Breaking Bread, Not Bones
By Frank E. Fee, Jr.
“Breaking Bread, Not Bones” identifies a number of themes that were important to the publishing fraternity and to society at large during the nation’s formative years. As students work through the exercises – and the many more that instructors could craft – they will be introduced to business, economic, technological, and social issues that were being negotiated in Antebellum America. Just as the dinners and publication of their speeches and toasts were public performances of the craft’s values, the conversations editors and publishers were having with readers in print underscores how newspapers fit in with the print culture of the day and were influencing and influenced by society at large.
Some thoughts on method
“Breaking Bread, Not Bones” resulted from a chance discovery of a report on a Franklin Dinner in a newspaper of the 1840s. Students should be reminded of the value of keeping an eye out for interesting subjects even as they pursue their primary objectives.
On his 1831 tour of America, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville called newspapers “the only historical records in the United States,” adding, “If one number is missing, it is as if the link of time was broken: present and past cannot be joined together again.” He was right. Sadly for scholars, the newspaper record indeed is incomplete as many numbers and even entire runs have been lost over time. However, many old newspapers do exist for scholars to study, remaining in their original form, or on microfilm and microfiche, and increasingly, in digital formats. Focusing on the Antebellum Era, this research involved examining hundreds of items on microfilm in the North Carolina Collection of Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the American Antiquarian Society at Worcester, MA. It also employed key-word searches for such terms as “Franklin Dinner” and “printers’ festival” in the databases of Accessible Archives, the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America Historic American Newspapers, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, and The New York Times. Most of these databases
continue to grow and frequent repeat visits can be fruitful.
Scholars occasionally may come upon independent databases that don’t show up in the regular lists, such as the Old New York State Historical Newspaper Pages of the Old Fulton New York Post-cards Web site at http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html. Googling their research terms from time to time may be productive for students. And although there is a charge for their use, some newspapers such as The New York Times have digitalized all or most of their back issues.
For classroom exercises involving study of old newspapers, a tip from Julie Hedgepeth Williams has proved invaluable. As libraries have digitalized their bound newspaper volumes and then sold off the hardcopy, packages of old newspapers can sometimes be purchased from dealers such as Timothy Hughes Rare & Early Newspapers. For about $50, an assortment of some 30 issues of various newspapers published between 1816 and 1845 was purchased for one class exercise. Each student bought a paper at cost ($2 to $3) and became the owner of a piece of real history. The exercise was enthusiastically received.
Although the online Library of Commerce newspapers are free and accessible from any site, students
likely will find that not all of the proprietary services are available through their college or university libraries. In most cases at least one service will be available. Also, it is likely that the libraries have historic newspapers on microfilm, occasioning an early-class field trip for a tutorial on a technology they may never have used.
Examine two or three months of a newspaper published in your area as early in the 19th century as possible.
- What can you learn about the finances and business model of the newspaper? How often did it come out? How was it distributed? How much did it cost? What other materials were produced by this newspaper? How did they contribute the revenue stream?
- What themes do you find in the conversation of the proprietors to their subscribers?
- What were the politics of the proprietors?
Using an antebellum newspaper available to you in microfilm or online, write a brief (no more than five pages) description and analysis of that newspaper. What was news? Where did it come from? How was it presented? From what sources? Do you see political content? What does the paper’s format suggest to you about the printer’s resources and environment? Talk about the advertising. What does the advertising say about the place in which the newspaper was published? Try to determine something
about the publication using outside source material. What does the publication suggest about its readers? Without getting into presentism, compare and contrast your publication with today’s daily hometown newspaper. What seems to have changed over time? What seems to be a constant some 150 years later?
Here are some more questions – in no particular order – that should help you analyze the antebellum newspaper you selected. You don’t have to answer them all but these should get you started.
- What is the newspaper like in terms of size, number of pages, etc.? Describe it.
- Who are, or seem to be, the writers?
- What other sources for their information do the editors of your newspaper use?
- How do you define what is a news story in this newspaper?
- Who are the sources used in news stories themselves?
- What other content besides news and ads do you see?
- What products and services do you see advertised in the newspapers? What are the ones that you see most often?
- How are graphics used in this newspaper?
- What seem to be the politics of this newspaper?
- What topics seem important to the editor(s)?
- What is the balance of news versus advertisements?
- Are there any hints as to how the newspaper was delivered to its readers?
- What does this newspaper tell you – directly and indirectly – about its readers?
- What does the content tell you about the editor(s)?
- What differences and similarities do you see between your antebellum newspaper and a recent copy of your hometown daily newspaper? (Consider the writing style, layout, graphics, topic selection, etc.)
- What surprised you in examining this antebellum newspaper?
Exercise 3: The Value of Journalism
The Printers’ Festivals celebrated the importance of journalism to the young republic but other observers also noted their utility in forming the nation. On his 1831 tour of America, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on finding newspapers in even the most remote backwoods cabins, and he went on to devote a brief chapter (Chapter 6) in the second volume of his Democracy in America to “The Connection Between Associations and Newspapers.”
- How was the proliferation of newspapers related to the great questions about the new republic’s future politics and social relations?
- What value did citizens derive from their newspapers?
Exercise 4: News, Technology, and “Internal Improvements”
The proliferation of newspapers in the new republic also reflected new technologies spawned by and fueling the Industrial Revolution. Speedier steam presses made it possible to expand circulation and convert from weekly to daily publication. Stereotyping enabled publishers to reuse printing plates, reducing labor costs on products that could be reissued, saving wear on type and cutting the amount of type a big shop needed. Meanwhile, the publishers’ reach was greatly expanded by the development of railroads, canals, and roads, while circulation costs were kept down by government policies on free or reduced postage for newspapers. The introduction of the electric telegraph added a new criterion, timeliness, to definitions of news and further stitched the nation together.
- What uses of the telegraph do you see in examining antebellum newspapers?
- What other technologies are mentioned in these news columns?
- How do these editors regard science and technology?
J. Zboray, “Antebellum Reading and the Ironies of Technological Innovation,” American Quarterly 40, no. 1, Special Issue: Reading America (Mar., 1988): 65-82.
Exercise 5: Women in Antebellum Society
The role of women in the annals of early journalism was complex, just as it was in society at large. Women were welcomed at some of the earliest Printers’ Festivals and one such gathering produced a history of women who actually had run printing establishments that was widely remarked upon and reprinted. Yet printers who employed women generally paid them less than their male counterparts and
such shops were criticized by other printers for undercutting prices.
- What evidence in the news columns do you see of changes in women’s roles in society?
- What editorial content seems particularly directed to a female reader?
- What advertising seems directed to the female consumer?
Exercise 6: Economics of a New Enterprise
Unlike newspapers of
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the later nineteenth century and beyond, early American newspapers depended much more on subscription revenue than advertisements, especially after the political parties withdrew from owning or subsidizing them. Often they also sought job printing to make ends meet.
- What evidences of their financing do you see in examining antebellum newspapers?
- How secure did the proprietors seem in their enterprises?
Exercise 7: Values and Morals in the News
Newspapers are values-laden texts that endorse and inculcate certain values and mores while proscribing and extinguishing others. Concern for public decorum, temperance, for instance, can be seen in many of the toasts of the Printers’ Festivals. Ideal sets of behaviors also were regularly presented in the early news columns as models for readers whose lives may have been more rough and tumble.
- What values to you see represented in the news columns of these antebellum newspapers?
- Whose values are these?
Paul E. Reckner and Stephen A. Brighton, “‘Free from All Vicious Habits’: Archaeological Perspectives on Class Conflict and the Rhetoric of Temperance,” Historical Archaeology 33, no. 1, Confronting Class (1999): 63-86.