Archival Follies, Our Glorious National Heritage

A House Divided Will Not Subscribe

Or, The Damn Thing Is All Ads Anyway

As those of you who are so unlucky as to follow me on Twitter know already (twitter being what I’ve been distracting myself in between bouts of what I’ll call, for the sake of argument “writing”), of late I’ve been mucking through Congressional records.

Yes, yes, I see you nodding off, but listen: this time it’s different. This time I’m bushwhacking through the annals of the First Congress. The beginning one!

The timing lends the even the most boring speeches and bills a brassy burnished halo. The Era of Washington! The birth of our empire, and all our liberties! Days when spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real [republican] men, women were real [republican] mothers, and small furry creatures from [the Indies] were real small furry creatures from [the Indies], to paraphrase my favorite Adams.

Good times.

Right, where was I? Ah yes, mucking through annals. Well, today I ran across something that makes me think that — age of heroes or no — there never was a newspaper printer with sound marketing sense.

Consider, if you will, the following passage from the journal of William Maclay, a delightfully cantankerous one-term U.S. senator from Pennsylvania:

nothing clever to see here

Maybe I’m misunderstanding Maclay here, but were the local printers really trying to drum up business by scamming members of Congress? Hoping a politician will pay you for services unordered…well that seems a bit daft. Moreover, there’s the question of subscriber base. The combined houses of Congress, at this point, consisted of about ninety members* — hardly a sustainable audience. And once the House voted down subscribing to anything…this seems like it got perverse right quick, no? And if cash wasn’t the goal, that’s even worse; this was decidedly not the group most likely to be swayed by hacky political commentary — or interested in advertisements, either.

Seems to me like the printers of the Early Republic operated on the same principle as all the (failing) local newspaper publishers who insist on stacking eternally unread issues like cord-wood on my stoop every morning. I doubt it worked any better then…

*It was early days. Not every state got their act together to send representatives on time…


William Maclay, Journal of William Maclay, United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789-1791, ed. Edgar S. Maclay (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890), 64. The passage appears in the entry for June 3, 1790.

1 thought on “A House Divided Will Not Subscribe”

  1. There may be several explanations for what you’ve found.

    Newspaper printers relied on circulation for news (and indirectly for subscriptions, since it was a measure of how effective they were).
    Getting Congressmen as subscribers would be something to advertise as a measure of the newspaper’s importance (which is why George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were listed as the first subscriber on dozens of publications). Apparently in that day Congressmen were seen as thought leaders in their communities.
    Until the Post Office Act of 1792, the status of newspapers in the mail was unclear. So printers may simply have been hoping that Members of Congress would send papers back to their districts under their franking privilege.
    I’m not sure why Maclay was surprised at how much advertising there was. All eighteenth-century papers were somewhere from 35-50% newspapers. Maybe he was getting commercial papers? Those would have had more, but for obvious reasons.

    Anyway, those are some first thoughts.


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