In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Scholarly Journals
  • Newspaper Databases
  • Politics
  • The Penny Press
  • Slavery and Antislavery
  • Individual Newspapers
  • African American Newspapers
  • The Gilded Age
  • Sensationalism
  • Journalistic Discourse and Literary Discourse
  • Periodical Literature

American Literature Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers
David Grant
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0211


Though political scientists and historians of the 19th-century United States have always turned to newspapers as an important source, there has in recent years been a growing interest in newspapers as a distinct object of study among historians, communications scholars, and literary critics. Newspapers were not only publishers and promoters of important literature but also central to the culture of literary production and consumption. All the scholarship, by various disciplines, produced on newspapers is relevant to the ongoing project to historicize, interpret, contextualize, and theorize 19th-century American literature in all its varied relations to its readership and to the nation generally. Though circulation grew rapidly over the century, the reach of newspapers was not limited to official subscription lists or, later, to street sales. As both scholars and contemporary observers have noted, various mechanisms—formal exchanges between newspapers hundreds of miles apart, reading rooms, coffee houses, and the general cultural practice of reusing and sharing newspapers—meant that the readership for newspapers extended beyond their paying subscribers throughout the century, but especially in the antebellum years. Although in some senses newspapers may in the nineteenth century have ceded to magazines their 18th-century function of presenting a miscellany of material, for all practical purposes throughout the nineteenth century many newspapers, most often only four pages long, continued to play that role—they included poems, reviews, serialized novels, orations and lectures, cultural laments, letters from abroad, and reports on scientific discoveries along with the more expected news, random reflections or anecdotes, and editorial opinion. Through most of the century, however, the majority of newspapers devoted at least a quarter of their space to advertising. In the first third of the nineteenth century, party organs and commercial papers for the mercantile class grew to the point where they came to be seen as representing the two primary functions of the American newspaper. From the 1830s to the Civil War, various developments, including the penny press, the reform press, the religious press, and the African American press, changed the character of newspapers, even though their party functions remained uppermost. After the war, urban newspapers gradually grew in length and in the range of their coverage. Commercialization and the first steps toward professionalization began to change the mission of journalism, so that by the 1890s many urban papers more closely resembled newspapers of the next fifty years than they did newspapers of the previous generation.

General Overviews

Because newspapers changed so radically over the course of the nineteenth century, there are few overviews that both cover the period completely and are exclusive to the century. However, there are several highly useful studies that do one of the following things: cover part of the nineteenth century, deal with the nineteenth century as part of a cross-century account, or focus on a particular facet of newspapers to which the nineteenth century is key. Dicken-Garcia 1989 does the third of those things in its examination of how journalistic standards developed, and Baldasty 1992 considers the progress of business principles in the production and circulation of newspapers over the century. The cross-century overview Mott 1962 remains standard, and its divisions have continued to govern how newspaper history has been demarcated in the years since: the party press (1801–1833), the penny press and later party press (1833–1860), the Civil War and Reconstruction, the rise of the independent press (1872–1892), and the prominence of yellow journalism (1892–1900). Like Mott 1962, Emery and Emery 1978 puts the nineteenth century in the context of earlier and later developments. Lee 1937 analyzes the various technological and managerial advancements that ran throughout the century. The author of Schudson 1978 pinpoints certain decades he finds central to what he considers the democratization of newspapers. Huntzicker 1999 gives a balanced account of the period from the beginning of Jackson’s second term to the end of the Civil War. Barnhurst and Nerone 2001 considers the often-neglected matter of newspapers’ visual form. Nord 2001 views the history of newspapers as a matter of communities, both of producers and of readers. Nerone 2007, taking a more theoretical perspective on newspapers’ relationship to print culture than do most, examines newspapers for their changing role within other 19th-century cultural practices and beliefs.

  • Baldasty, Gerald J. The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

    Viewing developments throughout the century from the perspective of the century’s final decades, Baldasty examines newspaper publishing as a business. He sees the commercialization of the news as a gradual historical trend born out of various developments in the economy, the culture, and newspapers themselves. Like many scholars, he attributes the commercialization in part to a decline in newspapers’ party functions.

  • Barnhurst, Kevin G., and John Nerone. The Form of News: A History. New York: Guilford Press, 2001.

    Focusing on design, visual style, and images in 19th-century newspapers, this study also examines the relationship between politics and newspapers in the first half of the century and links the commercialization of newspapers, usually seen as beginning at earliest in the 1830s, to the market revolution covering the entire century, beginning in 1780.

  • Dicken-Garcia, Hazel. Journalistic Standards in Nineteenth-Century America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

    Analyzing public debates in the period itself on the public function of newspapers, Dicken-Garcia traces to these debates the standards, beliefs, and practices in newspaper reporting as they developed throughout the nineteenth century. Dicken-Garcia examines other causes of the newspaper’s development, but her focus is on how standards emerged out of public discourse around the problems bred by newspapers.

  • Emery, Edwin, and Michael Emery. The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

    Though often employed as a textbook over the years, this work is still frequently cited by scholars. It has appeared in many editions since its first publication in 1954, with the title The Press and America: An Interpretive History of Journalism. It is organized historically according to national events and trends in newspapers. In most editions, a little over a third of the work is devoted to the nineteenth century.

  • Huntzicker, William. The Popular Press, 1833–1865. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

    Huntzicker begins with the rise of the penny press, but emphasizes that most newspapers remained affiliated with political parties. He devotes two chapters to antislavery, African American, Native American, reform, and women’s rights newspapers. In his two chapters on the Civil War, he focuses on the government’s attempts to enlist the Northern press and on journalists’ dealings with the military. He concludes that newspapers in this period helped to define the debates gripping the nation.

  • Lee, Alfred McClung. The Daily Newspaper in America: The Evolution of a Social Instrument. New York: Macmillan, 1937.

    This study remains the most detailed account of the technological, technical, and economic conditions of newspaper production and circulation. Lee organizes his work not according to historical period but around different features of newspaper, such as advertising and management. For each of these matters, he traces the changes over the years from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century.

  • Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism, A History: 1690–1960. 3d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1962.

    Still a standard work frequently cited almost eighty years after its first publication (1941), the majority of this overview is devoted to newspapers in the nineteenth century. Examines individual newspapers and editors and charts various developments that have continued to interest scholars.

  • Nerone, John. “Newspapers and the Public Sphere.” In A History of the Book in America. Vol. 3, The Industrial Book, 1840–1880. Edited by Scott E. Casper, Jeffrey D. Groves, Stephen W. Nissenbaum, and Michael Winship, 230–248. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

    Though short, this overview is packed with valuable information and interpretations of the changes in newspapers’ role in the public sphere over the course of the century. With industrialization, the assumption that newspapers were “the necessary vanguard of print culture” (p. 231) was thrown into doubt.

  • Nord, David Paul. Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and their Readers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

    A collection of articles and lectures from a well-known historian and journalism scholar, this work covers a wide range of matters, many of them relevant to the nineteenth century. He divides the pieces between communities of production and communities of reception. Most of the pieces relevant to 19th-century newspapers appear in the first half.

  • Schudson, Michael. Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers. New York: Basic Books, 1978.

    Schudson interprets various developments in the nineteenth century as establishing the ideals, including the ideal of objectivity, realized in the next century. From this perspective, he lauds the penny press that began in the 1830s and the first steps toward professionalization at the end of the century.

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