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When the mail arrived in good time, the press was ready to salute the messenger as loudly as the message. Post riders expected to be appreciated, and Americans hungry for news in the early republic often feared their imperial air. In the countryside, it was common practice not to transport newspapers into the scattered settlements but to throw the papers from the stage along the road without stopping.

Farmers in the area were expected to cooperate in this hunt for the news. Some coachmen were bold enough to edit the reading of subscribers.

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One driver in New En- gland, for example, concealed the Republican papers he carried and gave out the Federalist ones. Again, access to information was a matter of community knowledge, and the consumer bowed to the messenger. When a newspaper reached an American community with momentous news, all citizens might be placed in the hands of coercive neighbors. The mail was read from a Revolutionary War field piece which was fired after each item of news.

The student body gave nine cheers to every dispatch, and the entire college was illuminated in the evening to celebrate the defeat of radicalism.


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Bonapartists in New Hampshire were watched and silenced as the community read the news. In the Rev. In Austin, the stage driver savored his moment of glory and made the crowd wait, then he announced the bulletin that usually made fantastic claims for Southern arms: Great battle at Corinth! Glorious victory! Yankees whipped all to smash! Battalions, gun-boats, brigades, all keptured!

The news rallied the town, the Rev. People hurry off to tell it to their waiting families. Men who live in the country can not wait till the mail is opened, but mount their horses, tied hard by, and gallop off at the risk of their necks through the darkness to tell the news at home, then to gallop back again for their papers. Clearly, the community had learned the news in ritual before any reading took place, and the meaning of the texts was pre-established.

This distribution system allowed discretion at every step, and access to a newspaper could easily be cut off. John Lambert, an English traveller during the Jefferson administra- tion, saw the code of manners that spread the news. Public ques- tions were no longer to be resolved within the safe confines of one rank or order; the press opened these matters to much wider debate. Liberal theory, supported by an ascending middle class, condemned private and secretive de- bate and celebrated the new public forums for political questions.

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At least in the United States, the tavern and the postal system were agents for the opening of argument that liberal theory prescribed. News at the Hearth Public behavior with news is one thing. What went on in the home? Many Americans could most easily get their hands on a paper in their household. The reading audience formed by the family circle was more significant in the United States than in Europe. Alexander Mackay, a brilliant London journalist, saw this on his American tour in the late s. In America the case is totally different. Not only are places of public resort well supplied with the journals of the day, but most families take in their paper, or papers.

Few lived alone, and the taking in of kin was more common than in colonial days, far more common than at the end of the twentieth century. The news- papers of this democracy were communal, even when they entered the private home. Within each family the male was expected to govern, a mandate that included reading. Out of every ten males in the new nation, two were slaves, two were servants or tenant farmers.

Newspapers in the home were passed from master to servant, husband to wife, parent to child.

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For many readers, the news was a gift chosen by a superior who had judged the publication to be suitable for the household. The wish of the news giver was to reinforce lines of authority, and this has been memorialized in most nineteenth-century presentations of reading at home. These pictures are illuminating, so long as they are not taken simply at face value. The servant, pre- sumably Irish, showed the general attitude of this group: contempt for the celebration of the Union cause. The slave South was haunted by fear that African Americans might use their position on the plantation to see the news and know too much.

These house servants were envied by blacks, and by whites. Papers were used in some classrooms as reading exercises, and parents found it convenient to continue the lessons at home. In an age in which many political commit- ments were proudly traced back to instruction at the hearth, the reading of political news as a child must have been a determining influence in many lives. Still less was entertainment the goal.

The family itself was to be preserved by sharing news across generations. The notion that a strong grip on a newspaper put one person above another was the most common message about reading the news in illustrations of the American home.

Almost always, it was the man of the house who had the newspaper. There seem to be no paintings of the American home before the end of the nineteenth century in which the female has news and the male does not. This is true for the mainstream of family portraiture, and also among naive painters who had not mastered or did not care to follow the conventions of representational art.

In the early republic these scenes spoke of a new concern for private living space. The home itself, as well as the room where the Attributed to J.

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Davis, The York Family, Far more often than in the colonial era, the ideal home was isolated from other families, decorated to uplift its inhabitants, and cut off from the workplace. The architecture and decor marked a new turning inward among American families. Paintings docu- mented features of material culture that say much about the demeanor of families reading the news.

Handwork and reading went on together, usually near the hearth. This conventional view of the home owed something to senti- ment, but just as much to the state of lighting and heating. Families had no choice but to gather around readers, for warmth and good light were in short supply. Only toward the end of the nineteenth century could family members be separate and comfortable in their homes at night. At mid-century, furniture design itself began to distinguish the news reader from the non-reader. There was no strict determinism to this, but in the full range of illustration in the Victorian era women often sit in chairs without arms.

This left more room for knitting and for the petticoats and skirts of the day. Thus some women could not easily settle back; they were propelled forward to the handwork that filled so many of their hours in the home.

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As they looked out at the room, they looked up. They were higher off the ground with taller backs than the chairs for women. Armrests forced men back in the chair and positioned them to look down on people they addressed. The paper established the pecking order and was sufficient reason for the dominant to ignore their inferiors. Usually the paper helped a man, but not always. Eastman Johnson gave patriarchs news- papers to hold like shields as they sat in family portraits. These are formidable readers of the parlor. In The Brown Family the gentleman near the hearth is planted like an oak and only tips his paper slightly to acknowledge the child who has reached out to interrupt reading.

The father in The Hatch Family sinks behind his newspaper and is oblivious to his fourteen relatives in the drawing room. Evidently the men who commissioned these paintings were pleased to be walled off by the news. Condescension had been a virtue in aristocratic societies, and some of these patriarchs fairly glow with benevolence as they lower themselves to other members of the family.

Still, most artists recognized that the news- paper had its own imperative. A female servant glowers at this daring reader. John D.


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Rockefeller 3rd. These sumptuous and mannered parlor scenes had an influence on Ameri- cans who lacked both affluence and leisure. Lithographs and magazine illustra- tions spread the picture of the heads of households taking charge of the news.

Collection of The Newark Museum. Purchase Wallace M. Scudder Bequest Fund. By the middle of the nineteenth century, many rooms for ordinary citizens were modeled after the upper-class parlor. Railway cars, steamboats, hotel lobbies, even working-class clubs, took on the appearance of nooks for the wealthy.

These model parlors were pictured in advertisements and other promotional material. As the upper-class parlor diffused through the press, the male command of the newspaper was set before a large public as correct deportment.

Social life for many was imitating the art of a few.