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Hennessey's Immigrants Landing

"In 1830 one citizen in 16 read the paper, by 1850 one in four citizens were reading the dailies."(History of American Journalism)

We have noted significant technological, political and economic developments within the early part of the 19th century and it is important to note that no shift occurs in isolation. But what do we know of the social climate of New York during the 1830s and 40s? We know that New York was the largest urban center in America, with more than 200,000 citizens, when Day released his first edition of The Sun in 1833, but whom exactly was he targeting with his new paper? According to Westin, the people buying Day's paper were "a new class of newspaper readers, they included increasingly literate working class and European immigrants who filled the cities in the early 1800s."

Prior to the appearance of the penny papers, readership of newspapers was restricted to the wealthier of society who had invested interest in party politics and business ventures; Heren goes so far as to say that before the penny papers, "the metropolitan papers paid little attention to ordinary people" (Heren: 36-37).

It has been said that the penny papers increased literacy levels in urban centers, but nowhere was I able to find data to substantiate this. In fact when investigating literacy statistics in large urban areas like New York it appears that literacy levels were actually quite high. To this John Lienhard notes, "A great part of America's unschooled 19th century population was remarkably well read" (198). Sheldon has estimated that in major urban areas like New York up to 90% of the population was able to read (38).

How was it that literacy levels were so high in the early part of the nineteenth century? We have discussed the developments in printing and paper manufacturing that made the written word more readily available to the masses, and we must also consider the social developments that were advancing literacy as well.

As early as 1816 Thomas Jefferson had been promoting the importance of literacy for every man. He recognized that freedom of the press was a useless concept if the majority of the citizens could not read what had been written. In his article, "Every Man Able to Read" Jack Lynch quotes from a letter written by Jefferson to a colleague, "Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe" (para.1).

Another significant event in the development of writing during this period was the release of Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language. He changed the spelling of a number of the words in the dictionary to make them more phonetic. It is Webster who is credited with founding the modern convention of having only one acceptable and correct spelling of a word. His goal in all of this was to make language and pronunciation universal across America. It was his belief that, "Class distinctions that could be recognized abroad could not be tolerated in a nation founded on democratic principles." Noah Webster is regarded across the United States as the "Crusader for American Literacy" (Hildreth: 375).

While I could not find evidence to suggest that the penny papers bolstered literacy levels, I think it would be a more appropriate conclusion to assert that the already high literacy rates of working class men led to the dramatic sales of the penny papers. In fact, it has been repeatedly documented that the two dominant penny papers, The Sun and The Herald, had substantial readerships. The largest metropolitan daily in New York prior to the penny papers was The Morning Courier which had an average circulation of approximately 4,000. (Goodman: 20) Within a mere six months of publication, The Sun had a circulation of more than 5,000 (Brazeal: 406) and according to O'Brien, within its first year it was circulating more than ten thousand newspapers (57). In August, 1835, Day himself boasted of this expanding readership, "We do not hesitate to say that our circulation is the greatest of any daily paper in the world, (the daily edition of the London Times being only 17,000)." ("Our Circulation": 2) Whether or not Day was sensationalizing his numbers, much like his content, is unclear, but what is clear is that Day and others who were producing and distributing daily papers at the penny price had successfully initiated a disruptive innovation.

In his discussion on disruptive innovations Christensen speaks of how the original plane of competition (in this case, the dailies before the penny papers) tends to isolate a great number of people and focus instead on those who have a lot of money (2008:47). This was true of the daily papers prior to the penny papers to be sure. Papers like the Courier, the Post, and other 6 cent papers targeted the wealthy, business class within the population and did not consider modifying their product to include the low or middle income men as they did not fit their model of subscriber-based readership. Thus, the tens of thousands of new immigrants and working men remained a market that the original papers simply did not look upon as viable prospect of potential revenue.

The growing social push for literacy and language, combined with the influx of new citizens with unique cultural identities facilitated the opportunity (and the need) for motivated newspapermen like Day to capitalize on a void in the information landscape.