The Penny Press and the Emergence of Urban Mass Culture

This essay details the changes in newspaper production with the rise of the Penny Press and also explains the emergence of urban mass culture. While many authors during this time attempted to draw together diverse audiences by uniting disparate elements of American culture, they also delineated themselves from what they saw as an undisciplined and unrefined subculture. As such, authors like Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickinson, and Melville prefigured the further division of elite and mass culture that came to define much of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth literary and cultural debates.

The antebellum period in the U.S. witnessed the emergence and development of a number of cultural forms and institutions, perhaps none so new as the various components of an urban mass culture. Cultural theorists sometimes distinguish between popular culture and mass culture by using the term "mass culture" to refer to the production and distribution of cultural forms for market reasons. Whereas distinct elements of popular culture – songs and folklore, communal practices and religious rituals – existed throughout the colonial period, continuing into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was only with the market and transportation revolutions and concomitant urbanization that the production of culture really began to become an industry unto itself.

As has already been mentioned in passing in this course, publishing was one of the first areas to be revolutionized by the demographic, technological, and economic changes of the early decades of the nineteenth century. In particular, the penny press, as it emerged in urban centers such as New York and Philadelphia, came to characterize – and help shape – the audiences and materials of mass culture of the antebellum era. Through the early years of the nineteenth century, there were few newspapers in the United States, most of which were published on a weekly basis and whose cost put them far out of the reach of most Americans. They also tended to be only a few pages (usually 4) and consisted largely of announcements of mercantile information, ship arrivals, and court actions. Almost all newspapers fervently aligned themselves with a specific political party, making little effort at any sort of objectivity. With the 1830s, however, the periodical press radically changed with the introduction of the first daily penny newspapers, Horatio David Sheppard's New York Morning Post and Benjamin H. Day's New York Sun. First published in 1833, these papers and their many imitators and competitors depended on the changes in economic scale allowed by the mechanization of printing processes. Unlike their predecessors, they generated income primarily through advertisements, taking advantage of their relatively huge circulations among a locally-concentrated populace. Changes in content accompanied these economic transformations. With their daily publication, the new penny press accentuated being up-to-date on the latest news, and papers began to pit themselves against one another in getting the most exciting news first. Such papers frequently featured lurid stories of murder and seduction, corruption and iniquity, playing into fears and anxieties connected with the growth of urban centers. While often dismissed or disparaged by leading cultural critics, daily newspapers became one of the most accessible and used sources of entertainment and information for a large number of working Americans.

As much influence as the industrialization of printing had on American culture during this era, many historians have argued that oratory still outstripped print as a source of information, opinion, and knowledge for most Americans. Ministers continued to wield great influence through sermons and homilies delivered to congregations and wider audiences, and political speeches and debates often attracted large numbers of auditors. More directly related to the economic and cultural developments of the time was the lyceum movement. Beginning in the late 1820s, nearly every town of any size created a society charged with bringing in notable speakers on a variety of matters – philosophy and religion, science and technology, politics and literature. As it developed, the lyceum movement both fed on and helped to shape the increased circulation of printed materials in both periodical and book forms, and many famous Americans (such as Daniel Webster) and several canonical authors (Ralph Waldo Emerson to the greatest extent) practiced their ideas and supplemented their incomes by becoming frequent speakers on the different circuits that developed.

If the lyceum movement cast itself in terms of upward mobility, self-improvement, and education, ideas central to the developing middle-class, the theater attempted to win over audiences on the same ground even as it retained a stigma of impropriety and immorality. Several of the North American British colonies had statutes against dramatic performances, and it was only after the Revolution that professional theater truly began to develop in the United States. Alongside the continuing religiously based disapproval of fictive representations, critics of the theater foregrounded concerns about the specific subject matter and theater audience behavior. Theaters tended to stage a variety of acts in each performance, offering displays of juggling and magic alongside bowdlerized renditions of famous plays and reworkings of popular works of English and European drama. Throughout much of the first half of the nineteenth century, most theaters drew their audiences from various classes and backgrounds, with box seats in some theaters set aside for the wealthier and cheap seats on the floor and in the upper balconies for the lower classes. In part because of the long-standing association of female acting with prostitution, theaters were often attacked as points of rendezvous for illicit sexual activity, and many theaters supplemented ticket prices with alcohol sales, leading to even more criticism of them as dens of iniquity. By the last decades before the Civil War, however, more and more theater managers were attempting to counteract concerns about the morality of theater-going through the fare they offered (moralistic dramas involving themes such as temperance) and by policing the behavior of audience-goers: not allowing the sale of alcohol, upping ticket prices, and requiring women to be accompanied by male patrons.

As will be explored at greater length in a later subunit, perhaps the most important theatrical development of the era was blackface minstrelsy. While white actors had appeared in blackface on the American stage as early as the late-eighteenth century, the minstrel show as its own form of entertainment emerged in the 1830s and 1840s, becoming, by most accounts, the most popular entertainment form in the urban north by the 1850s. Most often featuring a company of white actors in blackface, minstrel shows incorporated songs, often sentimental in nature, supposedly taken directly from slaves in the south with dialectic humor skits and ditties making fun of black pretensions to urbanity and sophistication.

One American integrated these various cultural forms and movements in becoming one of the most famous performers of the era, P. T. Barnum. Now best-known for his circuses, Barnum first entered into the entertainment industry as the promoter of an elderly black woman named Joice Heth, whom he presented to the public as George Washington's nursemaid. Over the course of the late 1830s, he tried his hand at a number of different kinds of cultural promotions before buying the American Museum in New York in 1841. Like most so-called museums of the time, Barnum's combined a variety of attractions, including art works, scientific and historical exhibits, with curiosities, waxworks, and performances, lectures and menageries. Barnum achieved unprecedented success by creating an environment that harnessed multiple popular forms, including theatrical drama, minstrel shows, and human curiosities (most famously Tom Thumb), in a location he thoroughly imbued with a respectable, middle-class atmosphere. Barnum's success (more thoroughly explored in the next subsection) bespeaks the complex way class and prestige functioned in antebellum mass culture. On the one hand, his ability to bring various high and low attractions together suggests the way that a high/low divide (and its concomitant class distinctions) was not yet fully operative in American society and culture. Yet the extent to which he refashioned attractions for an audience defined in terms of respectability simultaneously suggests the moral and class coding of different kinds of entertainment.

For cultural historians who view the antebellum period as firming distinctions between an elite and a popular culture, one event usually stands out most prominently: the Astor Place Riot of 1849. Edwin Forrest, perhaps the most famous American actor of the day and a particular favorite among the working-class audiences of New York's Bowery district, had a running feud with the British actor William Charles Macready, a feud enflamed by nationalist and class sentiments. When Forrest decided to perform Macbeth at the Broadway Theatre on the same night Macready was to perform the play at the elite Astor Place Theatre, many of Forrest's followers flooded the Astor Place and shouted Macready down. In open letters to the city's newspapers, New York's cultural elite responded by insisting that Macready be allowed to perform. Three nights later, after substantial stirring by the penny press, a large mob confronted policemen and militia who had been dispatched to protect Macready's second attempt at performing. In the riot that ensued, at least twenty-five people were killed. For many historians since, the event marked a key turning-point in the separation of classes and the development of distinctly different elite and popular cultures in the U.S.

It is not surprising, then, that many of the canonical authors of the American renaissance frequently commented on this shifting cultural scene (Herman Melville was one of the signatories of the letter asking Macready to perform again). While these authors were drawn to the democratic popularity of mass culture, to the feeling that the new forms of theatrical, oratorical, and print entertainment allowed the mass populace to express themselves and to gain a broader access to the world, they also frequently worried about the quality of the material and the level of thought and discrimination, found in mass cultural forms and products. Further complicating matters, these authors often found themselves in competition with materials they felt appealed to a grosser, less refined element, materials that achieved a popularity that the canonical authors of the era came to envy and resent. Incorporating elements and figures from these mass cultural forms into their literary works, authors such as Thoreau and Emerson, Hawthorne, Dickinson, and Melville can be seen as embodying the same tensions of Barnum's museum, attempting to draw together diverse audiences by uniting disparate elements of American culture while also delineating themselves from what they saw as an undisciplined and unrefined subculture. As such, they prefigure the further division of elite and mass culture that would come to define much of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth literary and cultural debates.


Suggested Resources

Adams, Bluford. E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Bank, Rosemarie K. Theatre Culture in America, 1825-1860. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997.

Cook, James W. The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001.

Gilmore, Paul. The Genuine Article: Race, Mass Culture, and American Literary Manhood. Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2001.

Harris, Neil. Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973.

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988.

Reiss, Benjamin. The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001.

Saxton, Alexander. The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Verso, 1990.

Source: Saylor Academy
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