By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
Newspapers have played an important role in our country’s history, probably more so in the 19th century than most other historical periods after the founding of our nation. It was during this time that the initial steps were taken to create a national press. Major figures set the stage and did so without the advantages of the technology we take for granted today.
One of the major milestones of the era and in the history of New York City and our nation was the advent of the penny press. This institution paved the way for inexpensive access to the literature of the day and placed the daily journals at the reach of the public, disseminating timely knowledge and information to the citizens of that time.
Between 1833 and 1855, there were essentially 50 daily, weekly, semi-weekly and monthly journals in New York. Foremost was the Commercial Advertiser, the oldest of our city’s papers, under the charge of Col. William L. Stone.
It was in these early journals that William Cullen Bryant, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper — who became world literary figures — would make their first efforts on the road to fame. These dailies were 6-penny journals and were distributed to regular subscribers. The newsboy was unknown until later.
The idea of a penny paper originated in the mind of a young medical student, Dr. Horatio David Sheppard. His plan was to have boys distribute the penny journals for 1 cent per copy; however, he found the journals to which he applied uninterested, until he met Horace Greeley and Francis Story, who were about to set up a printing establishment. They agreed to print his paper and allow him credit for a week, setting the price at 2 cents a copy.
On Jan. 1, 1833, he issued The Morning Post, but a violent snowstorm checked the sale and discouraged the newsboys recruited to carry out the planned distribution. Though Sheppard met his first obligation, the receipts for the second week scarcely covered half of what he had expended.
By the third week, the young printers, Greeley and Story, themselves in financial straits, were unable to grant him further credit and Sheppard left the ranks of journalism and returned to medicine.
The idea did, however, attract the attention of others, including Benjamin H. Day, who had owned and sold a publication called the Daily Sentinel. He now issued The Sun, the first penny paper ever published in New York. Though his more pretentious contemporaries sneered at his attempt, he found that a need had been met. The new paper caught the attention of the masses and in less than a year its circulation reached 8,000 copies.
In order to compete with his more powerful rivals, Day seized on the method for insuring his paper’s circulation without aligning the paper with any party and without subscribers. Harking back to the idea projected earlier by Sheppard, he advertised for boys to work for him for $2 a week and sent them out with 125 copies each to different areas of the city to cry out the papers for sale to passers-by.
In a short period of time — two to three hours — the papers sold out and the boys came back for a fresh supply, which was given to them at a new rate of 9 cents per dozen.
From this period dated the origin of the newsboy and his cry, “Read all about it,” which became a familiar call heard in every city of the country. The boys made the news business profitable to themselves and to their employers.
Before long, other publishers, noting the success of the experiment, began to publish an extra edition of their papers for the newsboys, and several regular distributors set to work establishing organized newspaper routes.
Residents of Queens might like to note that during this period two of our early mayors of New York City were from families in our area, Walter Bowne, whose term was from 1829-1833, and Cornelius Lawrence, who served from 1834-1837.
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is historian and free-lance writer.