The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

The Rise of Penny Newspapers and their influence on Mass Media

Throughout the history of writing there have been significant advancements that have led to major shifts in communication technology. From the scroll to the codex to the manuscript to the printing press, technological changes have influenced how information is passed on to readers (Ong, 1984). These technological shifts are referred to as remediation by Bolter (2001). The incredible success of the penny press in the 1830’s in the United States was one of these significant remediations in communication. This radical change influenced not only the masses and mass communication but politics and educational policy in fundamentally significant ways (Saxton, 1984). Technological determinists such as McLuhan (1964) and Ong (1984) would have one believe that it was technological advancements that led to the success of the penny papers of the mid 19th century in America. However the incredible success and growth of these dailies was a result of more complex societal and cultural factors than technological advancements. Remediation, that is the shift in communication technology, continues to play a significant role in the written word.

Prior to the 1830’s in America, daily newspapers served a select group of people. Dailies were owned and produced for the upper class, urban, professional male (Saxton, 1984). However this class and racial disparity changed dramatically with the popularity of the penny press. In 1830 there were sixty five dailies in the United States with an average circulation of 1200 (Saxton, 1984). According to Saxton (1984) by 1850 there were 254 dailies with an average circulation of 3000. These dailies represented a significant change in not only readership numbers but also in content and class of people that read them. Dailies, such as the Sun in New York, were written to appeal to the working class. The content of these papers shifted from political polemics, public statement, commercial and foreign news to humour, sex, sports and crime and content that was of more interest to women and children (Saxton, 1984). There is some dispute whether penny papers were the first to make use of sensationalist content to sell papers (Nordin, 1979) however the cultural influence of these first dailies is undeniable. This change in readership not only led to the dramatic popularity of the penny papers but also led to a change in political and educational agendas.

The incredible popularity of the penny presses of the mid 19th century precipitated a change in politics in America and were the beginnings of mass media. The shift from dailies that served the rich elite to the penny papers that appealed to the masses mirrored the rise of working man’s parties in the United States (Saxton, 1984) specifically the Democratic Party as well as the abolitionist movement (Rhodes, 1993). Benjamin Day, the owner of the New York Sun, wrote (Saxton, 1984):

“there has been a great and decided change in the condition of the labouring classes and the mechanics. Now every individual, from the rich aristocrat who lolls in his carriage to the humble labourer who wields a broom in the streets, read (sic) the Sun;…Already can we perceive a change in the mass of the people. They think, talk and act in concert. They understand their own interest, and feel they have numbers and strength to pursue it with success…. (p.224)”

The papers were as described by Saxton (1984) initiated by artisan printers that promoted an urban ideology that was rationalist, secular, democratic, expansionist and fiercely egalitarian. Many of the owners of these dailies were proud of their common school education and had an egalitarian contempt for the higher learning of colleges and universities (Saxton, 1984). What is often not referred to in the literature is the tendency for penny newspapers to assert the racial superiority of Anglo-Saxon (Rhodes, 1993) and often portrayed Native Americans as savage and barbaric in order to justify westward expansionism and afro americans as “supplicant, kneeling and pleading for freedom” (Rhodes, 1993). However the ability to reach a mass readership may have facilitated the movement to a more democratic and egalitarian ethos in the United States as well as the beginnings of a popular voice for afro americans. This rise in the literacy of the working class man led to, as mentioned earlier, the development of the Democratic party. This shift in power from the rich elite to the masses certainly had an impact on politics in general not only in the United States but wherever mass media in the form of inexpensive dailies were produced. With the rise in readership came a rise in literacy. This rise in literacy coupled with the rise in power of the working class brought public education into the consciousness of the American people.

The incredible success of penny newspapers led to significant changes in technology. The popularity of these papers applied existing technologies and promoted new innovations (Saxton, 1984). Technologies imported from Europe were adapted and modified to meet the burgeoning needs of the American penny newspapers. Paper making moved from hand cranked presses to factory production becoming increasingly mechanized and steam powered. The search for cheaper methods and materials drove much of the technological innovation that occurred (Saxton, 1984). The result of this search lead to print and paper innovations that dramatically cut the cost of production. One of the most significant developments was the application of paper to the type by means of rotating cylinders made possible an output of two thousand copies an hour. When Benjamin Day started the very first penny newspaper, the New York Sun, he was producing 200 copies an hour using hand cranking technology. This rapid expansion of readership had direct influence in advancing literacy. The relatively inexpensive cost of the dailies coupled with the content that was more accessible to the masses invariably lead to greater and greater numbers reading. This in turn would have raised the general literacy levels of the population.

At times in human history certain technological and cultural advancements join in a confluence to enable phenomenal change. The rise in the popularity of the penny presses of the early to mid 19th century affected not only mass media but printing technology, politics and education (Saxton, 1984). No longer did the bourgeoisie hold the power and control of mass media. Rudimentary hand cranked presses that melded sensationalist content with a call to arms of the working class forever changed the political and educational landscape of the United States. The meteoric rise of the penny presses and their significant influence on thinking have only been eclipsed by the Internet and hypertext. If the penny presses are any indication the Internet and hypertext will forever change global culture.


Bolter, Jay, David (2001). Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext and the Remediation of Print. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey, London.

McLuhan, Marshall, (1964). Understanding Media: The extensions of Man. Signet Books. New York

Nordin, Kenneth, D. (1979). The Entertaining Press: Sensationalism in Eighteenth-Century Boston Newspapers. Communication Research, Vol. 6, No. 3, July 1979. pp. 295-320.

Ong, Walter (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the word. Routledge, London and New York.

Rhodes, Jane (1993. The Visibility of Race and Media History. Review and Criticism. Vol. 20. pp.181-189

Saxton, Alexander (1984). Problems of class and race in the origins of mass circulation press. American Quarterly, Vol. 36. No.2 (Summer, 1984), pp.211-234.

October 19, 2009   No Comments