A Conversation with Joseph M. Adelman

Joseph AdelmanConversations LogoJoseph M. Adelman is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at Framingham State University in Framingham, Massachusetts. He is currently at work on two book projects; the first focuses on the business of printing and circulation of political news between 1763 and 1789, and the second is a general history of the post office in America. He also serves as the Assistant Editor for Digital Initiatives at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Adelman talked to Emily Sneff about how printers in the 1770s assembled the news for their papers, how they used the postal system, and how they may have approached Twitter.

“He’s the right kind of crazy for a historian.” That’s how Joseph Adelman describes William Goddard, the printer who presented the Continental Congress with a plan for a “Constitutional Post” to supplant the British postal system. He kept good records of his efforts, and was “all over the place,” according to Adelman, “concocting schemes, and in and around important rooms.” And he was passionate about his cause. In the first issue of The Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser on August 20, 1773, Goddard (who had experience from printing newspapers in Providence and Philadelphia) presented the public with the real issues that would affect Baltimore’s first newspaper: 

“I was aware when it was first proposed to me to undertake a News-Paper in this Town, that although it possessed many Advantages in Point of Situation, yet it was impracticable to print such a one as would suit this Part of the Country, without establishing a Rider from Baltimore to Philadelphia... This was a Plan I had contemplated (in order to render this Paper of great and extensive Utility) and had determined some Time ago, with the Assistance of the Public spirited, to have carried it into Execution; but I have been prevented making the necessary Trial by a severe Indisposition.—I have not, however, given over my Scheme, but shall persevere to the utmost to accomplish it, knowing that on the Success of it depends the Credit—and indeed the very Existence of this Paper.”

Why was a printer concerned with the post? Because Goddard and other printers in the colonies were dependent on open and consistent lines of communication to spread news, both to their subscribers and to other newspapers. “The post office was important enough to the Continental Congress that it was one of the first national institutions that the Continental Congress created,” Adelman asserts. “The only national institutions older than the post office are the Continental Army and the Congress itself. The Continental Congress created the post office before they created a Navy, before they created a Marine Corps, a full year before independence. It was something that they themselves, not just the printers, saw as really important.”

So, how exactly did news spread through the colonies and early United States? First, it is important to consider both geography and class status. “The people with the best news were the people in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia,” places where, Adelman explains, a massive infrastructure of printing combined with transatlantic shipping for quick access to news. “The further south you go, the further inland, things got a little slower.” But beyond geographical limitations, there were limitations of class. “When we’re talking about political news in the 1770s,” Adelman says, “we’re talking about the group of people who were politically active, so we’re talking about mostly land-owning white men.” 

Adelman presents three different but interconnected ways that news can circulate: through conversation, through correspondence, and through newspapers. News can spread orally through a conversation as simple as someone walking up to someone else and saying, “Did you hear...?” As Adelman explains, “the printing office was a place where that tended to happen, because people tended to go to the printing office when they heard things they thought were newsworthy.” This method shows up in the pages of newspapers, in paragraphs beginning with “We hear that...” News was also shared in coffeehouses and taverns, where, for example, a ship captain might make an appearance upon arriving from England. 

Handwritten transmissions also shared news from other cities or across the Atlantic. Adelman describes letters from London coming in to merchants in the colonies where, if you read past the first few paragraphs of business items, there might be a paragraph with news worth sharing. A merchant, say, John Hancock would be able to take a letter directly to a printer, who would know which paragraphs to pull.

Marker for Boston Post RoadThe third method of news circulation – through newspapers – relies upon oral and handwritten communications, and relates back to Goddard and the quest for a reliable postal system. “The post office,” Adelman notes, “was important first and foremost because it’s how a lot of those newspapers that printers were using circulated.” There was a custom and occasional policy for the British to allow the exchange of a single copy of a newspaper with another printer for free, alleviating the need to subscribe to papers from other places. Printers also relied on the post office to get their papers to subscribers in less populated areas. A main post road ran from Boston to Baltimore (the image at right is a marker near Harvard Yard for the Boston Post Road) and on to Charleston, and there were some interior routes running west from cities like Boston or New York. But in areas where there was not a post road, printers or groups of subscribers would privately hire riders to deliver papers. 

Adelman points out that “most of the news in a newspaper was non-local or extra-local, except for the ads.” Why? Because the group of politically active individuals in a city was still relatively small in this period. “In 1770 or so,” Adelman explains, “there were about 15,000 people living in Boston. To get to the politically active group of that, divide it in two, because half the people were children. Cut another half out for women, and you’re down to about 3500, and many of those 3500 adult men were poor. So, you’re talking about a group of 1500, maybe 2000 men who talked to each other about what was going on in Boston. That’s a pretty small social circle when you actually think about it. The ads were for local shops, good, and services, but the vast majority of everything else in the newspaper was non-local, because you could get most of it orally.” In short, the same person who told a printer about a newsworthy story could have also told you, your neighbor, the tavern keeper, etc. Adelman adds that, although the imagined audience for newspapers at this time was more likely male than female based on the news items that were being published, there is an assumption that women were also looking at the newspapers, because many of the advertisements appealed to women, particularly of middle-to-upper class.

Animation of Newspaper LayoutAccording to Adelman, “the best way to think about how the news was printed and circulated is to look at the newspaper. It’s not organized by importance; it’s organized by the way in which it needs to be printed.” To make a four-page newspaper, a large sheet of paper is folded once to give four pages. So, a printer would need to print the outside pages, 1 and 4, at the same time, and the inside pages, 2 and 3, at the same, allowing time for one side of the sheet to dry before re-dampening the paper to take the ink for the other side. As Adelman points out, “the technology didn’t determine things, but it did limit and shape the choices that people made.” During the week, a printer would pull in all of these bits of news – stories heard from locals, extracts of letters, and items from other newspapers – and arrange them to fit within these four pages. Often, a printer would fill in page 4 with advertisements, paragraphs of type that could be tied together and reused from week to week, as long as the advertiser continued to pay. Long essay series (“Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” for example) or less recent news from London would fill page 1, allowing the printer to set that type at their leisure. The inside pages, 2 and 3, would be filled up with news, starting with far away locations and moving closer; a Boston newspaper, for example, might begin with news from London, followed by Charleston, Williamsburg, Philadelphia, New York, New London, Providence, and then a few paragraphs about Boston news. For this reason, “front page news” is a bit of a misnomer for this time period, Adelman says, because “the ‘freshest news,’ the things that have most recently happened and things that have happened locally, are usually somewhere in the middle of page 3.” 

It is also important to consider the many hats that printers wore in this period. “The three roles for a newspaper – publisher (the person who is financing and overseeing it), editor (the person who is responsible for determining content), and printer (the person who physically does the work to set the type and put ink on a page) – were usually combined in the person we call a ‘printer,’” Adelman notes. Those roles became more separate after the American Revolution, as printing stayed very mechanical, a separate position of “editor” developed, and newspapers grew large enough to require a benefactor to finance the enterprise. Certain printers were very active in deciding what content went into their newspaper. Others, Adelman says, “were really passive, trying to be just conduits. They wanted somebody else to make the decision.” Across the board, Adelman argues, printers were “thinking of themselves as public servants, and their newspapers as a public service and as a public forum for debate.”

The revolution changed things. As an example, Adelman presents the mindset of a printer after an event like the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor occurs: “when you’re going to reprint the news, do you pick the story that was written up the governor and describes this horrid scene of wanton destruction of property, or, do you pick the version that was written by patriots and describes this orderly procession defending the rights of Englishmen? You’re not going to print both, so which one do you pick?” 

30 American newspapers printed the Declaration of Independence in July and August 1776 (31 if you count Alexander Purdie’s Virginia Gazette twice to include the excerpt printed on July 19). According to Adelman, the spread of this news “differed in degree, but not in kind. It was unusual for that many newspapers to print something that long that Congress produced in full.” It is true that newspapers constantly printed resolutions from the Continental Congress, but to print something so significant and so lengthy was atypical. Fifteen newspapers printed the Declaration of Independence as the first news item on the first page – “unusual, but not a break from previous practice,” Adelman notes – and nine out of fifteen fit the entire text of the Declaration on the first page. Only one newspaper, The American Gazette: Or, the Constitutional Journal, started the Declaration as the first item on page 1 and concluded it on page 4; the other six continued onto page 2, as did The Pennsylvania Journal; and the Weekly Advertiser (below, middle), in which the Declaration begins in the third column of the first page. As noted, it would have been more commonplace to continue a news item from the first page on the fourth page, since the pages were printed at the same time. The remaining thirteen newspapers printed the Declaration of Independence on pages 2 and/or 3, as would have been typical for news classified as from Philadelphia or from the local area (some papers put the text under a local heading and helpfully indicated the date when the Declaration arrived in town).

Front Page of Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet, July 8, 1776Front Page of Pennsylvania Journal, July 10, 1776Second Page of Pennsylvania Journal, July 10, 1776Second Page of Pennsylvania Ledger, July 13, 1776
A Case Study of Three Newspapers Printed in Philadelphia: In the July 8th issue of Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser (left), the Declaration of Independence is the first news item on the front page. In The Pennsylvania Journal; and the Weekly Advertiser (middle), printed on July 10th by William and Thomas Bradford, the Declaration begins on the front page and concludes on the second page. The July 13th issue of James Humphrey's Pennsylvania Ledger: Or the Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New-Jersey Weekly Advertiser (right) includes the Declaration on the second page.

It took about a month for a major news item like independence to spread across the whole of the colonies. This can be jarring to consider in a world where social media and news alerts can spread local, national, and international stories in the blink of an eye. So, what would 18th century printers think of the pace and format of news today? Adelman admits, “some of them would be petrified,” particularly those who saw themselves more as conduits of information than producers of information. Adelman then envisions how different printers might approach a different kind of network: Twitter. “I can picture somebody like James Parker, if he had a Twitter account, only ever re-tweeting things, and making sure that he re-tweeted liberal and conservative outlets in exactly equal number. But, there were a bunch of printers who would eat it up. It’s a cliché to put Benjamin Franklin in front of every social media fad, but he would be on all of them. So would Benjamin Edes. And William Goddard would be a monster on Twitter.” 

For more from Joseph Adelman on printing and postal networks, visit josephadelman.com, or check out these articles:

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