The rise in the overall numbers of periodicals throughout the eighteenth century attests to their increasing popularity. Tables 1 (above) and 2 (below) illustrate the growth of periodicals during this era. In the year 1700, not a single newspaper or magazine had been published in North America. By the end of the century, that changed dramatically, with over 200 periodicals circulating throughout the various states. This rapidly growing industry was responding to a surge in reader demand. According to one estimate, approximately 15 percent of all adult white males subscribed to some form of periodical by the end of the century, creating a higher per capita readership of periodicals than anywhere else in the Atlantic world. The normal circulation size of periodicals ranged from the low hundreds to just over a thousand.
Printers faced an arduous journey in publishing a periodical. Once publication of the periodical began, the distribution process suffered trials and tribulations at several levels. Readers often complained about lateness in the arrival of their periodicals. In turn, printers lamented over their inability to collect the money owed to them by subscribers. Additional factors contributed to the interruptions of regular delivery, including problems with paper supply, poor weather conditions, and labor shortages. The failure rate of many periodicals, in particular magazines, attests to the inability of many printers to overcome these numerous obstacles. Most magazines published in the eighteenth century, for example, never made it past their first year of publication.
Regardless of the poor success of periodical publishing, many printers still tried to make a go of it. Printers worked hard at meeting the demands of their readers by appealing to the eye, offering diverse subject matter, and trying to control publication costs. To boost their sales, printers offered incentives, including bulk sales at a discounted price, or reduced rates for those who agreed to subscribe long-term. Since collecting subscription payments was unpredictable, they tried other things to supplement their income. Advertisements became essential to a periodical’s survival, particularly newspapers, and by the end of the eighteenth century, it had become an integral part of such publications.
A periodical’s success also depended on it being affordable to as many people as possible. Prices varied, but generally periodicals cost between 15 and 20 shillings a year to subscribe. This price proved costly for the common person, so most subscribers were among the wealthy.
Although subscribers tended to belong to the upper ranks of society, printers still hoped that people of more modest means would have access to periodicals. Literacy rates in New England were fairly high, with almost universal literacy for white males by the end of the eighteenth century. The rates for white males in the South were slightly lower, with about two-thirds literate by the end of the century. Although literacy among females was lower than that of men, rates were still high compared to those in other nations, with some 60 percent of women in New England being literate and about 30 percent of those in the South.
For those who did not subscribe, there were various ways of gaining access to magazines and newspapers. One was through circulating libraries, where periodicals became an important part of their holdings. Taverns and coffeehouses also provided free access to periodical literature, as innkeepers subscribed to newspapers and magazines in an effort to draw in customers. Also, people often came across periodicals through personal relationships, as many shared their copies of newspapers and magazines.
Most printers also tried to branch out beyond the cities in order to expand their readership. Overall, successful printers were the ones who marketed their periodicals in any way possible to ensure an adequate number of readers.
Newspapers and magazines had become a vital form of communication by the end of the eighteenth century. As American society matured, periodicals filled a growing need for information, with newspapers providing more of the political and economic content and magazines the cultural, religious, and literary material. For those who could not afford to buy books or other expensive printed items, periodicals offered greater access to information than ever before. The words of one author from the The Philadelphia Monthly Magazine (January 1798) rang true to many: â€œamong all the modes [of communication] that have been devised for that purpose, no one has been so effectual as that of periodical performances.â€ Keith Pacholl See also: Art, Cartoons, and Broadsides; Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Chronology); Arts, Culture, and Intellectual Life (Essay); Franklin, Benjamin; Language; Literature; Poor Richard’s Almanack; Reading and Literacy; Zenger, John Peter; Documents: The Trial of Peter Zenger (1735); Maxims from Poor Richard’s Almanack (1739); Newspaper Account of the Boston Massacre (1770). Bibliography Brown, Richard. Knowledge Is Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Clark, Charles. The Public Prints: The Newspaper in Anglo-American Culture, 1665â€“1740. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copeland, David. Colonial American Newspapers. Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1997. Mott, Frank. A History of American Magazines. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957. Pacholl, Keith. “Bearers of the Word: Religion and Print and Early America.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Riverside, 2002. Purvis, Thomas. Colonial America to 1763. New York: Facts on File, 1999. Purvis, Thomas. Revolutionary America 1763â€“1800. New York: Facts on File, 1995.