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Chapter 10: the first penny paper—and who thought of it.

  • Importance of the cheap daily press
  • -- the originator of the idea -- history of the idea -- Dr. Sheppard's Chatham-street cogitations -- the idea is conceived -- it is born -- interview with Horace Greeley -- the doctor thinks he is “no common boy” -- the schemer baffled -- daily papers twenty-five years ago -- Dr. Sheppard comes to a resolution -- the firm of Greeley and story -- the morning Post appears -- and fails -- the sphere of the cheap press -- Fanny Fern and the pea-nut merchant.


When the Historian of the United States shall have completed the work that has occupied so many busy and anxious years, and, in the tranquil solitude of his study, he reviews the long series of events which he has narrated, the question may arise in his mind,—Which of the events that occurred during the first seventy years of the Republic is likely to exert the greatest and most lasting influence upon its future history? Surely, he will not pause long for a reply. For, there is one event, which stands out so prominently beyond and above all others, the consequences of which, to this country and all other countries, must be so immense, and, finally, so beneficial, that no other can be seriously placed in competition with it. It was the establishment of the first penny daily paper in the city of New York in the year 1833. Its results, in this country, have already been wonderful indeed, and it is destined to [138] play a great part in the history of every civilized nation, and in that of every nation yet to be civilized.

Not that Editors are, in all cases, or in most, the wisest of men; not that editorial writing has a greater value than hasty composition in general. Editors are a useful, a laborious, a generous, an honorable class of men and women, and their writings have their due effect. But, that part of the newspaper which interests, awakens, moves, warns, inspires, instructs and educates all classes and conditions of people, the wise and the unwise, the illiterate and the learned, is the news! And the News, the same news, at nearly the same instant of time, is communicated to all the people of this fair and vast domain which we inherit, by the instrumentality of the Cheap Press, aided by its allies the Rail and the Wire.

A catastrophe happens to-day in New York. New Orleans shudders to-morrow at the recital; and the Nation shudders before the week ends. A “Great word,” uttered on any stump in the land, soon illuminates a million minds. A bad deed is perpetrated, and the shock of disgust flies with electric rapidity from city to city, from State to State—from the heart that records it to every heart that beats. A gallant deed or a generous one is done, or a fruitful idea is suggested, and it falls, like good seed which the wind scatters, over all the land at once. Leave the city on a day when some stirring news is rife, travel as far and as fast as you may, rest not by day nor night; you cannot easily get where that News is not, where it is not the theme of general thought and talk, where it is not doing its part in informing, or, at least, exciting the public mind. Abandon the great lines of travel, go rocking in a stage over corduroy roads, through the wilderness, to the newest of new villages, a cluster of log-houses, in a field of blackened stumps, and even there you must be prompt with your news, or it will have flown out from a bundle of newspapers under the driver's seat, and fallen in flakes all over the settlement.

The Cheap Press—its importance cannot be estimated! It puts every mind in direct communication with the greatest minds, which all, in one way or another, speak through its columns. It brings the Course of Events to bear on the progress of every individual. It is the great leveller, elevator and democraticizer. It makes this huge Commonwealth, else so heterogeneous and disunited, think with one [139] mind, feel with one heart, and talk with one tongue. Dissolve the Union into a hundred petty States, and the Press will still keep us, in heart and soul and habit, One People.

Pardon this slight digression, dear reader. Pardon it, because the beginnings of the greatest things are, in appearance, so insignificant, that unless we look at them in the light of their consequences, it is impossible to take an interest in them.

There are not, I presume, twenty-five persons alive, who know in whose head it was, that the idea of a cheap daily paper originated. Nor has the proprietor of that head ever derived from his idea, which has enriched so many others, the smallest pecuniary advantage. He walks these streets, this day, an unknown man, and poor. His name—the reader may forget it, History will not—is Horatio David Sheppard. The story of his idea, amply confirmed in every particular by living and unimpeachable witnesses, is the following:

About the year 1880, Mr. Sheppard, recently come of age and into the possession of fifteen hundred dollars, moved from his native New Jersey to New York, and entered the Eldridge Street Medical School as a student of medicine. He was ambitious and full of ideas. Of course, therefore, his fifteen hundred dollars burned in his vest pocket—(where he actually used to carry it, until a fellow student almost compelled him to deposit it in a place of safety). He took to dabbling in newspapers and periodicals, a method of getting rid of superfluous cash, which is as expeditious as it is fascinating. He soon had an interest in a medical magazine, and soon after, a share in a weekly paper. By the time he had completed his medical studies, he had gained some insight into the nature of the newspaper business, and lost the greater part of his money.

People who live in Eldridge street, when they have occasion to go “down town,” must necessarily pass through Chatham street, a thoroughfare which is noted, among many other things, for the extraordinary number of articles which are sold in it for a “penny a piece.” Apple-stalls, peanut-stalls, stalls for the sale of oranges, melons, pine-apples, cocoanuts, chestnuts, candy, shoe-laces, cakes, pocket-combs, ice-cream, suspenders, lemonade, and oysters, line the sidewalk. In Chatham street, those small trades are carried on, on a scale of magnitude, with a loudness of vociferation, and a [140] flare of lamp-light, unknown to any other part of the town. Along Chatham street, our medical student ofttimes took his way, musing on the instability of fifteen hundred dollars, and observing, possibly envying, the noisy merchants of the stalls. He was struck with the rapidity with which they sold their penny ware. A small boy would sell half a dozen penny cakes in the course of a minute. The difference between a cent, and no money, did not seem to be appreciated by the people. If a person saw something, wanted it, knew the price to be only a cent, he was almost as certain to buy it as though it were offered him for nothing. Now, thought he, to make a fortune, one has nothing more to do than to produce a tempting article which can be sold profitably for a cent, place it where everybody can see it, and buy it, without stopping—and lo! the thing is done! If it were only possible to produce a small, spicy daily paper for a cent, and get boys to sell it about the streets, how it would sell! How many pennies that now go for cakes and peanuts would be spent for news and paragraphs!

The idea was born—the twin ideas of the penny paper and the newsboy. But, like the young of the kangaroo, they crawled into the mental pouch of the teeming originator, and nestled there for months, before they were fully formed and strong enough to confront the world.

Perhaps it is possible, continued the musing man of medicine, on a subsequent walk in Chatham street. He went to a paper warehouse, and made inquiries touching the price of the cheaper kinds of printing paper. He figured up the cost of composition. He computed office expenses and editorial salaries. He estimated the probable circulation of a penny paper, and the probable income to be derived from advertising. Surely, he could sell four or five thousand a day! There, for instance, is a group of people; suppose a boy were at this moment to go up to them with an armful of papers, only one cent, I am positive, thought the sanguine projector, that six of the nine would buy a copy! His conclusion was, that he could produce a newspaper about twice the size of an average sheet of letter-paper, half paragraphs and half advertisements, and sell it at a cent per copy, with an ample profit to himself. He was sure of it! He had tried all his arithmetic upon the project, and he figures gave the same result always. The twins leaped from [141] the pouch, and taking their progenitor by the throat, led him a fine dance before he could shake them off. For the present, they possessed him wholly.

As most of his little inheritance had vanished, it was necessary for him to interest some one in the scheme who had either capital or a printing office. The Spirit of the Times was then in its infancy. To the office of that paper, where Horace Greeley was then a journeyman, Mr. Sheppard first directed his steps, and there he first unfolded his plans and exhibited his calculations. Mr. Greeley was not present on his first entrance. He came in soon after, and began telling in high glee a story he had picked up of old Isaac Hill, who used to read his speeches in the House, and one day brought the wrong speech, and got upon his legs, and half way into a swelling exordium before he discovered his mistake. The narrator told his story extremely well, taking off the embarrassment of the old gentleman as he gradually came to the knowledge of his misfortune, to the life. The company were highly amused, and Mr. Sheppard said to himself, ‘That's no common boy.’ Perhaps it was an unfortunate moment to introduce a bold and novel idea; but it is certain that every individual present, from the editor to the devil, regarded the notion of a penny paper as one of extreme absurdity,—foolish, ridiculous, frivolous! They took it as a joke, and the schemer took his leave.

Nor is it at all surprising that they should have regarded it in that light. A daily newspaper in those days was a solemn thing. People in moderate circumstances seldom saw, never bought one. The price was ten dollars a years. Cut the present Journal of Commerce in halves, fold it, fancy on its second page half a column of serious editorial, a column of news, half a column of business and shipping intelligence, and the rest of the ample sheet covered with advertisements, and you have before your mind's eye the New York daily paper of twenty-five years ago. It was not a thing for the people; it appertained to the counting-house; it was taken by the wholesale dealer; it was cumbrous, heavy, solemn. The idea of making it an article to be cried about the streets, to be sold for a cent, to be bought by workingmen and boys, to come into competition with cakes and apples, must have seemed to the respectable New Yorkers of 1831, unspeakably absurd. When the respectable [142] New Yorker first saw a penny paper, he gazed at it (I saw him) with a feeling similar to that with which an ill-natured man may be supposed to regard General Tom Thumb, a feeling of mingled curiosity and contempt; he put the ridiculous little thing into his waistcoat pocket to carry home for the amusement of his family; and he wondered what nonsense would be perpetrated next.

Dr. Sheppard—he had now taken his degree—was not disheartened by the merry reception of his idea at the office of the Spirit of the Times. He went to other offices—to nearly every other office! For eighteen months it was his custom, whenever opportunity offered, to expound his project to printers and editors, and, in fact, to any one who would listen to him long enough. He could not convince one man of the feasibility of his scheme,—not one! A few people thought it a good idea for the instruction of the million, and recommended him to get some society to take hold of it. But not a human being could be brought to believe that it would pay as a business, and only a few of the more polite and complaisant printers could be induced to consider the subject in a serious light at all.

Reader, possessed with an Idea, reader, “in a minority of one,” take courage from the fact.

Despairing of getting the assistance he required, Dr. Sheppard resolved, at length, to make a desperate effort to start the paper himself. His means were fifty dollars in cash and a promise of credit for two hundred dollars' worth of paper. Among his printer friends was Mr. Francis Story, the foreman of the Spirit of the Times office, who, about that time, was watching for an opportunity to get into business on his own account. To him Dr. Sheppard announced his intention, and proposed that he should establish an office and print the forthcoming paper, offering to pay the bill for composition every Saturday. Mr. Story hesitated; but, on obtaining from Mr. Sylvester a promise of the printing of his Bank Note Reporter, he embraced Dr. Sheppard's proposal, and offered Horace Greeley, for whom he had long entertained a warm friendship and a great admiration, an equal share in the enterprise. Horace was not favorably impressed with Dr. Sheppard's scheme. In the first place, he had no great faith in the practical ability of that gentleman; and, secondly, he was of opinion that the smallest price for which a daily paper could be profitably sold was two cents. [143] His arguments on the latter point did not convince the ardent doctor; but, with the hope of overcoming his scruples and enlisting his co-operation, he consented to give up his darling idea, and fix the price of his paper at two cents. Horace Greeley agreed, at length, to try his fortune as a master printer, and in December, the firm of Greeley and Story was formed.

Now, experience has since proved that two cents is the best price for a cheap paper. But the point, the charm, the impudence of Dr. Sheppard's project all lay in those magical words, “price one cent,” which his paper was to have borne on its heading—but did not. And the capital to be invested in the enterprise was so ludicrously inadequate, that it was necessary for the paper to pay at once, or cease to appear. Horace Greeley's advice, therefore, though good as a general principle, was not applicable to the case in hand. Not that the proposed paper would, or could, have succeeded upon any terms. Its failure was inevitable. Dr. Sheppard is one of those projectors who have the faculty of suggesting the most valuable and fruitful ideas, without possessing, in any degree, the qualities needful for their realization.

The united capital of the two printers was about one hundred and fifty dollars. They were both, however, highly respected in the printing world, and both had friends among those whose operations keep that world in motion. They hired part of a small office at No. 54 Liberty street. Horace Greeley's candid story prevailed with Mr. George Bruce, the great type founder, so far, that he gave the new firm credit for a small quantity of type—an act of trust and kindness which secured him one of the best customers he has over had. (To this day the type of the Tribune is supplied by Mr. Bruce.) Before the new year dawned, Greeley and Story were ready to execute every job of printing which was not too extensive or intricate, on favorable terms, and with the utmost punctuality and dispatch.

On the morning of January 1st, 1833, the morning Post, and a snow-storm of almost unexampled fury, came upon the town together. The snow was a wet blanket upon the hopes of newsboys and carriers, and quite deadened the noise of the new paper, filling up areas, and burying the tiny sheet at the doors of its few subscribers. For several days the streets were obstructed with snow. It was very cold. There were few people in the streets, and those few [144] were not easily tempted to stop and fumble in their pockets for two cents. The newsboys were soon discouraged, and were fain to run shivering home. Dr. Sheppard was wholly unacquainted with the details of editorship, and most of the labor of getting up the numbers fell upon Mr. Greeley, and they were produced under every conceivable disadvantage. Yet, with all these misfortunes and drawbacks, several hundred copies were daily sold, and Dr. Sheppard was able to pay all the expenses of the first week. On the second Saturday, however, he paid his printers half in money and half in promises. On the third day of the third week, the faith and the patience of Messrs. Greeley and Story gave out, and the Morning Post ceased to exist.

The last two days of its short life it was sold for a cent, and the readiness with which it was purchased convinced Dr. Sheppard, but him alone, that if it had been started at that price, it would not have been a failure. His money and his credit were both gone, and the error could not be retrieved. He could not even pay his printers the residue of their account, and he had, in consequence, to endure some emphatic observations from Mr. Story on the madness and presumption of his scheme. ‘Didn't I tell you so?’ said the other printers. ‘Everybody,’ says Dr. Sheppard, ‘abused me, except Horace Greeley. He spoke very kindly, and told me not to mind what Story said.’ The doctor, thenceforth, washed his hands of printers' ink, and entered upon the practice of his profession.

Nine months after, the Sun appeared, a penny paper, a dingy sheet a little larger than a sheet of letter paper. Its success demonstrated the correctness of Dr. Sheppard's calculations, and justified the enthusiasm with which he had pursued his Idea. The office from which the Sun was issued was one of the last which Dr. Sheppard had visited for the purpose of enlisting co-operation. Neither of the proprietors was present, but the ardent schemer expounded his plans to a journeyman, and thus planted the seed which, in September, produced fruit in the form of the Sun, which “shines for all.”

This morning, the cheap daily press of this city has issued a hundred and fifty thousand sheets, the best of which contain a history of the world for one day, so completely given, so intelligently commented [145] upon, as to place the New York Press at the head of the journalism of the world. The Cheap Press, be it observed, had, first of all, to create itself, and, secondly, to create its Public. The papers of the old school have gone on their way prospering. They are read by the class that read them formerly. But—mark that long line of hackmen, each seated on his box waiting for a customer, and each reading his morning paper! Observe the paper that is thrust into the pocket of the omnibus driver. Look into shops and factories at the dinner hour, and note how many of the men are reading their newspaper as they eat their dinner. All this is new. All this has resulted from the Chatham-street cogitations of Horatio David Sheppard.

A distinguished authoress of this city relates the following circumstance, which occurred last summer:

The man who does take the paper.

To the Editor of The N. Y. Tribune.
Sir:—Not long since I read in your paper an article headed ‘the man who never took a newspaper.’ In contrast to this I would relate to you a little incident which came under my own observation:

Having been disappointed the other morning in receiving that part of my breakfast contained in the N. Y. Daily Tribune, I dispatched a messenger to see what could be done in the way of satisfaction. After half an hour's diligent search he returned, much to my chagrin, empty-handed. Recollecting an old copy set me at school after this wise: ‘If you want a thing done do it yourself,’ I seized my bonnet and sallied forth. Not far from my domicil appears each morning, with the rising sun, an old huckster-man, whose stock in trade consists of two empty barrels, across which is thrown a pro tern counter in the shape of a plank, a pint of pea-nuts, six sticks of peppermint candy, half a dozen choleric looking pears and apples, copies of the daily papers, and an old stubby broom, with which the owner carefully brushes up the nut-shells dropped by graceless urchins to the endangerment of his sidewalk lease.

‘Have you this morning's Tribune?’ said I, looking as amiable as I knew how.

‘No Ma'am,’ was the decided reply.

‘Why—yes, you have,’ said I, laying my hand on the desired number.

‘Well, you can't have that, Ma'am,’ said the disconcerted peanut merchant, ‘for I haven't read it myself!’

‘I'll give you three cents for it,’ said I. [146]

(A shake of the head.)

‘Four cents?’

(Another shake.)

‘Sixpence?’ (I was getting excited.)

‘It's no use, Ma'am,’ said the persistent old fellow. ‘It's the only number I could get, and I tell you that nobody shall have that Tribune till I have read it myself!’

You should have seen, Mr. Editor, the shapeless hat, the mosaic coat, the tattered vest, and the extraordinary pair of trousers that were educated up to that Tribune—it was a picture


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