What to Do When the Mail Failed to Come

The late 18th and early 19th Century newspapers were almost totally dependent on the mails for the content of their papers.  When the mails failed to arrive, they had to resort to other means in order to justify their revenue from their advertisers.  An editor was fortunate to have a literate friend who could furnish an essay on a controversial topic for the next day’s issue.  The wise editor kept filler material on-hand to use if necessary.  Some of the more rural newspapers often ran columns on agricultural topics, and advice on apple orchards or the fly in wheat was good filler.  Designated newspapers that were printers to the state or to the federal government always had a goodly supply of new laws they were obliged to print.  The perceptive printer would not want to bore his readers by force-feeding him all the laws at one time, so there were always a few laws that could fill a few columns, unless it was very late in the year. The state or federal printers, although they welcomed the income, always seemed happy when all the laws had been printed.  The Philadelphia National Gazette had reached that point on August 10 of 1822:  “We expect to finish publishing the laws passed at the last session of congress in our next paper, after which we shall be enabled to give more diversity and interest to our paper.”

The early editors always seemed to have recent British publications on hand and could fill a few columns with articles from Blackwood’s Magazine, or even the Quarterly Review.  Books of travel or biographies were favorites for editors needing to fill some columns.  One reader of the Albany Gazette made this offer to its editor: “When you have nothing more interesting to occupy a column of your paper, you are at liberty to publish the following remarks — the production of a mind sickened with a view of the present state of the world.  What a picture of folly and madness does the world afford us at the present day!  . . . But let the historian search the records of every age and nation — let him bring from the retiring recesses of antiquity, the probable and the possible — he searches for a parallel to the present in vain. The sufferings of the human race literally exceed description.” [reprinted in the Maryland Gazette, January 28, 1813].

Poetry played a much bigger part in the early newspapers than it does today, and the wise editor kept poems of various lengths on hand so one could be plopped into an empty space and fill it neatly.  Often, these were poems by British authors Montgomery, Moore, or Byron. However, Mrs. Hemans appeared frequently in the Poet’s Corner, which was usually on the upper left of a back page that was otherwise devoted to advertisements.  Native poets were encouraged by the wise editor; William Cullen Bryant, Robert Treat Paine, and John Howard Payne had their poems decorate the early newspapers.  Sara Josepha Hale submitted her poetry under the name Cornelia, and she later became an editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

If all else failed, an editor could create a controversy by attacking a rival, and some attacks were nasty.  The editor of the New Hampshire Patriot (who later became a U. S. Senator), wrote the following review. “We have just seen the last number of Mr. Clay’s Massachusetts Journalpublished at Boston;  and we must confess its child-ish editor presents a more smutty picture of stupid malignity than our eyes ever before beheld.  What need is there for such animals as this jackal of the amalgamation ‘idol’ orator to enquire for facts, when falsehood is on his tongue, and the truth cannot find room for utterance?” [New Hampshire Patriot, May 14, 1827].

The editors, for whom words were their tools, were especially critical of misused words.  The Connecticut Mirror published this advertisement:  “A reward of twenty-five cents, and no questions asked, will be paid to any man, woman or child, in Bedlam, or out, who will tell us for certain,  what Mr. Bentley means in the following sentence in the Essex Register of February 15: ‘Activity is everywhere: and though the earth tremble under us, industry ceases from none of its cares, and speculation riots in the wealth it collects only from the public confidence in the resources of the public virtue.'”  [reprinted by the New York Spectator, February 29, 1812]. The editors were fearless in their attacks on those they thought misused the language. Here, the Boston Weekly Messenger, takes on James Madison for one of his messages: “We do most ardently hope that a time will arrive when the rulers and governors of this free and intelligent republic, in communications made to legislative bodies or the people, for the pretended purpose of conveying information upon public affairs, will make use of such plain, intelligible, and, above all, unequivocal English, or (if they please) American terms, that there shall be in every township, containing a thousand souls, at least one person of learning enough to comprehend the meaning, and explain it to his neighbors.” [Boston Weekly Messenger, June 4, 1813].

If you are interested in contributing funds to speed The University of Texas’ massive project of scanning and putting on-line historic newspapers online, please contact Linda Abbey, of UT’s General Libraries, phone (512) 795-4366 or online to the Historic Newspapers Preservation link.

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden