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Early Newspapers: Instruments in the Spread of Print Culture. A Case Study of Toronto 1800-1845.

Paper Presented to the History of the Book in Canada’s
Open Conference for Volume I (from the beginning to the 1840s)
by Julie Stabile, Faculty of Information Studies
University of Toronto


We have come together at this conference because of our mutual interest in studying the development of print culture in Canada. Newspaper offices and newspapers played a pivotal role in this development for two significant reasons. Firstly newspaper shops furnished the means for engendering print culture, that is they provided the equipment to produce print and then the print materials themselves. Secondly, newspapers fostered a readership by providing information which people needed in a format they could afford.

In this paper I shall underline the vital importance of newspaper offices and newspapers by examining their impact on print culture in early Toronto. For my analysis I studied in detail a sample consisting of 204 issues of successful newspapers in Toronto between 1800 and 1845, and at the same time I scanned as many extant issues as possible of the successful papers in order to learn of their content and production. For the purposes of this study I defined a newspaper as successful if it flourished for five or more years. In order to trace the nature of the information in newspapers over time I categorized and quantified the content of each issue in my sample and conducted a qualitative analysis of each category. I divided the content into four major areas: features, news, editorials, and advertising. Each of these with the exception of features, was further subdivided into topics. To determine the relative proportion given to each of these subjects I measured the column space occupied by each, and calculated the percentage of this space out of the total number of columns in each issue. By doing this I was able to trace the shifting importance of different kinds of information to proprietors and readers. For the qualitative analysis I entered notes into a database on the content of newspapers, on their appearance, layout and arrangement, on the methods of production and distribution and on the ways in which editors, authors of articles and readers used the newspaper. The free-text searching capabilities of this database allowed me to identify patterns.

Just before the turn of the nineteenth century Toronto had 400 inhabitants. As Richard Brown has illustrated in his work Knowledge is Power, oral culture reigned in early colonial towns. Information, controlled by a small ruling group, was passed down the social hierarchy on a need-to-know basis, through oral exchanges at assemblies, market gatherings, the church and the courts. Letters brought news from far away places, and this news along with local and provincial news of interest was transmitted from neighbour to neighbour in face-to-face communications.

Into this oral culture the administration brought the first press in 1798 when it transferred the government newspaper, the Upper Canada Gazette, from Newark. For the most part the early Upper Canada Gazette contained foreign news and official proclamations and announcements— that is, non-controversial news and information which the government wanted disseminated to a large public. It did not generally print domestic information about political issues, it did not carry editorials, and it provided very little or no other provincial or local news. The latter was transmitted more effectively by oral means. The Upper Canada Gazette remained Toronto’s only newspaper and press until 1820. From that year until 1845, thirty-one independent newspapers were established in Toronto, of which fourteen endured for five or more years. In 1845 eleven newspapers served the city’s approximately 20,000 inhabitants. This great increase in the number of newspapers cannot be explained by population growth alone; rather it was the result of a shift from a predominantly oral culture to one which relied on print for information. Newspapers were not only a result of this change but also central in effecting the shift.

But the newspapers themselves were not the only factor in bringing about a greater participation in print. In fact, newspaper offices were the principal printing and publishing businesses in Toronto. These shops printed and/or published government information, almanacs, books and pamphlets by private organizations and individuals, annual reports of the many social and voluntary organizations in Toronto, a multitude of broadsides and handbills, all kinds of forms, legal documents and simple cards. For example, in 1840 the office of the British Colonist printed the Journals of the House of Assembly, a parliamentary report, a prayer book, a curling manual, a speech by a private individual, correspondence between members of the racing club, the minutes of the meeting of the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, and a thesis on language by Thomas Stratton—a total of 594 pages multiplied times the number of copies for each item—in addition to its semi-weekly newspaper. Of the approximately 357 extant Toronto imprints from 1801 up to 1835, listed in Patricia Fleming’s bibliography for Upper Canada, only nine did not emanate from a newspaper office.

Newspaper offices also sold books. As early as 1815 king’s printer Edward McBride printed a list of books sold at the Upper Canada Gazette office, including such diverse and literary works as Murray’s English Reader, Pope’s Essay on Man and Goldsmith’s Rome. From that time newspaper proprietors printed in their papers a catalogue of the books they sold. In 1830 William Lyon Mackenzie included an inventory of books available at his shop in almost every issue of the Colonial Advocate that year, adding that “books not on hand could be procured at the shortest notice if they were to be had in the United States.” The number of books available at newspaper shops steadily increased over this period. By 1845 the list of books sold by Hugh Scobie at his British Colonist office occupied one and one half columns of his newspaper.

Newspaper shops not only publicized books they sold, but also advertised any book, pamphlet, newspaper or magazine printed, published or sold by other shops and/or individuals. In addition, they endorsed new works, especially those written by Canadians, by publishing extracts from them. In 1840 extracts from William Stephens’ work , Hamilton and Other Poems, appeared in the British Colonist, the Toronto Herald, the Examiner and the Christian Guardian. In the print material which they advertised and supported, newspapers included works written by women and works targeted at women readers, for example, the “early poetical productions of Amica Religionis, a young lady native of Upper Canada”, advertised in the Canadian Freeman in 1827, and The Frugal Housewife’s Manual containing a number of useful receipts in cookery by a Canadian lady”, publicized in the Christian Guardian in 1840.

Clearly newspaper shops were instrumental in producing, selling and fostering print material and in developing the reading habit among both men and women in early Toronto. But newspapers exerted an even more fundamental influence in advancing print culture. For the remainder of the paper I will discuss the kinds of information newspapers provided and why this information fostered the development of a reading community.

Starting with the early Upper Canada Gazette newspapers offered detailed coverage of foreign news. This information helped readers to overcome their isolation in the new world, to reinforce their identity as members of the British North Atlantic community, and to keep current with events not only within the empire including the colonies in the Far East, but also in Europe and the United States. With time readers eagerly awaited and expected current news of world events in newspapers, because of a contemporary ideal of intellectual awareness, an ideal which was cultivated by the newspapers’ regular and thorough reporting of foreign information.

As more independent newspapers were established editors provided and readers requested more kinds of information.

Provincial information in articles and editorials commanded the most print space by mid-century. Provincial political news dominated this category, partly because of the partisan interests of many proprietors, but also because citizens demanded it. From the emergence of independent newspapers in 1820 the ubiquitous “Provincial Parliament” column furnished readers with the daily proceedings and debates in Parliament and with highlights or the entire text of the laws passed by their government. Editorials from politically divergent newspapers commented on issues of the day and presented the views of partisan proprietors. Citizens became accustomed to, and insisted upon, this abundant information, for it enabled them to become politically informed and to analyze and assess government decisions and policy. As they gained more confidence in their political judgements, readers wanted to express their views. Newspapers allowed them to articulate their opinions by providing an open forum for discussion. Numerous letters to the editor testify that people read several papers in order to grasp the full range of the debate before taking advantage of this public forum.

Gradually newspapers published commercial information, which influenced the daily transactions of businessmen and entrepreneurs. A column with current prices in the Toronto, Montreal and New York markets, became standard newspaper fare. It was followed by another column entitled “Shipping Intelligence” or “Lake Intelligence” , which reported on the ships, passengers and cargo docking at Toronto and other Canadian ports, the names of passengers on transatlantic ships and the status and schedule of steamers on the Great Lakes. Newspaper articles advised of the formation of financial and business enterprises and meetings of their directors and stockholders. At mid-century the state of markets in Britain and Europe dominated and headlined the foreign news reports.

The business community was joined by the many local and provincial cultural and voluntary organizations in using the newspaper to publicize their activities and to bolster support for their endeavours. Reports from secretaries of these societies informed the community of their beliefs, goals and activities. In addition to advertisements, notices in the narrative text announced concerts, theatrical performances, lecture series, agricultural exhibits and fairs, and ceremonies at educational institutions. In order to learn of, and to participate in, the business and cultural life of the community, citizens were required to read the newspaper.

What about news on crimes, disasters, people, sports, —the human interest stories which appealed to all people? At the beginning of the century such news, if published at all, appeared in cursory accounts which did not provide much context or detail. Providing the context was the province of oral culture. For example, in 1805 a newspaper advertisement offered a reward for information on the persons who had vandalized William Berczy’s house. There was no need to report and describe the crime. It was well known to the community by face-to-face exchanges. By mid-century, however, the “painful duty of announcing another destructive fire” in Toronto that day warranted postscripts and a stopping of the press by several city newspapers in order to provide readers with the report. Oral culture was no longer effective in disseminating this news to a large audience. Even if people learned of news by an oral report, they wanted the confirmation provided by an authoritative newspaper account.

The dramatic increase in the advertising category attests to the growing readership of newspapers. In the early decades advertisements occupied about 27% of the newspaper, while by mid-century they commanded on average 42% and in several newspapers over 60% of newspaper space. In 1800 the average number of advertisements per issue was 8. By 1845 the average number had risen to 89 per issue, while newspapers such as the British Colonist averaged 173 advertisements per issue. In addition to publicizing books, pamphlets and other print material as discussed earlier, advertisements told readers of new goods and services in the economic marketplace, of cultural and social gatherings, of entertainment events, of financial transactions, of legal decisions, and of transportation schedules. Advertisements were targeted at men and women and at rich and poor. Notices from real estate vendors and barbers were accompanied by those from milliners and dressmakers, those from jewellers and cabinet makers joined those from doctors and dentists which told of the hours when these professionals would administer to the poor for free. People were naturally eager to know what goods, services and activities their city offered. The most effective means of learning this was through newspaper advertisements.

Newspapers did not just provide news, current information and advertisements. From the first years of the century they fostered print culture through their regular feature articles, which covered a wide variety of topics. Features included sophisticated essays explaining new scientific discoveries or innovative technologies, historical and sociocultural treatises and biographies. They provided information of a practical nature such as, new agricultural techniques, useful recipes, and interesting travelogues. And they entertained with short stories and/or extracts from popular fiction, poetry, anecdotes and jokes. Some of these articles were copied from popular foreign or provincial journals, some were extracted from books and pamphlets. A number were the work of Upper Canadian citizens including women. By publishing extracts, the newspaper made key areas of these texts familiar to a wide audience and invited interested readers with means to purchase the entire volume. But books were a costly item, for example, the Canadian work by John Richardson, Canadian Brothers, published in Montreal, cost $4 for two volumes, the price for a full year’s subscription to a newspaper. For the first time, those without such financial means were allowed access to the rich cultural world of books and literature through newspaper feature articles. As Etienne Parent, editor of the Quebec newspaper Le Canadien claimed, the newspaper was “la bibliothèque du peuple”, the people’s library.

By mid-century, therefore, newspapers furnished people with information they needed and desired. Foreign news kept them current with world events. Provincial and local political information made them aware of how they were being governed. Commercial news allowed citizens to make more informed business decisions and to learn of the goods and services available in the marketplace. Notices and advertisements on cultural and entertainment activities enabled them to enrich their leisure hours. Provincial and local human interest stories reminded them of shared joys and sorrows with fellow colonists. Finally feature articles supplied regular reading which entertained family or neighbourhood groups.

All of this information in newspapers defined the community in and around Toronto. It articulated, and endorsed, the community’s shared values, concerns, traditions and beliefs. To be an active member of the local community people needed the information in the newspaper. In addition, articles in newspapers, whether written by editors/printers or submitted by correspondents, engendered lively discussion. This debate occurred in the pages of the newspapers and was continued in taverns, coffee houses, and hotels, where it involved even non-readers, making them indirect participants in print culture.

In conclusion, newspaper shops and newspapers enabled the spread of print culture to a large community. I have calculated the circulation of Toronto newspapers in 1840 to be between 6000 and 8000 copies. If we take the ratio of circulation to readership to be 1:5, then the readership of Toronto newspapers would have been 30,000 to 40,000. Without newspapers print culture would have advanced at a much slower pace in Upper Canada.

Julie Stabile
Faculty of Information Studies
University of Toronto
stabile@fis.utoronto.ca