The Rise of the Penny Newspaper

Letter to the Editor Heading (The Cleveland Herald, 1881)

There is something to be said about the importance of stories on loose newsprint which contrast against the more rigorous stories bound in books. Ong (1982) argues that the technology of books allowed the author to take a single point of view and adapt to the audience throughout the work. Ong argues that this gave birth to “the reading public”. (Ong, 1982, p.133). It is the continued growth of this reading public that becomes interesting with the advent of the penny newspaper.  Just as the book gave rise to the private readings and interpretation of the bible so did the penny news open up the opportunity for a wide range of ideas to be published and made accessible to the seemingly insatiable demand for human interest stories by the American people. A demand that filled a need emerging from an increasingly impersonal lifestyle that came with the rapidly increasing urbanization of the time (Willey, 1942).

Willey (1942) argues that the newspaper is an important social institution and he identifies six major functions of the paper, including:

  1. News
  2. Editorial
  3. Backgrounding
  4. Entertainment
  5. Advertising, and
  6. Encyclopedic

Willey further argues that it is the combination of these functions that gives a newspaper it’s personality and that this is driven by consumer demand. In the penny newspaper these functions were somewhat mixed and are worthy of analysis.

This is a story of the penny newspaper’s impact on American literacy during the American historical period known as the antebellum. This is the period between the war of 1812 and the American civil war, and a time when newspapers began to diversify and  popularize thanks in part to a new financial model. In contrast to the elite newspapers and the emerging popular story newspapers (Edelstein, 2010), the penny news moved from home based subscriptions to an advertising model which appealed to street wise penny pinchers without the means to purchase the more expensive newspapers of the time.

This essay will attempt to align the penny newspaper’s rise with the technologies discussed by Ong and situate itself within an historical timeline to observe related social, economic, and political impacts. The penny newspaper changed the landscape of what news was reported and how it was distributed and consumed by a large pool of poor and working class citizens who were rapidly becoming literate and politically aware.

The Penny Press is an example of the continuing revolution of the printing press. The offset press allowed for the mass production of the newspaper which started with moveable print and progressed to mass production of copies that sharply reduced the price per copy. Penny newspapers arose with the working class movement of the 1820’s in England at a time when workers in England were becoming more literate through institutions like the mechanic’s institute and organized labor. (Kunzle, 1983). The phenomenon then swept to the east coast of North America, much to the ‘wild outcry’ (Providence Patriot, 1834) of the more elitist publishers.

As the news for the poorer classes developed the elitist papers were impacted financially and politically by the poorer classes having a public voice for their interests. According to an article written by a Penny Press competitor of the time, the elitist press quickly lost ground in the reading market place. (Providence Patriot, 1834).

The elitist papers began publishing self interest sentiments, attacking the Penny Press and justifying their own existence, “by their cheapness and small size they are rapidly undermining the greater establishments … such as the Times, The Herald, and the Morning Chronical” (Herald, 1837). As the founding papers struggled economically and politically, and the penny presses began to cover news of interest to the critical mass of lower income populace, the elitist papers began accusatory articles against the penny press for promoting civil unrest. For example, in a Herald article from 1837 the author accuses the penny press directly for inciting flour rioters and appeals for a calm political process, which of course would protect the interests of its wealthier target audience. (Herald, 1837).

A significant economic change of the time was the move from a paid subscription base to an advertising base. What is interesting about this shift is that the line between advertising, news, and entertainment functions are not so clear. An article about an educational game, Educo, from 1894 is a good example of the blurred lines (The Penny Press, 1894). The article is written as a piece of news with a free give away from the paper but clearly pitches the sale of a product, an educational game which the article cites credible sources to promote the product. The author then turns “The Penny Press” into an individual with an opinion (editorial function) with the use of phrases such as “The Penny Press makes this offer after having convinced itself, through personal examination, and investigation, of the merits of the game…” Articles such as these are a reminder that while the penny newspapers may have given voice to issues that concern the poorer classes, they were still run by men with money and their own agendas.

Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., great-grandson of the wealthy railroad tycoon, was one such man with an agenda. Vanderbilt was responsible for continuing the move of the penny newspaper westward with enough enthusiasm to be called a crusade and for him to be disdained in the news as trying to become “The Great Commoner”. Vanderbilt favoured unions and engaged in direct attacks against the pre-existing elitist newspapers. However, Vanderbilt failed to recognize the importance of the advertising and penny models as well as the power of a sensational story, opting instead for less exciting but concise photo based news stories. Not surprisingly Vanderbilt was not as successful as his eastern counterparts and he ended his pursuit in failure after thirty years of trying. (Hensher, 1976).

Although the penny newspapers are often cited for their sensationalist news coverage it is important to remember that traditional newspapers were not innocent in this respect. In Cohen and Cohen’s (1841) review of news coverage of Emerson’s writings about New England Transcendentalism, they take an elitist paper to task stating “This attitude might be expected of a penny paper catering to the poor man” while at the same time acknowledging penny newspapers for being ‘bristling with social consciousness” (Cohen and Cohen, 1841, p. 517),

This social consciousness is reflective of the common sentiment of a given people in a given region and a stark contrast can be seen when considering Northern and Southern opinions on abolition at the time. A good example is Turner’s (1955) essay about news coverage of the authors Twain and Cable. Turner quotes Southern news articles calling Cable a ‘traitor to his section’ for his views on abolition. (Turner, 1955, p.20).

The popularity of the Penny Newspaper required that the elitist newspapers acknowledged and responsded to their articles, giving rise to evidence of a more democratic press environment. Even with derogatory headings like:

“Two Catholic Clergymen Deny the Truth of Sentiments Attributed to Them by the Penny Press” (The Cleveland Herald, 1882)

we can see evidence of the democratic process in action. Even if it is unlikely that readers of the Penny Press could afford to buy and read the article in The Cleveland Herald, at least the wheels of democracy were continuing to turn. Willey (1942) said it well, that the newspaper is a social construct and is driven by the desires of the people in a time and place and as such will continue to evolve accordingly. The Penny Press is only a memory but it is an excellent example of how a type of newspaper can create its own personality based on the six major functions of a newspaper, which are still in evidence today.


Muhlhauser, F. [letter to the editor]. (1881, March 17). Voice of the people: an answer to the Penny Press. The Cleveland Herald, p. 3. Retrieved online October 14, 2011 from the Gale database.

The Cleveland Herald. [interviews] (1882, October 9). Penny Press interviews two catholic clergymen deny the truth of statements attributed to them by the Penny Press. The Cleveland Herald, Issue 240; col B. Retrieved online October 17, 2011 from the Gale database.

Cohen, B.B. and Cohen, L.A. (1956). A penny paper’s review of Emerson’s essays. (1841). The New England Quarterly, 29(4), 516-521. Retrieved online September 15, 2011 from

Edelstein, S. (2010). Metamorphosis of the newsboy: E.D.E.N. Southworth’s the hidden hand and the antebellum story-paper. Studies in American Fiction. 37(1), 29-53. Retrieved online October 14, 2011 from

Hensher, A. (1976). “Penny Papers”: The Vanderbilt Newspaper Crusade in California Historical Quarterly. 55(2), 162-169. Retrieved September 15, 2011 from

Kunzle, D. (Winter, 1983). Between broadsheet caricature and “Punch”: Cheap newspaper cuts for the lower classes in the 1830s. Art Journal: The Issue of Caricature 43(4), 339-346. Retrieved online September 15, 2011 from

Ong, W. (1982). Ong, Walter. Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

The Penny Press. [news] (1894, January 16). Educo Chance for Teachers to Get the Game by Applying at the Penny Press. The Penny Press (Minneapolis, MN), p. 3; Issue 75; col A. Retrieved online October 17, 2011 from the Gale database.

The Herald. [news] (1837, February 21). The Penny Press and Flour Rioters. The Herald (New York). Issue 294. Col. A. Retrieved online October 17, 2011 from the Gale database.

Providence Patriot, Columbian Phenix. [news] (1834, November 29). The daily newspaper of London are raising a wild outcry against what is termed the “Penny Press.” Papers similar to those which have been lately issued in this country. Providence Patriot, Columbian Phenix. Issue 87/36, Col. F. Retrieved online October 17, 2011 from the Gale Database.

Turner, A. (1955). Mark Twain, Cable, and “A Professional Newspaper Liar”. The New England Quarterly. 28(1). Pp. 18-33. Retrieved September 15, 2011 from

Willey, M.M. (1942). The functions of the newspaper. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, (219). The Press in the Contemporary Scene. Pp. 18-234.Retrieved online September 15, 2011 from

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