I’m happy to have another essay I wrote pre-pandemic out now out. “Newspapers and Periodicals” can be found in the American Literature in Transition, 1851-1877. This piece allowed me to delve into the radical hybridity of nineteenth-century periodicals and discuss everything from the columns of Fanny Fern to the origins of Scientific American.

Per Cambridge University Press’ open access policies for edited collections, I’m archiving a pre-print of my chapter here. This version does not reflect the edits made in response to the volume’s stalwart editor, Cody Marrs, which improved the chapter’s structure substantially The published version of this chapter, and the book, are available from CUP, while portions can be previewed through Google Books.

Newspapers and Periodicals

Periodicals in Transition

In a review of Graham’s Magazine published in the March 1, 1845 issue of The Broadway Journal, Edgar Allan Poe predicted of magazine literature, “[i]n a few years its importance will be found to have increased in geometrical ratio” because “[t]he whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward.” Busy mid-century readers, speeding along in “the rush of the age,” required a medium that kept pace. “We now demand the light artillery of the intellect,” Poe insisted: “we need the curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused-in place of the verbose, the detailed, the voluminous, the inaccessible.”1 It can be difficult to pin down how seriously Poe took such declarations. Praise and ironic critique intertwine in his critical writings, as in subsequent paragraphs of this review, where he describes the engraving “Dacota Woman and the Assiniboin Girl” as “worthy of all commendation,” while another engraving in the same issue, “The Love Letter,” “has the air of having been carved by a very small child, with a dull knife, from a raw potato.”2 If Poe marks a genuine trend toward periodical forms of literature in the period, he also stages an ambiguous response to the trend, vacillating between praise and condemnation.

In another line bordering on irony, Poe cautions, in his capacity as its new editor of The Broadway Journal newspaper, that the “lightness of the artillery” in this “Magazine-ward” age “must not degenerate into pop-gunnery—by which character we may designate the character of the greater portion of the newspaper press; whose sole legitimate object is the discussion of ephemeral matters in an ephemeral manner.” This line is particularly ironic because this entire paragraph from Poe’s review of Graham’s Magazine recycles much of its prose from another review Poe penned—this one of the American Review—for another newspaper—The Evening Mirror—less than a month prior. On February 12, 1845, Poe had written:

The increase within a few years, of our Magazine literature, is by no means to be regarded as indicating what some critics would suppose it to indicate—a downward tendency in American taste, or in American letters. It is but a sign of the times—and indication of an era in which men are forced upon the curt, the condensed, the well-digested—in a word upon journalism in lieu of dissertation. We need now the light artillery more especially than the Peace-Makers of the intellect. We will not be sure that men at present think more profoundly than half a century ago, but beyond question they think with more rapidity, with more skill, with more tact, and with an infinitely more of methods in the thought. Besides all this they have a vast increase in what Coleridge terms the material for thinking—they have more facts—they have more to think about. For this reason they are disposed to put the greatest amount of thought in the smallest compass, and disperse it with the utmost attainable rapidity. Hence the journalism of the age—hence, in especial, the Magazines.3

Journalism for Poe is “curt,” “condensed,” and “well-digested”: qualities which make periodical literature likewise portable, excerptible, reproducible, recyclable. The rapid proliferation of “material for thinking,” across an ever-shifting field of publications, allows for, even necessitates, frequency, redundancy, and iteration. For contemporary scholars looking back at this period, the ramified conditions of nineteenth-century periodical literature might lead us to consider its textual field in terms of aggregation and cumulation, rather than as a collection of singular works. As a collective endeavor, nineteenth-century periodical literature operates in ways Poe and many of his contemporaries found distinct.

Several of the key phrases in Poe’s essay appear elsewhere in the periodical literature of the period. For instance, one of the most widely-reprinted selections of the nineteenth-century was a advertorial (i.e. an advertisement that takes the form of an editorial), most often titled simply “Newspapers,” which was reprinted between the 1830s and 1890s. “Newspapers” claims to transcribe a recollection of Judge Augustus Baldwin Longstreet—though in some reprintings the memory is ascribed to Daniel Webster—about “what a difference there was between those of my schoolmates who had, and those who had not, access to newspapers. Other things being equal, the first were always decidedly superior to the last, in debate and composition at least. The reason,” Longstreet/Webster insists, “is plain—they had command of more facts” (Vermont Watchman and State Journal, 10 July 1851). Likewise a column of “Interesting Statistics” about the world, reprinted between 1853-1899, was frequently titled “Many Facts in Small Compass” (my emphasis), claiming by that title the kind of distilled knowledge Poe ascribes to the best periodical literature. The facts that follow in this column may seem far removed from the literary (e.g. “The whole number of languages spoken in the world amount to 3,064; viz., 587 in Europe, 937 in Asia, 276 in Africa, and 1,264 in America.—The inhabitants of our globe profess more than 1,000 different religions.”), but for Poe and many of his contemporaries these boundaries were less clear. Facts and journalism fall under the capacious heading “Magazine literature” and are, alongside other forms of periodical literature, “signs of the times.” Like the periodicals in which they appear, facts operate cumulatively: it is through collecting many facts that readers benefit, rather than through intensive focus on a small number.

This chapter considers nineteenth-century American periodicals as networked, transitional media, both producers and aggregators of a vibrant, hybrid store of everyday reading and writing. In the nineteenth-century US, newspapers and magazines were paradoxical media: simultaneously local and (inter)national, partisan and heterogeneous, original and formulaic. Texts of all kinds circulated through the “exchanges system,” as newspaper editors traded “selections” for in-kind reprinting. Newspaper exchanges were sponsored, at least indirectly, by the US government, which worked to keep postage cheap for mailing newspapers to ensure information spread across the country. Alongside political news, however, readers found a miscellany of reprinted recipes, household tips, popular science, jokes, moral lessons, fiction, or poetry. Such selections came primarily from other newspapers, but editors also lifted texts from magazines and books—and neither were magazine editors above reprinting a poem that had been lauded while “going the rounds” of the newspapers. In the nineteenth century, newspapers and periodicals were primary vehicles for circulating information and popular literature together, and these broad categories commingled in interstitial genres such as the vignette. Periodicals offered a liminal space between the political, the social, and the literary where ideas of authorship, genre, and value were contested and reshaped.

The Periodical Form

Periodicals, both today and in the nineteenth century, are paradoxical media. As James Mussell has argued, they rely simultaneously on predictability and novelty. To continually engage readers, periodicals must publish issues each day, week, or month: each with new texts that speak to current events—especially in the case of the newspaper—while providing new information or amusements. At the same time, each issue must resemble others in its series. Any given periodical issue stands in a line of succession, typically numbered so it can be situated with prior and subsequent issues, while its text often references past issues or points to future installments. As Mussell describes, “No issue of a serial ever exists on its own but calls up the memory of its predecessors while projecting its successors into the future…As one issue displaces another, a publication’s editor must avoid too much difference while supplying just the right amount of the same.”4

In addition to references that tie together periodicals’ content across issues, the form of periodicals is predictable, as many titles, ads, and other boilerplate texts remain stable from issue to issue, as do conventions of formatting, layout, and organization that help readers reliably navigate a given title over time. An editor’s introduction to the issue, for instance, might appear on the same page in each issue, so that the “larger serial structure is invoked through the repetition of certain formal features, issue after issue” as the periodical “insists on formal continuity, repeated from the past and projected onwards into the future, providing a mediating framework whose purpose is to reconcile difference by presenting new content in a form already known to readers.” For Mussell, “This repetitive formal framework…allows readers to differentiate between form and content, regarding form as that which stays the same and allowing content, which varies, to flow” (pg. 347-348). Too much novelty and a periodical is not recognizable as one entity; too much duplication and it cannot sustain interest from readers.

Both the possible forms and the content of periodicals expanded exponentially during the nineteenth century. The newspaper, while not new to the period, was a medium reinvented by a combination of technical, social, and political factors that reshaped and exponentially expanded the newspaper landscape. In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin notes with some pride that in 1771 there were “five-and-twenty” newspapers in the American colonies. By Tocqueville’s visit to the United States in the 1830s there were around nine hundred,5 which expanded even still in the coming decades so there were “over 4,000 dailies and weeklies in 1860…about 5,820 in 1870,” and up to “11,314 in 1880.”6 Technically, this expansion was possible because of several linked inventions. First, the development of more efficient iron and then rotary presses, many eventually powered by steam or electric motors, allowed far more sheets to be printed with fewer workers than had the wooden presses of the previous centuries. This increased speed, however, only became possible with the introduction of industrial methods for paper production and then, in the 1860s, reliable methods for making paper from cheap wood pulp rather than costly rags.7

Socially, the dramatic expansion of newspapers stemmed, at least in part, from the medium’s tie to partisanship. Newspapers in the mid-nineteenth century were, most typically, political organs, edited by a party appointee and primarily dedicated to advancing a given party’s agenda. As such, increasingly most towns in the United States had not one but (at least) two newspapers: one for each of the major parties. Much of the column space in such newspapers was given over to political reporting and advocacy, including detailed breakdowns of how readers should vote when election cycles neared. As the United States expanded its territories, so to did the partisan press expand, often in advance of formal territorial boundaries.

There was a narrow subset of American newspapers devoted entirely to politics, as in the fictional paper from Fanny Fern’s novel Ruth Hall, which “seldom contains anything but politics.”8 The majority of U.S. newspapers, however, rarely filled their pages entirely with political material, except (perhaps) in the days immediately preceding or following elections. Instead, most papers in this period were thoroughly hybrid in form, printing texts across a wide range of genres: from news and opinion to recipes, trivia, popular science, domestic advice, travel narratives, fiction, or poetry. The newspaper, like its close cousin the magazine, was a miscellany that entertained and informed, meeting both practical and poetic needs for its readers. Those readers included, at the very least, all the members of a middle-class family, as selections were often introduced as particularly written for fathers, mothers, or children, all of whom were expected to engage, in series, with a family’s subscription. This newspaper miscellany was not created through a particular technology, but instead through a social agreement among editors and reliant on loose intellectual property laws: the newspaper exchange system.

The Exchanges System

Under the pseudonym Fanny Fern, Sara Payson Willis became one of the most well known authors in nineteenth-century America. Fern wrote primarily about domestic life, moving skillfully between sentiment and sardonicism in her depictions of middle-class people wooing, marrying—or, occasionally not marrying—socializing, gossiping, and parenting. When she signed an exclusive contract with the New York Ledger—a “story paper” that was itself something between a newspaper and magazine—in 1855, Fern became the highest-paid columnist, and one of the highest-paid authors, in the United States. Before that contract was signed, however, Fern wrote for a number other publications, such as the True Flag, Olive Branch, Home Journal, and Musical World and Times, as well as publishing successful collections of her columns in books such as Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (1853) or Fresh Leaves (1857).9 Fern built her reputation on these publications, but especially from the widespread reprinting of her columns in newspapers across the country, and indeed around the world. When Fern published a piece in a periodical such as the Home Journal, it would appear over the next weeks and months in the local newspapers of readers from New York to Hawaii, all points in between, and some beyond.10

Some of Fern’s early columns circulated without her real or pen-name attached, though Fern was savvy about collecting those columns in books such as Fern Leaves as a way of reclaiming credit for her popular writing. This was the case for “A Word To Mothers,” a short parenting column which was reprinted in at least 90 periodicals in the US, UK, and Australia between June of 1852 and the end of the century (though the bulk of these reprints were published in the two decades following its appearance). This vignette recounts a scene between a mother and her young daughter, who confesses to breaking a vase. The mother scolds and punishes her daughter for the offense, but the column’s oracular voice chastises the mother for choosing a strict judgment rather than valuing her child’s honesty. “[A]t that moment,” the article asserts, “was crushed in her little heart the sweet flower of truth.”11

As this selection circulated, editors dramatically shortened it, from six paragraphs in the original to only 2-3 in the majority of newspaper reprintings. “A Word to Mothers is Typical” is quite typical of Fern’s more sincere columns, which often offered parental advice and assumed a pedagogical voice. As a pared-down newspaper selection, the vignette is likewise typical of the texts that circulated through the practice of reprinting in nineteenth-century newspapers. The abbreviated scene between mother and daughter seems to recount a real exchange, a moment drawn from life and recounted journalistically. The central characters are not named, however, and so are not specifically identifiable by newspaper readers, while the text’s tidy moral lesson casts the literal veracity of the scene into doubt. The scene borrows from journalism and fiction, operating in the gray area between the two. Nineteenth-century readers, however, were likely untroubled by the inclusion of such a scene in their newspapers, which were full of similar selections that blurred the boundaries between literal and emotional truth, or between information and entertainment. Many such texts circulated through reprinting and were among the most widely read texts of the period.

During the nineteenth-century, the material printed in newspapers was not protected by copyright or intellectual property law. The laws and even the postal system were designed to facilitate the ready sharing of newspapers among editors, who subscribed to each other’s papers, paying little to no postage for the privilege. In fact, nineteenth-century editors thought of themselves as parts of an “exchange system” that linked periodicals around the country in a network of shared labor and in-kind use. Editors in the period maintained exchange lists that detailed those papers to which they subscribed, as well as the papers that subscribed to their publication in turn. When editors received papers from their exchange partners in the mail, they combed through them in search of salient texts—what they called “selections”—for republication.

A selection chosen for a particular newspaper was cut out of the paper in which an editor found it, pasted to a board, and given to the compositors who were setting the type for the next issue, who used it to reset the selection for reprinting in their paper. When a selection could not be immediately used—and so long as it was not time sensitive, which was a different calculation in the years before instantaneous communications at a distance—then it was sorted for later use, sometimes organized by length with other scissored selections. The literature of newspaper selection included genres such as poetry and fiction, but also a much broader swathe of brief, occasional writing. Consider the very brief advice column often titled “Four Points” or “Four Good Habits”:

FOUR GOOD HABITS.—There were four good habits a wise and good man earnestly recommended in his counsels and by his own example, and which he considered essentially necessary for the happy management of temporal concerns—these are punctuality, accuracy, steadiness, and despatch. Without the first, time is wasted, those who rely on us are irritated and disappointed, and nothing is done in its proper time and place. Without the second, mistakes the most hurtful to our own credit and interest, and that of others, may be committed. Without the third, nothing can be well done; and, without the fourth, opportunities of advantage are lost which it is impossible to recall. (Grand River Times, 9 March 1852)

This selection was reprinted in nearly 200 newspapers around the world. Though the introduction vaguely implies the recommended habits are reported from “a wise and good man,” the broadness of this characterization lends the text an aphoristic quality. Newspapers were full of similar advice on conduct, marriage, childrearing, business, and more. The succinct and easily transferrable lessons of such texts contributed to their wide circulation and republication.

When editors noticed particular selections reprinted across many of their exchange papers, they often described those texts as “going the rounds”—a phrase that recalls in its very construction the way we describe twenty-first-century memes “going viral” online. On January 23, 1869, for instance, the Californian newspaper the Shasta Courier reprinted the following, which appeared also in more than 80 other periodicals:

At one time a woman could hardly walk through the streets of San Francisco without having every one pause to gaze at her, and a child was so rare, that once in a theatre, in the same city, when a woman had taken her infant, when it began to cry, just as the orchestra began to play, a man in the pit cried out: “Stop those fiddles and let the baby cry. I haven’t heard such a sound for ten years.” The audience applauded this sentiment, the orchestra stopped, and the baby continued its performance, amid unbounded enthusiasm.

This short paragraph seeks to illustrate the gender—and thus family—imbalances of life in the western United States, where a crying infant might be welcomed as a reminder of normalcy for men too long isolated. In this case, however, the Shasta Courier prefaces its reprinting with a single, ironical sentence: “The following florid item is going the rounds of the Eastern press.” By describing the text as “florid,” the Courier dismisses it as overstated and “the Eastern press” as too gullible in reprinting it so often. By describing the text as “going the rounds,” the Courier uses a common editorial phrase of the period that pointed to a selection’s wide circulation and readership; the Courier’s editor noticed this text printed in many of his exchange papers and, despite his reservations, he perpetuated the cycle by bringing the text to his readers’ attention. Like the phrase “going viral” today, the phrase “going the rounds” disavows editors’ agency in selection and reprinting, implying that certain texts move from paper to paper entirely of their own accord: all while allowing editors to include a popular selection in their papers and pass it along to any newspapers on their own exchange list.

Going the rounds of the newspapers was a complex and messy mode of distribution. As they circulated, editors and compositors modified newspaper selections for length, making them shorter or longer to fit a gap on a newspaper page, and also for content, adjusting the selection’s text to better align with the paper’s political or social program. Citation practices—whether in regards to a text’s author or the source of a given reprinting—were irregular at best. As Kevin Barnhust and John Nerone note,

In the editor’s newspaper, items were haphazardly attributed. Sometimes editors made a point of mentioning an item’s source, but just as often they might fudge it, pretending to have had more direct access to an item than in fact they did. Even more typically, the editor simply would not care particularly about attributing an item. In the age of postal transmission, with the wide and gratis sharing of news items, saying where an item had originated had little importance.12

In prior work, I have discussed the ways Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Celestial Railroad” was coopted by the religious press for purposes contrary to his own wishes,13, while in another article Abby Mullen and I demonstrate how the newspapers’ uneven citation practices extended to newspaper poetry. As poems went the rounds, editors and readers debated the authorship of anonymous texts, while the names of famous literary authors were sometimes substituted for regional authors or appended to unclaimed poems.14 An example of this tendency is illustrated by “The Old Canoe,” a very popular periodical poem in the period. The poem is a nostalgic ode to the titular canoe, which the speaker remembers fondly from childhood. The poem’s nostalgia is most clear in the final stanza:

But now as I lean o’er the crumbling side,
And look below in the sluggish tide,
The face that I see there is graver grown,
And the laugh that I hear has a sobered tone,
And the hand that lent to the light skiff wings
Have grown familiar with sterner things;
But I love to think of the hours that flew,
As I rocked where the whirls their white spray threw,
Ere the blossoms waved, or the green moss grew,
O’er the mouldering stern of the old canoe. from the St. Cloud Democrat, 1 March 1860

“The Old Canoe” was written by Vermont poet Emily Rebecca Page, but as it circulated in newspapers it became a “fugitive verse” of disputed authorship, and was often attributed to other (typically more famous) writers or, even more typically, printed without an author’s name attached.

When the St. Cloud Democrat reprinted “The Old Canoe” in March 1862, they included this introduction: “The following beautiful lines have been going the rounds of newspaperdom for several years without credit. Whoever the author is, and we confess our inability to name him, he should claim the wandering progeny of bis brain, as they are worthy of the palmiest days of genuine poetry.” Of particular note are that the poem is described “going the rounds of newspaperdom,” wandering authorless from periodical to periodical, and that the St. Cloud Democrat assumes the author is a man, despite the fact that a significant proportion of newspaper poetry was written by women. Of the nearly 200 reprints of “The Old Canoe” identified by the Viral Texts project, the majority are printed without an attributed author’s name, so that most of the poem’s readers shared the St. Cloud Democrat’s conundrum.

As a vehicle for the circulation of literature, then, the newspaper exchange system was uncertain and heady, driven by the needs of editors for daily or weekly content moreso than by the needs of authors for fame or income. Nevertheless, in her autobiographical novel Ruth Hall, Fern outlines the importance of republication through the exchange system for an unknown writer in the period:

“I have good news for you,” said Mr. Lescom [Ruth Hall’s editor] to Ruth, at her next weekly visit; “your very first articles are copied, I see, into many of my exchanges, even into the —————, which seldom contains anything but politics. A good sign for you, Mrs. Hall; a good test of your popularity.” Ruth’s eyes sparkled, and her whole face glowed.15

Such reprinting did not translate immediately to financial security, as Fern acknowledges a few pages later when she writes, “Months passed away, while Ruth hoped and toiled,” her “fame as a writer increasing much faster than her renumeration.” In the novel’s fictional case as in Fern’s own, however, the fame secured through the newspaper exchanges could be turned toward more secure employment (pg. 255). Of course, in a system as large as the exchanges system, there were bound to be a few such success stories amid a great many more authors whose work circulated, even successfully, without such recognition or renumeration. In another parallel to today’s internet culture, the nineteenth-century periodical relied on a steady stream of material produced by unpaid or under-compensated producers.

Media Permeability

Scholars often point to the importance of literary magazines such as the North American Review, the Southern Literary Messenger, Putnam’s Monthly, or Graham’s Magazine to the development of American literature during the nineteenth-century. Certainly these were some of the magazines Poe had in mind when he wrote of the “tendency of the age…Magazine-ward.” However, because of the generic hybridity of the period’s newspapers, fostered by the reprinting practices described above, literary culture diffused far beyond the rarified sphere of high culture magazines. In fact, the line between newspapers and magazines was itself less clear than we might imagine from twentieth- or twenty-first-century examples. Magazines were typically longer, thematically more focused, and less frequently published from newspapers, but none of these characteristics applied in all cases. Periodicals as a class might also be considered a liminal space, with individual publications falling somewhere along a continuum between “newspaperness” and “magazinehood.” Literature of many kinds appeared across that spectrum, including in publications where modern readers might not expect to find literature, such as Scientific American.

On its current website and in its printed magazines, Scientific American claims to be “the longest continuously published magazine in the U.S.” and “the world’s leading source and authority for science and technology information for science-interested citizens, delivering understandable, credible and provocative content to an audience of more than 5 million people worldwide.” However, the magazine was founded in 1845 with much a narrower focus and format. While by the early twentieth century Scientific American was clearly a magazine in the modern sense, issued monthly with elaborate illustrations, in its first decades it was more akin to a newspaper, with which it shared its short length—first four, and then eight pages per issue—weekly publication schedule, and tight format—four columns per page. Over the years the periodical incorporated more and more illustrations but in its first years these were relatively simple, primarily woodcuts that illustrated the primary patents each issue described. Scientific American’s images were less elaborate, in fact, than those found in illustrated newspapers, such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, another medium from the period that complicates the newspaper/magazine dichotomy.

Scientific American’s founding editor, Rufus Porter, embodied the journal’s eclecticism. Porter was a prolific inventor who, according to one obituary, worked on “turbine water wheels, windmills, flying ships, rotary engines, and sundry contrivances for abolishing as far as possible agricultural labor,” as well as “war engines,” “clocks, railway signals, churns, washing machines, and other appliances,” all while also working, at times, as schoolmaster and portrait painter. This laudation, which Scientific American claims to reprint from “One of our English contemporaries,” also praises Porter for founding “the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, the greatest and best of all American mechanical papers, and one that indeed is unsurpassed in its new lines by any journal extant.”16 In describing Scientific American as a “mechanical paper” (my emphasis) this article points back, perhaps deliberately, to the publication’s format when Porter founded it, when it resembled newspaper contemporaries more so than other magazines. Porter only ran the journal a few years, but it continued to be a hybrid publication, blending the mechanical and practical with the cultural and political.

Subscribers to Scientific American would receive a cover for each volume of the publication, so that, when all the issues of a given volume had been received, they could bind all the numbers together. Those individual numbers, however, quite closely resembled the newspapers of the period. Most prominent in any issue would be reports of new patents filed at the U.S. Patent Office, as can be seen in the first issue of the periodical’s second volume, issued on 26 September 1846. The primary story on the front page of this issue describes a a new musical instrument, the “viol seraphine,” and includes a woodcut illustration of the device, its parts labeled as in a patent application. From 1859 Scientific American operated a patent agency in Washington, D.C. to help inventors file with the patent office and (of course) to generate new content for the paper.

In addition to its patent reports, however, Scientific American published a wide variety of material, including news; jokes; travel narratives; history, poetry; fiction; and, of course, other columns describing scientific, medical, and technological wonders. Just to the left of the “viol seraphine” in the issue described above one finds the paper’s poetry column, itself headed by a woodcut that implies this is a regular feature of the paper. On the next page, a woodcut heads the “Variety” section, which likewise includes a range of informational and literary material, while on page five a similar device frames the “Latest News,” a column implying the currency of a newspaper rather than the slower pace of a magazine. These woodcuts recur in issue after issue of the paper, providing the serial structure framing ever-shifting texts of the weekly publication.

In its miscellany, Scientific American most resembles its newspaper contemporaries, which, as Sari Edelstein, increasingly “appealed to…populations looking to the press for a blend of information and amusement.”17 Indeed, in advertisements from Scientific American’s first decades—often printed in newspapers—the publication was touted as “the best mechanical paper in the world” (my emphasis), a tagline that highlights the publication’s hybrid identity as both technological journal and newspaper. Scientific American was a “mechanical journal” in two senses: both a central source of popular scientific and technological information during the period and, as a newspaper in the exchange system, an exemplar of the increasing mechanization of news during the period.

Among the magazines and journals studied in the Viral Texts project18, Scientific American is most closely aligned with the newspapers, exchanging more frequently with the newspapers than most other magazines. While newspapers often reprinted material from magazines, borrowing poems or short stories as they would from other exchanges papers, Scientific American exchanged in both directions with newspapers: it was a both a frequent source of popularly-reprinted selections and it reproduced popular selections from other newspapers. Between its founding and the end of the nineteenth century, Scientific American reprinted tens of thousands of texts in common with its newspaper contemporaries. Given that it was a weekly publication, like many newspapers, the editors of Scientific American no doubt faced many of the same production challenges faced by their newspaper contemporaries. Their reports on current patents were not sufficient to make up four or eight weekly pages, and so they required regular content of other kinds to fill their columns. For this Scientific American turned too to the exchange system, which helped provide that content and, in turn, distributed their articles around the country and beyond.

In addition to these practical similarities, however, I would also identify an ideological convergence driving the close relationship between Scientific American and the newspapers. Scientific American emerged into a marketplace increasingly captivated by those genres I have elsewhere named “information literature”: lists, tables, recipes, scientific reports, trivia columns, and so forth. One such piece, “Medical Uses of Salt,” was first published in Scientific American in July 1848. This long selection attempts to show readers the great value of “simple salt,” which “is almost a cure for every thing,” even in cases where more exotic medicines “from the Persian Gulf or the wilds of Hinduostan” fail. While in many ways the remedies in this article resembles folk medicine rather than what we might call “science,” Scientific American was full of such pieces, printed alongside its expositions of current inventions and sharing with them a kind of authority granted by the publication and its patent office. While this particular remedy seems to have appeared first in Scientific American, similar texts appeared in most periodicals of the period.

Rhetorically, Scientific American maintains a contradictory relationship with the newspapers, both decrying the scientific inaccuracies that it claims propagates through reprinting and, simultaneously, reprinting from newspapers liberally. For instance, on 16 December 1868 Scientific American reprinted a short selection claiming one could “purify a room” by setting a pitcher of water in it to “absorb all the respired gases” in it. This piece appeared in nearly 300 publications around the world, but Scientific American reproduces it “as a specimen of the erroneous character of many things which ‘go the rounds’ of the press.” When the editors in this example admonish their correspondent (and, by implication, their readers) that they “must not expect scientific accuracy in the benighted daily press. We have long since ceased to expect it,” they elide Scientific American’s own active participation in helping the newspapers’ information literature “go the rounds of the press.” Scientific American is frequency added to bylines by the newspapers that reprint from it—more frequently than the uneven citation practices of the period might predict—in order to claim some of the newspaper-journal’s authority. In the case of this particular home remedy, we find that just a few years earlier, on 28 February 1863, Scientific American printed this same piece but assessed it slightly more favorably, noting that “it contains some truth, but more error.” This earlier reprinting highlights the permeable boundary between a periodical like Scientific American and the newspaper press—nearly all periodicals in the period served some role in the exchanges system, even when a given publication formally denounced it.

Even outside its explicitly literary sections, like its poetry corner, Scientific American circulated texts that toe a literary line. For instance, “The Mechanic” was, in one view, a very short story with a moral that was reprinted in nearly 200 newspapers in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. It appeared in the 16 October, 1845 issue of Scientific American, which is quite early in the text’s circulation history. “The Mechanic” embodies a prevalent newspaper genre we on the Viral Texts research team have deemed the vignette.19 These are very short prose pieces that borrow from journalistic conventions, gesturing toward specificity or facticity, but they offer few verifiable facts, much like the Fanny Fern column “A Word to Mothers” described earlier. Vignettes unfold in a single scene, without a change of setting, and include a single set of characters, typically only two. Finally, they offer a tidy resolution in the form of either punchline, a lesson, or a moral.

In its first paragraph, “The Mechanic” outlines a scene between a young woman and suitor that could be drawn directly from a sentimental novel of the period:

A young man commenced visiting a young woman, and appeared to be well received. One evening he called at the house when it was quite late, which led the girl to inquire where he had been. “I had to work late to-night,” he replied. “Do you work for a living?” inquired the astonished girl. “Certainly,” replied the young man, “I am a mechanic.” “My brother doesn’t work,” she remarked, “and I dislike the name of a mechanic,” and she turned her pretty nose. (Scientific American 16 October 1845)

From this opening, “The Mechanic” becomes a didactic piece, a lesson in humility and respect for honest work. In its second paragraph, readers learn that this was the last interview between this young man and woman, and that afterwards the mechanic became “a wealthy man” with “one of the best women for a wife,” while the haughty woman became “the wife of a miserable tool”—pun, we want to presume, very intended—and drunkard. The woman is “obliged to take in washing in order to support herself and children.” The final paragraph of “The Mechanic” addresses readers directly, warning them to “beware how you treat young men who work for a living” while defending “honest industry” as an American ideal that should be respected.

Scientific American does not seem to be the first periodical to publish “The Mechanic,” though it is the first we have thus far identified in the Viral Texts project. It signs its reprinting of the piece with “Ex.”: a signal that it selected the text from one of its exchanges. The connection between this selection and this publication, however, seems particularly clear and strong. A paper described in its masthead as “The Advocate of Industry and Enterprise, and Journal of Mechanical and Other Improvements” no doubt imagines many of its readers as mechanics, and would seek to promote the value of their work by republishing this selection. Here, however, I want “The Mechanic” to stand in for Scientific American’s complex relationship with literature and its newspaper contemporaries.

This selection is a thoroughly typical example of newspaper literature, borrowing freely from literary, journalistic, editorial, and other textual traditions. As a vignette, it appears as simultaneously factual and fictional, a perfect anecdote well suited to circulate among newspapers and periodicals in this period. It employs literary shorthand, relying on readers’ understanding of sentimental and domestic fiction to fill in the edges of its single-paragraph story. Just as the lines between media were permeable in nineteenth century, within periodicals lines between genres were permeable and regularly traversed. In many accounts of periodical fiction, a piece like “The Mechanic” might be overlooked, but a full account of newspapers and magazines role in literary culture must account for these slippages between genre, taking widely-circulated, anonymous, often practically-oriented texts seriously as vital context for the more recognizable literature of the period. Writers like Fanny Fern composed alongside and in dialogue with pieces like “The Mechanic,” and their short stories and poems circulated in the same heady, messy exchange networks.


The nineteenth-century media landscape was suffused by newspapers, magazines, and other periodicals. For many readers, these media were their primary sources of both information and entertainment. The lines between these media were messy and frequently crossed, as were the boundaries between genres of writing. Explicitly literary genres such as poetry and fiction appeared alongside a smorgasbord of informational, editorial, and journalistic genres, and texts borrowed ideas, tropes, and stylistic features from each other across all conceivable divisions. Readers encountered any given work in many different textual forms, framed by diverse paratextual contexts, and within distinct communities instantiated by regional, national, or international publication networks. For scholars of the nineteenth century, the key insight from studying periodical culture might be, quite simply, that nineteenth-century texts are highly networked objects that must be interpreted in terms of variation, circulation, and multiplicity rather than as singular works.

In attempting to account for this hybrid, expansive textual field, scholars often focus—as I have several times in this chapter—to specific authors (e.g. Poe, Fern), publications (e.g. Scientific American), or texts. This approach is both understandable and sensible; one compelling way to grapple with the broad contours of periodicals’ operations is through such intensive focus. By restricting our focus to particular facets of the period’s exchange and production systems, we build models for understanding other authors, publications, or texts at work alongside the chosen exemplar. The challenge, however, is that each time we home in on one facet of the periodicals system, we risk losing sight of the group and network dynamics that defined periodical textuality in the period: and thus losing sight of the dynamics that defined a great deal of the period’s literature. Taking newspapers and magazines seriously requires a double view: both particular and collective, intensively local and globally networked. The experiences of nineteenth-century editors, writers, and readers were multiplied across these vectors, and our scholarly approaches must be as well.

In closing, I return to Poe’s declaration that “[t]he whole tendency of” his age was toward a periodical sensibility. If we want to take this claim seriously—and there are certainly arguments to be made that we shouldn’t—then studying this period requires us to take seriously “the curt, the condensed, the pointed,” and “the readily diffused” alongside, and in essential dialogue with, “the verbose, the detailed,” and “the voluminous”—I will leave aside “the inaccessible”—that might describe more typical objects of literary analysis. Our accounts of specific periodical literature might themselves be more curt, condensed, and pointed, as we range across textual fields, attempting to describe the messy intertextuality of literary publication, circulation, and reception in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines.

  1. Edgar Allan Poe, The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy, Penguin Classics (Penguin, 2006), pg. 599 

  2. Edgar Allan Poe, “Graham’s Magazine,” in The Broadway Journal, ed. Laura Penalver, The Antebellum Magazine Edition Project (University of Arizona, 2015), https://antebellummags.arizona.edu/broadway-journal/mar-1-1845-vol-1-9/grahams-magazine

  3. Edgar Allan Poe, “MAGAZINE LITERATURE,” in The Evening Mirror, Digital Edition (The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 2001), https://www.eapoe.org/works/criticsm/em450232.htm

  4. James Mussell, “Repetition: Or, ‘In Our Last,’” Victorian Periodicals Review 48, no. 3 (October 2, 2015): 343–58, https://doi.org/10.1353/vpr.2015.0043, pg. 345. 

  5. David Paul Nord, Communities of Journalism: A History of American Newspapers and Their Readers (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), pg. 88, 94. 

  6. Ted Curtis Smythe, The Gilded Age Press, 1865-1900 (Praeger, 2003). 

  7. For more on wood pulp paper see @weeks1969, p. 234-236. 

  8. Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time (New York: Mason Brothers, 1855), pg. 250. 

  9. Kevin McMullen, “Fanny Fern: A Brief Biography,” Fanny Fern in The New York Ledger, accessed March 5, 2019, https://fannyfern.org/bio

  10. Melissa J. Homestead, “‘Every Body Sees the Theft’: Fanny Fern and Literary Proprietorship in Antebellum America,” The New England Quarterly 74, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 210–37, https://doi.org/10.2307/3185477

  11. Fanny Fern, Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio, 1853, http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/TEIgeneral/view?docId=wright/VAC7389.xml, pg. 243. 

  12. Kevin G. Barnhurst and John Nerone, The Form of News: A History (Guilford Press, 2002), pg. 102. 

  13. Ryan Cordell, “Taken Possession of: The Reprinting and Reauthorship of Hawthorne’s Celestial Railroad in the Antebellum Religious Press,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 007, no. 1 (July 1, 2013), http://digitalhumanities.org:8081/dhq/vol/7/1/000144/000144.html

  14. Ryan Cordell and Abby Mullen, “‘Fugitive Verses’: The Circulation of Poems in Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers,” American Periodicals: A Journal of History & Criticism 27, no. 1 (March 27, 2017): 29–52, http://muse.jhu.edu/article/652267

  15. Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present Time (New York: Mason Brothers, 1855), pg. 250. 

  16. Anonymous, “Rufus Porter.—A Representative of American Genius,” Scientific American 51, no. 19 (1884), pg. 297, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26083692

  17. Sari Edelstein, Between the Novel and the News : The Emergence of American Women’s Writing (University of Virginia Press, 2014), http://books.upress.virginia.edu/detail%2Fbooks%2Fgroup-4759.xml?q=, pg. 4. 

  18. We have primarily studied the magazines collected in the Making of America projects from the University of Michigan https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moagrp/ and Cornell University http://collections.library.cornell.edu/moa_new/index.html. These represent only a small subset of magazine culture during the period, and many of the magazines included (e.g. Putnam’s Monthly or Scribners) were chosen precisely for their literariness. Given a broader digitized collection of magazines, including regional and more specialized publications, we would fully expect to find more that blur the boundaries between newspapers and magazines. We draw on Scientific American not because we think it unusual, but precisely because it is more typical of the period’s periodical field than many of the most prominent literary magazines. 

  19. In the forthcoming book, Going the Rounds, Jonathan Fitzgerald and I write about “vignettes” in the chapter “Classifying Vignettes, Modeling Hybridity”