Friday, August 28, 2020

Notes on the American News Company 4 –

The Union News Company

Image: Pittsburgh Press, Oct 1888

by John Adcock

Founded in 1864 to distribute periodicals to retailers, the American News soon branched into wholesaling stationary, books, toys, and eventually hundreds of other items; and to selling periodicals and food on railroads. In 1872 its subsidiary, Railroad News Company, bought the Union News Company, also established in 1864 to sell reading matter and other merchandise to passengers on commodore Vanderbilt’s New York and Harlem Railroad. 

Meanwhile, American News expanded its network of branches across the United States and into Canada. The company practically monopolized the distribution of periodicals when the low-priced magazine appeared in the nineties, but at mid-century it had some competition from the few other distributing agencies, S-M News Company, and organizations controlled by Curtis, Fawcett and Hearst. – Theodore Peterson, Magazines in the twentieth century, 1956

John Felton, a native of Barre, Mass., moved to Buffalo in 1854 where he started a news and stationary business with his brother Benjamin. His obituary notes that

Like a true born Yankee, John Felton originated the familiar system now in vogue by the Union News Company. Beginning on the New York Central, the Lake Shore and Flint & Pere Marquette roads were soon included. Mr. Felton managed the whole business, which soon became the largest of the kind in existence and began to reach the notice of New York capitalists and railroad men. 

About this year of 1874, when Vanderbilt obtained possession of several roads used by Felton & Brother, it was decided to lease the News Company’s rights. A Mr. Shear, formerly a partner with Mr. Felton, was the lessee, and in a short time control of this Company passed into the hands of a consolidation called the Union News Company, which exists to-day.
In a 1902 obituary we learn more of the circumstances

William Henry Williams, the President and general manager of the Union News Company, died yesterday at his residence, 305 Essex avenue, Orange, N. J., of heart failure. He had been in poor health for some time but went to business as usual on Wednesday. He was born in Burlington, Vermont 61 years ago. He came to New York when he was 17 years of age and established a newspaper delivery business. 

Later he helped organize the firm of Shear & Williams and established a news business on the Harlem Railroad. This firm was the nucleus of the Union News Company, which Mr. Williams formed, and which now controls the news business on 125,000 miles of railroads. Mr. Williams was also President of the Union Restaurant Company, a director of the American News Company and the owner of the Saxton fibre cushion horseshoe. 

He was interested in several banks and corporations. He was a member of the press Club, Hardware Club, the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, and the Once a Month Club. His wife, five sons and three daughters survive him. Three of his sons are officers of the Union News Company.
William Henry Williams son, Harry Mortimer Williams, succeeded his father as President of the Union News Company in 1901, retired in 1931, and died on Sept 5, 1933. His brother Frank Tousey Williams was vice-President and general manager of UNC until his death in Feb 12, 1927.

The Union News Company, by stopping the sales of any periodical not approved by the parent American News Company, was able to pressure publishers to grant exclusive distribution rights to their periodicals and newspapers. In 1888 the Pittsburgh Press led a boycott  of the Union News Company.

Concerning the charge that certain railroad officials are financially interested in the Union News Company and inclined to encourage rather than rebuke its distortions, a charge which has been frequently made and which the PRESS will endeavor to investigate in the near future, the following statement will be found in an article on the Union News Company’s boycott in yesterdays Leader:
A gentleman who has been in the business says: “It is nonsense for any paper to try and fight the Union News Company. Even if a combination were made against it by all the papers they would be beaten. The company is virtually composed of Pennsylvanian railroad officials and the agents only work on commission, and while the paper is not sold there is no loss to the company.” – Pittsburgh Press, Oct 2, 1888
The newspaper seems unaware that the Union News Company was a wholly owned subsidiary of the American News Company. Henry Dexter took over as President of the ANC in 1887 on the death of Sinclair Tousey. 

An article in Current Literature that same month, October 1888, noted “The army of train boys, and the distribution of along the great lines of travel, is directed by General W. H. Williams, a veteran of the business.” William Henry Williams (see obituary above) was also on the Board of Directors of the American News Company in October 1888.

What the Pittsburgh Press called a “boycott” was probably a response to Union News efforts to replace Pittsburgh’s private agents with American News Company approved “news butchers.” 

News butchers were men and boys who wore blue uniforms and matching color caps with identifying badges. They contracted to walk the trains selling books, periodicals, fruit, candy, licorice, and cigars supplied by the American News Company. 

Current Literature (Oct 1888)  again: “there are also about one thousand boys and young men at work upon trains from Maine to California selling the publications handled by the Union News Company, a branch organization with a specialty of railway depot stands and train service.”

The Pittsburgh newspapers sold newspapers at depots through their own agencies in the railway towns within a radius of 150 miles of the city. “While the (UNC) agent kicks the newsboy from the platform of a moving train the principal drives him from the depot and railway station.” 

Penny newspapers like the Pittsburgh Press were marked up to 3 cents a copy for sale on UNC trains. Any profits went to the coffers of the UNC.

The Dispatch, Commercial Gazette and other morning newspapers show their distrust of the Union News Company by stamping the price of their paper upon every copy which the monopoly circulates. This precaution proves unavailing, however, the mark in many instances being rubbed out or torn from the paper… 

The company has demanded and is still conceded by some of the Pittsburgh papers, the right to return unsold copies. Before the PRESS decided to withdraw this privilege, which was accorded no other agent, the news company had been detected again and again in the return of papers that had been sold, read, and left in the cars, where they were gathered up by the train agents and returned as unsold. Pittsburgh Press, Oct 4, 1888
I was unable to find the denouement of the Pittsburgh Press’ so-called boycott against the Union News Company, but it is not hard to guess that they were eventually brought to heel. The American News Company and its subsidiaries lock on newspaper and periodical publishers would only strengthen with time. 

On the other hand, publishers stood to make great profits from ANC contracts. 

Nova Scotia dime novel publisher George Munro “had $30,000 laid away when he started the Fireside Companion, and as he was on good terms with the American News Company, his paper was successful from the start. It has run up as high as $250,000, and we do not think it has ever run below 150,00…”

For months Mr. Munro would draw from $32,000 to $35,000 from the American News Company every Monday, and of this at least $15,000 was clear profit. – ‘The Story Papers,’ Armenia Times, June 25, 1888

American News Company, Oct 1888

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