages in length. The preprinted cover the publisher purchased was a large piece of paper, folded in half, thus making four pages for printing. The first, or front page, and most of the second page were what was already printed. These sections carried the national and international news as well as a serial story, which is discussed later.
The front page did leave blank space for the local newspaper’s masthead, date and issue number. There was also usually a blank column along the left that was often used by the local publisher for area ads. Remember that in order for the newspaper to continue the publisher had to make money. Some of that came from these ads.
The second page could come either completely preprinted or with partially blank columns. The second page had the national news as well as a couple of columns of national ads. Local politics may have been placed on this page if there were blank columns available. This is also where you may find items of interest such as Sheriff’s sales and estate notices.
Page three was generally entirely blank. This is where the publisher typeset the local news, announcements of events, vital statistics, voters lists and more. Page four was often a mixture of both preprint and local items.
For the genealogist the page of such newspapers that is likely to have the most useful information is the third page. This doesn’t mean you should completely ignore all the rest of the pages in the newspaper, but you may want to start on page three and then look at the other pages of the paper to see what else you find, such as advertising.
Preprinted covers began about the middle of the 1800s and when they were no longer used was dependent on the publisher in question. As some papers began to make a profit, additional reports, typesetters and printers could be hired, making it possible for the publisher to get the necessary news and then have the manpower to typeset it. A few rural papers stopped purchasing the patent outsides in the 1870s, but most of them would continue to take advantage of this method of publishing a newspaper until the turn of the century.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Newspaper Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at email@example.com
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.
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