Historian Richard Brown recounts, in his important 1989 book, Knowledge is Power, how Americans of the early nineteenth century learned to take in the torrent of information that had been unleashed on them.
In the mid-eighteenth century, most Americans learned the news, be it about colonial wars, tragic shipwrecks, or new ideas about liberty, by word of mouth. Someone in the village received a personal letter or a newspaper that he would read to others in the town square. Or tavern habitués heard the “latest” from a traveler who had heard it in another tavern in another town. (See this earlier post: “18th-Century Twitterfeed.”)
Within a couple of generations, there were many more newspapers, a national postal system, lecture societies, mass public speech-making, traveling ministers sermonizing, lending libraries, novels, almanacs, and the like. This produced, Brown argued, the democratization of knowledge on the one hand, but also its privatization on the other. Individuals learned news on their own rather than in the company of others; it brought, wrote Brown, a certain loss of community.
A new, massive study by sociologist (and my Berkeley colleague) Heather Haveman provides a detailed account of one those new forms of media–the magazine. Her book, Magazines and the Making of America: Modernization, Community, and Print Culture, 1741-1860, tells how this innovative “social media” flourished and influenced American society two centuries ago. It also draws a different lesson about media and community.
Before the end of the American Revolution, only 23 magazines in total had been published; less than 80 years later, about 150 magazines were launched each year. By 1860, the number of magazines in print soared to about a thousand a year. Far beyond the consequence of simple population growth, this information explosion rested on two major innovations, one technical and the other social. First, printing became easier and cheaper, thus permitting many more people to publish at much less cost. Second, a government service, the postal system, extended its geographical reach, sped up its delivery, and charged subscribers low rates. (Moreover, Haveman explains, postal managers often did not bother to collect the postage due from recipients.)
The variety of magazines exploded as well. Broad, general interest magazines were soon far outnumbered by religious magazines. Hundreds of magazines directed themselves specifically to doctors, farmers, literature and arts fans, social reform activists, political junkies and humor junkies, teachers, immigrants (for example, 307 magazines printed in German), and many more types of readers. Publishers established themselves outside the big eastern cities and addressed broad, regional audiences (like the Southern Literary Messenger). Magazines had become mass media.
Haveman stresses how important these magazines were for connecting widely-dispersed communities of interest, be they veterinarians, sod-busters, abolitionists, Methodists, or Czech immigrants. By receiving the same information and converging on the same views, Americans gained both specifically-tuned support and news they could use. Letters to the editor even allowed some exchanges among members of theses communities. For example, farmers wrote in to report their experiments with new techniques and seeds.
In these ways, Haveman argues, magazines were democratic, but also constructive of communities–just the sorts of communities that spanned the small, hierarchical, rural places Americans called home.