Hi! Amanda Cabot here. For me, one of the more enjoyable aspects of writing historical fiction is doing the research. I never fail to find at least one tidbit that intrigues me enough to include it in the book. As someone who once aspired to be a newspaper reporter, I had fun researching nineteenth century newspapers while I created a hero who owns a paper. That’s why I thought I’d share six things that might (or maybe won’t) surprise you about newspapers and printing in the mid-nineteenth century.
1. Importance – With the increase of literacy in the US, you’d think people would have had a large supply of things to read. That wasn’t always the case, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas. For them, newspapers were often the only things they had to read besides the Bible. As a result, papers included more than news. It wasn’t unusual to find poems, stories, and recipes in addition to what we would call news.
2. Prices – How much did all this cost the average subscriber? According to my research, an annual subscription to a weekly paper was $5, an amount that was often paid in goods rather than cash. I hope the editor enjoyed hams and jams as well as turnips and apples.
Advertisements frequently had a tiered cost, being priced at $1 for the first time they were run with subsequent weeks at $.50. To put this in perspective, a doctor’s office visit was also $1. Suppose you were running for office and wanted the paper to announce your candidacy. You might think that would be a simple ad at a cost of a dollar. Not so. Political announcements were priced at $10.
3. Revenue – In many cases, subscriptions and ads weren’t enough to support the newspaperman. That’s why he (and, yes, most of them were men) offered personal printing services, providing cards, posters, and stationery to residents.
4. Town Booming – This was a new term for me, but it underscored the power of the press. When towns were first established and sought new residents, they relied on papers to promote the town – sometimes through gross exaggeration – in an effort to attract settlers. One of the first towns to benefit from this practice was Oregon City in 1846 which relied on the Oregon Spectator to tout its attractions to potential residents.
5. Skullduggery – One of the more popular printing presses during the nineteenth century was the Washington Hand Press. Unlike previous presses, it was made of iron rather than wood, making it sturdy. Even more importantly, it could be easily assembled and disassembled – a real plus in the rapidly expanding American West.
For years, Samuel Rust held the patent on the Washington press and refused to sell it to his competitor, P. Hoe and Company. Hoe, however, was determined to obtain the patent and convinced one of his employees to pose as an inventor who wanted to expand on Rust’s design. Rust agreed to sell him the patent, not knowing that it was all a ruse and that the faux inventor would immediately turn the patent over to his boss.
6. Dangers – While the underhanded techniques that robbed Rust of his patent were unfortunate, they weren’t the only danger involved in the newspaper printing business. Sadly, not everything printed in newspapers was true. Many editors, following the practice of their Eastern colleagues, made little distinction between news and opinion. In some cases, diatribes and personal attacks made their way onto the printed page. You can imagine how those were received. Who would have thought that freedom of the press sometimes resulted in death?
Did any of these surprise you? More importantly, did any intrigue you enough to want to explore the world of nineteenth century newspapers? I’ll pick two people from the comments to receive a print copy of Dreams Rekindled (U.S. addresses only.)
Giveaway Rules Apply: https://petticoatsandpistols.com/sweepstakesrules/
If you’d like more information, my primary sources for this post were Red Blood and Black Ink by David Dary and Passionate Nation by James L. Haley.
About the book:
He’s bound and determined to find peace . . . but she’s about to stir things up
Dorothy Clark dreams of writing something that will challenge people as much as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin seems to have. But in 1850s Mesquite Springs, there are few opportunities for writers—until newspaperman Brandon Holloway arrives, that is.
Brandon Holloway has seen firsthand the disastrous effects of challenging others. He has no intention of repeating that mistake. Instead of following his dreams, he’s committed to making a new—and completely uncontroversial—start in the Hill Country.
As Dorothy’s involvement in the fledgling newspaper grows from convenient to essential, the same change seems to be happening in Brandon’s heart. But before romance can bloom, Dorothy and Brandon must work together to discover who’s determined to divide the town and destroy Brandon’s livelihood.
Amanda Cabot’s dream of selling a book before her thirtieth birthday came true, and she’s now the author of more than thirty-five novels as well as eight novellas, four non-fiction books, and what she describes as enough technical articles to cure insomnia in a medium-sized city. Her inspirational romances have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists, have garnered a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and have been nominated for the ACFW Carol, the HOLT Medallion, and the Booksellers Best awards. A popular workshop presenter, Amanda takes pleasure in helping other writers achieve their dreams of publication.
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