Wednesday, January 18, 2012

U.S. and C. S. Periodicals


By E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

Until the mid-Nineteenth century, most newspapers in the English-speaking world were a hodgepodge of advertisements, space-fillers, editorial rants, poetry and occasional timely news items. Overseas dispatches appeared weeks and months after the event, due to the long transoceanic voyages required by sailing ships. Poor roads and unpredictable weather conditions made overland communications equally slow.

Thanks to the telegraph, the steam railroad, the clipper ship, the steamboat and advances in road and canal building, news reporting took off in the 1840s and soon began to approach a modern level of global journalism. Steam-powered rotary printing presses and mass-produced paper reduced production costs and enabled many big city papers to convert from weeklies to dailies. Successful experiments with Transatlantic telegraph cables in 1858 and 1866 held the promise of (almost) instantaneous communication between Europe and the Americas.

Although the old weekly papers occasionally featured a woodcut cartoon or map to illustrate an editorial or news item, the average paper was a monolithic mass of unrelieved dense type in four to six columns. Tiny icons of ships, horses, houses and runaway slaves distinguished classes of advertisements. A wealthier advertiser might spring for a custom cut to attract the reader’s eye, but otherwise all papers looked about the same. Only the masthead enabled a purchaser to tell one from the others.

When in 1842 the Illustrated London News burst onto the scene, it turned journalism on its ear forever. Despite critics who bemoaned the demise of literacy, the ILN soon became a widely imitated institution that is still going strong as a slick magazine. Taking advantage of rapid transport and communication, the new paper was soon sending correspondents and artists around the globe to report on wars, natural disasters, scenic locations and human-interest stories. Dozens of artists roamed the U.K. to record marvels of architecture, royal pageantry and rural landscapes. Augmenting the sketch artists were pioneer photographers, including Roger Fenton, who lugged his bulky equipment through the battlefields of the Crimean War of 1854-1856 in a custom wagon.

In the U.S., several eastern papers established telegraph links to New Orleans to receive dispatches from the Mexican War of 1846-1848. The New York Herald and the New York Tribune began to include woodcuts regularly with their war news. The tabloid New York Sun began to issue illustrated supplements during the war that demonstrated an eager audience for pictorial newspapers. In 1853, showman Phineas Taylor Barnum and two of the sons of Moses Beach, proprietor of the Sun, founded a short-lived paper modeled on the ILN, called the New York Illustrated News. Its chief artist was a young English immigrant named Henry Carter, a veteran of the ILN, who went by the alias of “Frank Leslie.” Barnum’s chief competitor was Boston’s Frederick Gleason who had established Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion in 1851. This contained some current events, but was primarily a family miscellany of serial fiction, space-fillers and pretty pictures. When Barnum’s paper failed after a year, Gleason bought it, began reusing the woodblock illustrations and adding more news items to his Boston paper.

Frank Leslie soon founded his own magazine, a journal of fashion for women. In 1855 he started Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. This journal combined the format of the highly respectable ILN with Leslie’s flair for the sensational. His artists and reporters became the forerunners of today’s paparazzi, “investigative journalists” and “muckrakers.” With a corrupt city government like New York’s Tammany Hall, Leslie’s staff was spoiled for choice when it came to uncovering scandals. Leslie exposed the nauseating details of the adulterated “swill” milk industry in words and pictures and forced legislative action to protect public health.

Leslie’s success inspired the established publishing firm of Harper and Brothers to follow suit. Since 1850, Harpers had published Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, a digest-sized miscellany of fiction, travel articles, history and essays, with a generous sprinkling of high-quality wood engravings. In 1857 they launched Harper’s Weekly as a more genteel alternative to Leslie’s. At first the new paper had only a few woodcuts, but within a year, its pictorial layout rivaled that of the competition. In 1859, the New-York Illustrated News, (later Demorest’s) became the third major pictorial weekly on the eve of civil war.
Increasing sectional tensions between the industrial northern states and the agricultural southern states marked the years 1859-1860. The causes were a complex brew of economic, political, philosophic and personal stresses, underpinned by the divisive issue of human slavery. As compromise failed and hotheaded radicals gained ascendancy, the new illustrated weeklies and their daily counterparts split along party lines and became ever more strident. John Brown’s botched antislavery raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 polarized the adversaries further, with Brown portrayed as either a saint or a terrorist. Even a cursory browse of antebellum southern papers will shock the modern reader by the sheer volume of advertisements of slave auctions, runaways, and harsh statutes printed in the most matter-of-fact way.

Nineteenth century newspapermen rejected the notion of “impartial journalism” and made no pretense at camouflaging their partisan views.  Many local papers proclaimed their affiliations on their mastheads: “the York Republican,” the “Richmond Whig,” William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist “The Liberator,” and a host of “Weekly Democrats” and similar titles. 

The crucial election year of 1860 provided a bonanza for editors as the relatively new Republican party overcame internal conflicts and nominated Abraham Lincoln to oppose a hopelessly split Democratic ticket and an incompetent incumbent. Lincoln’s nomination crystallized a strong secessionist movement in the slaveholding states and his election in November was the final spark in the national powder keg. South Carolina formally left the Union in December, closely followed by ten other states. They formed “The Confederate States of America” complete with a constitution, a government and a capital in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1861 the new breakaway states transferred their capital to Richmond, Virginia.

Throughout the Spring of 1861 a prolonged crisis riveted Americans' attention. Although efforts at resupply had been thwarted, an isolated Federal garrison in Charleston harbor refused to surrender Fort Sumter to the “Rebels.” After negotiations failed in April, Confederate forces pounded the ill-equipped fort to rubble within a day and the tiny garrison surrendered. The United States’ most traumatic war until Vietnam began with this bloodless and lopsided Confederate victory. Four years later, over half a million soldiers would lay dead, another million would be maimed, cities would be reduced to charred wastelands and the entire South would be ruined economically for decades.

From the outset, the mass media sensed that the Civil War was a golden opportunity. Photographer Mathew B. Brady, a society cameraman and entrepreneur, assembled a photographic corps and sent them to all theaters of war during the next four years. The New York illustrated weeklies dispatched artists and correspondents to follow the Union armies, while the London papers covered the “Southrons.” (Because of England’s dependence on cotton, close ties existed with the cotton-producing states.)

All reading matter was welcomed eagerly to provide recreation in the crowded army camps. Northern and southern papers were traded across the lines during informal truces between opposing pickets, so enemy news remained available throughout much of the war. English periodicals crossed the Atlantic in the holds of northern merchant ships and southern blockade-runners. In 1863 Harper’s Weekly was able to publish a recent image of Rebel general Robert E. Lee by pirating it from the ILN. Much of what is now considered “classified” information found its way into the daily press, including planned troop movements. Incensed by this, Federal General William T. Sherman considered all newspaper reporters as so many traitors and often refused to give interviews.

Despite a shortage of skilled printers, engravers and mechanics, paper, ink and presses, several national magazines and a fair number of books were produced within the Confederacy, in addition to dozens of local daily and weekly newspapers. The “Illustrated Southern News” attempted to rival Harper’s and Leslie’s, but a lack of people and materiel doomed it to a second-rate status and a short lifespan. The old Southern Literary Messenger, once edited by Edgar Allan Poe, soldiered on until the Confederacy fell in 1865. There was a Magnolia Weekly, whose format aped Boston’s Waverly Magazine, and the pre-war De Bow’s Review, plus several agricultural and religious magazines, but these too were hampered by shortages. By war’s end, many of the surviving papers were printed on recycled wallpaper and butcher’s wrapping paper with homemade ink.

If newspapers are “the rough draft of history,” Civil War papers fulfilled that role admirably. They provide the same sense of immediacy and humanity as viewing stereoscopic images of the period. With the benefit of hindsight we can chuckle ruefully over some fire-eating editorial claiming that “one Southern boy can whip a dozen Yankee mudsills,” or that “it will all be over by Christmas.” Because many news items were contributed by volunteer correspondents from all walks of life, it is possible to get a sense of the attitudes and aspirations, as well as the concerns and fears of ordinary citizens caught up in that great drama. Laid out before us is a panorama of fact, opinion and outright lies, embellished with advertisements for quack remedies, worthless bullet-proof vests, collectible carte-de-visite photos of celebrities, patriotic nick-nacks, crackpot gadgets, lottery schemes, Paris fashions, new books and thousands of other products. Here also are the bathetic poems that made people weep and the corny gags and cartoons that made them laugh.

Editorial cartoons and “the funnies” seem so much a part of modern daily papers that it is difficult to imagine a time when they were not featured. There was no lack of cartoons and humorous sketches during the Civil War, however -- they tended to appear in separate comic publications apart from the daily press. Northern readers could purchase Frank Leslie’s Budget of Fun, Street and Smith’s Phunny Phellow, Punch, or the London Charivari, Vanity Fair and a dozen comic almanacs and joke books. In the C.S.A. a Southern Punch flourished briefly in 1863-1865 and the Illustrated Southern News ran cartoons fairly often. Printmakers like Currier and Ives issued hundreds of comic lithographs during the war years as separate sheets, suitable for framing. Weekly illustrated papers generally featured a “humors of the day” column and two or more editorial cartoons on the last page, above the advertisements. The large-format story papers of the 1850s remained popular throughout the war years as well and military hospitals provided them for convalescing servicemen.

In addition to the regular daily and weekly papers published in cities and towns, the Civil War produced several news sheets printed and edited by and for the armies in the field, particularly by garrison troops in occupied territory. (This would become a tradition in the two world wars of the following century, embodied in The Stars and Stripes.) Many Union soldiers had been printers in civilian life and turned their talents to publishing on captured Confederate equipment in New Orleans, Georgia and the Carolinas, or else on the portable job presses which normally produced orders, forms and military documents. Their papers ran the gamut from crude to professional, complete with mastheads and advertisements. Two principal papers were The Free South and The Palmetto Herald.

Reading contemporary wartime newspapers has never been easier. As part of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, many Federal, state and local agencies have begun digitizing files of these ephemeral treasures and making them available online. An excellent anthology of pieces from Union and Confederate papers is Fighting Words, an Illustrated History of Newspaper Accounts of the Civil War by Andrew S. Coopersmith (New York: The New Press, 2004). Many key political cartoons have been reproduced in Gary L. Bunker’s From Rail-Splitter to Icon: Lincoln’s Image in Illustrated Periodicals, 1860-1865 (The Kent State University Press, 2001). Although now ascribed a position just below sainthood by many latter-day Americans, Lincoln was one of the most lampooned and vilified people on the globe during his presidency, thanks to the nineteenth-century revolution in mass publishing.

Continue to Part II HERE

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