Goose Commerce

Freebird!!! Freebird!!! by goosecommerce
November 15, 2011, 12:56 am
Filed under: Golden Ghetto, Power At Play, The Past is a Foreign...Something

Or, Ain’t No Party Like a Synchronized Bird Release Party

Birdcages by melingo wagamama, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  melingo wagamama 

Some folks make it look easy, but really, international commerce can be a lot of work – and mightily dull at the same time (all those currency conversions, ugh!). But let it never be said that China traders didn’t know a good time when it flew at them in a panic.

(Okay, I’m not sure that it has ever been said, and besides, we’ve covered similar ground before — but just go with me here).

While doing business at Canton and Macau during the 1786/1787 trading season, Major Samuel Shaw – revolutionary hero, pioneer merchant in the China trade, and official U.S. Consul – took some time out to party.

A circumstance that occurred at the entertainment given us by the Portuguese ought not to be omitted. The dessert, which was very elegant, was prepared in a room adjoining that in which we dined, and the tables were ornamented with representations, in paper painted and gilt, of castles, pagodas, and other Chinese edifices, in each of which were confined small birds. The first toast was Liberty! and in an instant, the doors of the paper prisons being set open, the little captives were released, and, flying about us in every direction, seemed to enjoy the blessing which had just been conferred upon them.

How’s that for an evening’s entertainment? This flighty soirée comes up in Shaw’s posthumous memoir-cum-biography, as a footnote in a section kvetching about how the English merchants being, well, bitchy. They hadn’t invited Shaw or any other Americans to dinner, you see, and that was breaking some serious social coding (a breach of, cough, cough, food diplomacy, if you will – though I suspect in this case “food” meant “copious amounts of Madeira and/or rum”):

On [the English’s] arrival at Canton from Macao, the usual visits were made to them by us, and by them returned; and while every other nation paid us the customary civility of giving and receiving a dinner and supper, the English alone omitted that attention, not only to us individually, but to the Americans generally.

Shaw was an old hand at the casual snub, and beyond that, a professional – and so he assures his reader that such bad behavior “did not prevent or interrupt that intercourse which will ever exist among gentlemen.” Ahem.

In classic Early American style, though, he adds a final note of paranoia, suggesting that the lack of keggers was an order from on high:

It is true, that the Court of Directors [the governing body of the English East India Company], in their instructions to the supercargoes…enjoined it upon them to use every endeavor to prevent the subjects of Great Britain from assisting or encouraging in any shape the American commerce ; but if this prohibition was intended by the directors, or construed by their servants, to extend to the civilities heretofore paid the Americans, it cannot be denied that such conduct was extremely illiberal.

Illiberal indeed. Given the weight that Shaw and his compatriots back home gave to the treatment of Americans abroad, such behavior probably only confirmed their worst suspicions about Britons’ incorrigible arrogance.

But at least the Portuguese had the courtesy to stockpile pigeons, right?

Source: Josiah Quincy, ed., The Journals of Major Samuel Shaw: The First American Consul at Canton: With a Life of the Author (Boston: Wm. Crosby and H.P. Nichols, 1847), 234. [Bold emphasis mine, rest in original.]


The Limits of Sympathy for Teas by goosecommerce
03-04-10 Splash ~ Explored :) by Î’ethan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by Î’ethan

Or, How Debt Ceilings, Tea, and the tradition of Governing in the U.S. Tangentially Relate

The political crisis du jour is over whether or not Congress will vote to raise the “debt ceiling,” aka the legal borrowing limit for the Federal Government. The broad consensus is that should the debt ceiling not be raised (as is customary), the Federal government would, for the first time ever, fail to pay – and perhaps even repudiate – its debts.

Now, the consequences of such an action are disputed; those seeking to hold firm on the debt ceiling (the Republicans) maintain that there would be no ill effects, just a healthful readjustment of budgetary priorities, while their opponents – and here that includes the Democratic party and associated partisans and officials, bankers, other Wall Street honchos, and most of the media – maintain that failing to raise the debt limit would be tantamount to a financial apocalypse, for the U.S., and possibly the entire world.

So there’s a bit of a gap in the conversation.

I bring it up here not to comment on the issue in particular – though there are some really interesting discussions happening, including some historical debates related to whether or not the 14th Amendment was designed to prevent just a crisis1 – but because lately I’ve been working through documents from the first few years after the Constitution, a period where Congress was determined to do exactly the opposite of what the Republicans are proposing today. Back in the 1790s, the overriding concern for the rulers of the newly re-organized American republic was to figure out how generate revenue so as to pay the U.S.’s debts.

The rub was that Congress had to find a way to do so consistent with the principles of the Revolution – and since there was no real agreement about what these were, or what that would look like, conflict ensued (some things never change). The parts of these machinations that typically get the most airplay are the debates over the “how, who, and what to pay” issues – the internal structuring of the national debt, the creation of a national bank, division of fiscal powers among the different branches, etc. These are the core issues around which the first partisan divide in the nation’s modern history formed, between “Federalists” (the Hamiltonian/Washingtonian conglomeration in favor of an active national government modeled in its fiscal policies after European powers) and the “Jeffersonians” (TJ and Madison’s more structured opposition party that favored a decentralized republic with weaker coercive power).

The attention this dynamic gets is justified – the people involved in these struggles certainly emphasized the “how, who, and what to pay” issues. But they weren’t the only problems being worked out. I’ve been looking how those early Congresses worked out the other part of the debt equation – the “where do we get revenue from” problem.

Here the partisan divide dissolves a bit, because the answer that the Founders gave to the revenue question basically boils down to one phrase: the tariff. The national government did implement other taxes in the early years – there was a pretty heavy tax on personal carriages2, and of course the excise tax on whiskey is well known – but until the introduction of the permanent income tax in the early 20th century, taxes on imported goods and international shipping were the primary revenue for the Federal Government. And, as you might expect of such an important component of government, during that period between Revolution and the 16th Amendment the tariff was among the most powerful drivers of American politics.


Long-time readers of this blog will be unsurprised to find out that Asian trade was a non-trivial part of the tariff, in both the debates setting it up and the legislation itself. And in fact, there is a lot that’s unique about the way the Federal Government handled Americans’ involvement in Asian trade which suggests that policymakers regarded it as particularly important.3 But what interests me in connection with the debt ceiling controversy is not the protections the China trade received, but rather how the Federal Government resolved problems with the collection of tariffs on the trade, and what that says about the ultimate priorities of the Founding generation of legislators.

Despite what a visit to your local art museum might lead you to believe, the West’s trade with China in the late 18th-century was not about porcelain, silks, or lacquered furniture, but rather was almost entirely concerned with exchanging silver for tea. The American trade with China was no different; indeed “china ware” was carried back from Canton to U.S. markets chiefly as ballast. The Founding generation, having concluded that taxing widely-consumed beverages with mild psychoactive effects was the most effective, lucrative and appropriate way of gaining a steady income, made duties on tea one of the linchpins of the American revenue system.4 In the tariff acts from 1789 onward, and in the periodic special taxes for defending the frontier and paying down the debt, tea invariably appears as one of the key enumerated items singled out for special attention – and taxation.5

In the early years, though, both the success of the American trade in teas, and the amount of tax it could reasonably bear, were unknowns. It is unsurprising, then, that the government ran into trouble with collections. The problem was not that tea taxes were somehow verboten because of their role in sparking the Revolutionary struggle.6 The difficulty was more prosaic: an oversupplied market meant that merchants couldn’t pay their taxes without going broke.

It was a classic boom-bust case. Americans’ rush into the China trade in the late 1780s and early 1790s flooded the U.S. market with cargoes of tea – enough in 1790 alone for three years’ of domestic consumption, according to one (admittedly self-interested) China merchant.7 With supply and demand being in an inverse relationship and all, this in turn led to both a precipitous drop in the commodity’s price and a marked rise in petitions to Congress. As merchants found themselves with stocks of teas that could not be sold even at cost, they presented Congress with a dilemma: how to best secure an important source of revenue while at the same time encouraging growth in a key economic sector?8

The merchants themselves were divided. Some requested stronger protections from foreign competitors, up to and including a ban on sales of teas imported by European shippers; others merely requested “to be allowed a farther time for payment of the duties on a quantity of teas imported.” Though there was a strong sentiment in the early Congresses that the development of the China trade was of great importance as a means to national prosperity and security – as “a trade sought after by all the world” it seemed obvious to some members that it should be protected, one way or another – this feeling was not sufficiently shared to move more protective legislation out of committee.

Even Alexander Hamilton, who is sometimes presented as the protectionist avatar of American commerce, was ambivalent. Replying to a request to evaluate a petition from the “merchants of Philadelphia trading to India and China,” he told the House of Representatives that “the trade to India and China appears to lay claim to the patronage of the Government” but “a full and accurate examination should be had into the nature and tendency of that trade” before any “encouragement” or protection could be offered.9 In other words, Hamilton kicked the can down the road, a move likely made out of concern for maintaining government income – as Hamilton knew, protecting the American trade too aggressively was a sure way to choke off the stream of revenue that flowed into the Treasury from the high duties paid by foreign importers (who paid 50% higher duties on teas, and 700% higher tonnage duties). However, in a different report on a similar petition, the Secretary of the Treasury did suggest another option: that Congress extend “credit for the duties” due on tea.10

Though Hamilton’s advice was hardly gospel – Madison and other proto-Republicans in the House were at pains to reduce the his influence in all things financial – in this matter the legislature followed his lead and chose to amend only the administrative aspects of the tariff law. Specifically, Congress extended the amount of time American merchants could store imported teas without paying duties, first from nothing to one full year, and then later from one year to two; all the importer had to do was give the port collector a bond for future payments, which could be made as the tea was sold.11

In the event, this new system worked well: by offering merchants two-year interest-free loans on their taxes, the Federal Government provided the flexibility needed to keep the trade alive beyond one season of oversupply, while at the same time effectively securing an important long-term source of revenue. It was a neat piece of governance which allowed Congress leeway to raise taxes on teas repeatedly over the next few decades, without fear of harming the trade, as merchants would always have time to adjust to new market conditions.


So what does this have to do with the debt ceiling negotiations? Well, I think the case of the tea tariffs offers us some insight into the particular ways our own political scene differs from those of the Revolutionary era. For the significant conservative political force in our own moment, the financial reputation of the U.S. is worth chancing in order to achieve a significant change in policy, whereas in the founding decades, for partisans of every stripe, any policy was worth changing in order to secure a sounder financial reputation.

Moreover, I think the audacity of the move – forego taxes in order to secure them! – is one worth remembering in any era where a flexible approach to ideology in governance seems rare.

(It’s also important to remember that – two centuries of hagiography to the contrary – this was not the compromise of a uniquely enlightened age. Recall that a key architect of this decision, Hamilton, got himself shot and killed by a political rival – something that is now, thankfully, nearly unheard of. And trust me when I say that the rhetoric exchanged between partisans, of this or almost any other age of American politics, is quite comparable to ours, in terms of outright viciousness; though earlier generations were perhaps more creative…)

More germane to my own inside baseball, the tea tariff decision overthrows the bipolar conclusions drawn in the current literature on the China trade. In contrast to writers who argue (implicitly or explicitly) that Asian commerce impinged only slightly if at all on the politics of early America, the care policymakers took with the tea trade suggests that concern with economic connections with Asia was most certainly a force in political debate. On the other hand, the government’s strategic deafness to merchant’s calls for commercial protection from competition belies accusations leveled by later politicians and historians that the:

“records of American legislation bear the most satisfactory testimony of the transcendent influence of the mercantile interests, and of the unceasing exertions made to fence it round with every species of protection the government could bestow which secured to the tonnage of our merchants, a monopoly of the whole of the China trade – and gave them paramount advantages in all other foreign trade.”12

Neither a controlling force in government nor a puff of air, the China trade was nonetheless an important component of the nation’s most crucial, and endlessly controversial, revenue laws. And the way the revenue it generated was flexibly supervised within the tariff laws typifies the pragmatic approach that early American politicians took to governing what they hoped would be a nation simultaneously prosperous and free.


1) For example:

2) How’s that for Federal intervention into private life! 1 Stat. 373 (June 5, 1794), Chapter 45, 3 Congress, Session 1, “An Act: Laying duties upon carriages for the conveyance of persons.”

3) Among all forms of overseas commerce, only the direct trade in China goods was singled out for protection, distinguished by the trade route rather than what commodity trafficked. Taxes on Asian goods – teas, China ware, etc. – were the lowest if they were imported by Americans directly from Canton, higher if they were brought by Americans from Europe, and highest if they were imported by foreigners to the U.S.

4) Taxes on imported wine and hard alcohol were the other key supports of the system.

5) 1 Stat. 25, Chapter 2, 1 Congress, Session 1, An Act: For laying a duty on goods, wares, and merchandises imported into the United States. (July 4, 1789); 1 Stat 145, Chapter 35, 1 Congress, Session 2, An Act: To provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares, and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels. (Aug. 4, 1790); 1 Stat. 180, Chapter 39, 1 Congress, Session 2, An Act: Making further provision for the payment of the debt of the United States. (Aug 10, 1790); 1 Stat 219, Chapter 26, 1 Congress, Session 3, An Act: Making farther provision for the collection of the duties by law imposed on teas, and to prolong the term for the payment of the duties on wines. (Mar. 3, 1791); 1 Stat 411, Chapter 17, 3 Congress, Session 2, An Act: Supplementary to the several acts imposing duties on goods, wares, and merchandises imported into the United States. (Jan. 29, 1795); 1 Stat 503, Chapter 10, 4 Congress, Session 2, An Act: For raising a further sum of money by additional duties on certain articles imported, and for other purposes. (Mar. 3, 1797); etc.

6) As one republican columnist explained, the political implications of taxes mattered, not what they taxed: “people who revolted against that innovation [the 1773 Tea Act], certainly not for the magnitude of the duty, but from a wise anticipation of the horrid train for which it was calculated to open the way….” “For the National Gazette, On the Secretary’s Report on the Excise,” National Gazette, 26 April 1792

7) “Petition of Elias Hasket Derby, Salem, Mass., 10 June 1789,” in Kenneth R. Bowling, William Charles DiGiacomantonio, and Charlene Bangs Bickford, eds., Petition Histories and Nonlegislative Official Documents, vol. 8, Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, 1789-1791 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 407.

8.) Fri, Feb 24, 1792 (1st Sess), Journal of the House of Representatives, 520

9) Emphasis mine. United States Congress, American State Papers: Finance, ed. Walter Lowrie and Matthew St. Clair Clarke (Washington, D.C: Gales and Seaton, 1832), 1:107,; “Report of the Treasury of the Secretary, 10 February 1791,” in Bowling, DiGiacomantonio, and Bickford, Petition Histories and Nonlegislative Official Documents, 8:382-383.

10) “Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, 2 March 1791,”Bowling, DiGiacomantonio, and Bickford, Petition Histories and Nonlegislative Official Documents, 8:411.

11) 1 Stat. 145, Chapter 35, 1 Congress, Session 2, An Act: To provide more effectually for the collection of the duties imposed by law on goods, wares, and merchandise imported into the United States, and on the tonnage of ships or vessels. (Aug. 4, 1790); 1 Stat. 219, Chapter 26, 1 Congress, Session 3, An Act: Making farther provision for the collection of the duties by law imposed on teas, and to prolong the term for the payment of the duties on wines. (Mar. 3, 1791)

12) Mathew Carey, The New Olive Branch, or, An Attempt to Establish an Identity of Interest Between Agriculture, Manufactures, and Commerce and to Prove, That a Large Portion of the Manufacturing Industry of This Nation Has Been Sacrificed to Commerce, and That Commerce Has Suffered by This Policy Nearly as Much as Manufactures (Philadelphia: M. Carey & Son, 1820), 213-214, Carey’s summary of the early Congress’s favoritism toward the mercantile interest in general and the China trade in particular is repeated in Edward Dewey Graham, American Ideas of a Special Relationship with China, 1784-1900, Harvard dissertations in American history and political science (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1988); Edward Dewey Graham, “Special Interests and the Early China Trade,” Michigan Academician 6, no. 2 (Fall 1973): 233-242.

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Triumphant Return! Et L’Affaire Cronon by goosecommerce


It’s Been A While

As Spring threatens to return, I find my thoughts turning once more (as do those of so many rapidly middle-aging historians) to blogging. I know, gentle readers, that I’ve left you without terrible puns and alliterative link dumps for far too long; the Goose Commerce thread in your RSS reader is, no doubt, covered in dust, mites, and then more dust. And, may I say: that’s disgusting.

But awake! Or at least, don’t delete. I’m back! And plan to post at least weekly here until I lose interest again.1

So, to business…

As I’m sure you’re aware, the newest shiny debate in PastLand is L’affaire Cronon, aka the Wisconsin Republican party’s bizarre attack on one of my favorite authors, William Cronon (Mr. Nature’s Metropolis). The AHA has a full roundup on everything you need to catch yourself up

There’s been a lot of commentary, obviously, but for my own purposes the most interesting include those smart things said about the wider legal context of this attack at the egregiously inappropriately-named AmericanScience blog: Part 1, Part 2.

As for what the heck Cronon himself is up to, the best read I’ve seen so far is what Ben Schmidt, professional history’s own Nate Silver, has said over at the wonderful and informative Sapping Attention. I agree with all that Schmidt says2 : seems like the deliberative democracy shoe, consciously consensual and wholly impractical, is what fits.

While I admire Cronon’s position – especially given that he is ascending to a the highest honorific position within the guild, usually not a place that one achieves by making political waves – I can’t say that I agree with his theory of politics. I side with Martin Van Buren: we need parties, and partisanship, to make the system go; playing the center (ideologically, philosophically) is a fool’s game. Conflict is a feature, not a bug: because people just disagree, that’s why.

Which still leaves us with the problem of establishing and policing standards of discourse: so maybe Prof. Cronon has the right idea after all.

In any case, I look forward to making more of these uninformed comments in the future! Now back to actual work for a change.

Image: law_keven, “Do you think he’s alive???…..” Flickr, CC License

1.) Hey, if I’m nothing if not realistic.

2.) Save the bit about Changes in the Land being the better book: it’s good, but clearly, Nature’s Metropolis is in every way more interesting.

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Things I Want To Say in My Dissertation But Can’t by goosecommerce
February 26, 2010, 6:09 pm
Filed under: Corrupting the Youth, The Past is a Foreign...Something | Tags:

Or, But Damned If I don’t put it in a presentation

“When antebellum Southerners talked about China, it was their way of thinking back and lying about England.”

That is all.

Jschneid, “Reclining Nude,” Flickr, CC License

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Large-scale Borgesian folk-art FTW by goosecommerce
February 3, 2010, 1:33 pm
Filed under: The Past is a Foreign...Something | Tags: ,

Or, Take That, Future Archeologists!

I can think of no better use of resources than to mess with the people of the future.

From the Believer:


This explains menhirs and moai better than anything else, I think; though I may be the only historian who attributes major monuments to whimsy and irony. h/t

Image Cite: flow14, “Carhenge @ Sunset,” Flickr, CC License

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History is Awesome by goosecommerce
January 25, 2010, 11:03 am
Filed under: The Past is a Foreign...Something

Or, Just Look at this Awesome Lincoln

Just look at it.

Rob MacDougall has some words of wisdom for a rainy morning:

I’ve been trying to come up with a mission statement for this blog: to figure out if and why I want to keep writing it, to boil what it’s all about down to one or two sentences. I haven’t gotten there yet, but one thing I’ve always known is this: History ought to be awesome.

And may I say: it always is when he does it.

He also has some awesome ideas about history t-shirts.

Image Cite: Stuck in Customs, “Comfortable on the Fourth,” Flickr, CC License

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Eyes on the Prize by goosecommerce
October 24, 2009, 1:17 pm
Filed under: The Past is a Foreign...Something | Tags: , , ,

Or, Yes, This Was For Serious

Americans are competitive; they always have been. We’re obsessed with keeping score, outmaneuvering rivals.

This is especially true when it comes to making money. Just as today we’re concerned about whether or not China is winning the recession, so too in earlier times, competition with Eastern powers was on the menu.

Opium Compete

The answer, obviously, was hells yes.

After all, argued Emanuel Weiss in the pages of the famed Southern journal of politics and business, DeBow’s Review, there was now evidence that Eastern fauna was a boon to the West, so why not flora?

Now that the usefulness of the camel on our south-western frontier has been acknowledged by government, the proposition to import in the same time some camels from Smyrna or Alexandria, along with the date palm, the fig, the olive, the sesame and the poppy seed, will, I expect, no more be scoffed at, as it was the case when I first started this idea…

Just when you think the 19th century can’t get weirder…

1.) Emanuel Weiss, “OPIUM–CAN WE COMPETE WITH THE EAST IN ITS PRODUCTION?” DeBow’s Review and Industrial Resources, Statistics, etc. Devoted to Commerce, Agriculture, Manufactures (New Orleans), January 1856, p. 60 et seq.

Image cite: squacco, “The face of evil,” Flickr, CC License

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Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell by goosecommerce
October 13, 2009, 2:42 pm
Filed under: The Past is a Foreign...Something | Tags:

Or, Everything New Under The Sun?

It Shines For All

It Shines For All


Recently Wired ran a story on a fascinating media company, Demand Media, which has created a whole new way of generating, and then producing and distributing, general interest videos and articles.

Naturally, my first thought was of antebellum New York.

Demand Media’s process works like this: the company has two algorithms that allow it to transform users search terms into specs for short evergreen videos or articles (think:“How to Tie Your Shoes” on YouTube), which they then bid out to a vast army of freelance copy editors and videographers at a few dollars per item. The resulting media is plugged into the conglomerate of websites DM owns ( is one), which then earns revenue from ads playing next to the video or text. Et voila! The demand and supply curves for new content are made to meet almost immediately, for the benefit of Demand Media’s shareholders.

By figuring out how to commoditize — or rather, commoditize further, as cheap evergreen stories have been around for hundreds of years — and mass produce the general content article and video, Demand Media has taken the structures of the new media environment to heart in an unprecedented way. But it’s also a classic case of using capital to replace labor (via technological automation); and it faces the classic trade-off of late-stage capitalist production: mass-production techniques produce low-quality goods.

Or, as the article’s enormous subtitle puts it:

“A fiendishly clever startup knows what we are googling – then churns out thousands of cheap videos and articles to meet our every whim and wish. Why the future of online content is fast, disposable, and profitable as hell.”

But content’s past is prologue, I would argue.


Over the last few years, there has been a small trend  to look to the 17th and 18th centuries — when technologies of print really came into their own —  as analogous to our own time of changes in information production, distribution and consumption, in order to understand how these shifts affected, or could affect, communities of discourse, and power relations. The somewhat tired, but oft-cited comparison of bloggers and pamphleteers, for example, or work on the information management strategies of the early modern French absolutist state (see David Bell’s recent piece in the New Republic“The Colbert Report”), offer a couple of different takes on this theme.

In the case of the new production line that Demand Media has put together, the early modern era doesn’t really work. It lacks…steam. I think the better analogy is 1830s newspaper industry — specifically the creation of what is known as the “penny press” in antebellum New York City. Even the bio of Demand Media’s founder — seasoned huckster Richard Rosenblatt — reads an awful lot like that of some early 19th century millionaire (in Roth’s article, at least), especially the multiple early failures.

In both cases, new audiences prompted a rethinking of the production process in response to new technology — search algorithms, rotary presses — which in turn changed the business model, and, not incidentally, how content was produced. By the end of it all, you have far different types of media production, distribution, and consumption than previously existed, all because of some tinkering with different links in the production chain.


Beginning with Benjamin Day’s penny daily The Sun, the 1830s saw the rise of cheap newspapers which featured content markedly different than the public documents, poetry, political rhetoric and commercial news that were the mainstays of the press across the country.

The key innovation of these papers, for our purposes, was that they figured out that new printing technologies would allow the targeting of a mass audience; and to reach and keep the attention of that audience, they began running stories and features that appealed to the masses, rather than political groups and commercial men. Papers were also distributed differently; rather than selling them as year-long subscriptions, they were sold in bulk, and at a discount (2/3rds of a cent) to street urchins (sorry, “newsies”) who then sold them on the streets — the so-called “London model.”

But content’s the key change. The main leaders in these papers were not political news or financial reports, but rather juicy, comical crime reports, scandalous society pages, and a new class of evergreen stories that looked at the individual lives in great metropolis — human interest stories. All grist quite similar to Demand Media’s videos in its interoperability, if not its dramatic arcs (I doubt many of DM’s videos feature ruined society heirs or drunken sailors). With their combination of the mundane and freakish, these papers were democratic in their spirit — salacious, populist — though not necessarily so in their politics (Horace Greeley’s Tribune, for example, strove for a respectable middle-class reformist tone).

To give you a sense of how different these papers were, it helps to know that prior to the 1830s, most newspapers, even those in major cities, were a losing proposition. To keep afloat, they were either produced as advertisements for larger printing businesses, or as political ventures — “party organs” in the term of the day — funded by a party, or through the patronage its members controlled (government printing contracts, mainly).

The new penny press papers, by contrast, were much more focused on the bottom line, with the newspaper itself serving as the main source of revenue. This increased focus on profit, unsurprisingly, had the effect of accelerating innovation in the industry (at least in particular directions). In addition to the new types of stories, many of the other structures we now identify as characteristic of the media — timeliness, wire services, foreign correspondents, objectivity — came out of the pressures and requirements of running a successful enterprise in what quickly became a highly competitive, but often highly profitable, sector. And it was out of these new institutions, over the course of the 19th century, that Benedict Anderson’s theory of newspapers and national identity really starts to come into play.


To come back to that aside about objectivity: one of the unintended results of the profitability of these papers is that they emerged as information distributors without clear financial ties to established political interests — a characteristic that some editors used to spin out new theories of the importance of an objective press. Over time, some of the editors of the penny press began to see themselves as tribunes of the people, important counterweights to established political — and sometimes economic — interests. One early penny press editor opined that “An editor must always be with the people — think with them — feel with them — and he need fear nothing, he will always be right — always be strong — always free“.

Philosophical bromides aside, the “objective” press — independent from political parties, not beholden (in theory at least) to political bosses — grew out of the creation of the new revenue streams the mass market allowed. It was the logic of capitalism, not Jacksonian ideology (though that helped), which led to the character of the modern news business — including its establishment as the “fourth estate.”

Thus did an important pillar of modern civic life develop, at least in part, out of attempts to sell disposable content fast, and profitably; which leads us back to Demand Media’s business model. What does it mean that consumers, in the aggregate, now set article topics? Is this going to make the available supply more mediocre, in the end? Or will this recent revolution develop along lines set during an the earlier revolution in industrial information production? Who knows. I wouldn’t hope for much; but as with so much in the historical analogy game, it at least suggests some possibilities.

PS: for the curious: I think some of these same issues — about the organizational forms that capitalism encourages, and their relation to democratic politics — are raised, albeit in a somewhat oblique way, in this awesome Orgtheory post about democracy and corporations.

1.) Daniel Roth, “The Answer Factory,” Wired 17.11 (Nov 2009). Hilariously, the article is not yet online. Link to come someday, maybe. Update! now with more links!

2.) Seriously, the guy has been investigated for fraud multiple times, and, during his time at he sold patent medicines (“Dr. Koop’s Men’s Prostate Formula Pills”). And like every google-savvy serial entrepreneur, he is also the proud owner of a meticulously tended Wikipedia page.

3.) James Gordon Bennett, Courier and Enquirer, 12 November 1831, as quoted in Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690 to 1940(NY, 1941), 232.

4.) Similarly, this is not the same story as that told in Jeffrey Pasley’s “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Pasley covers the explosion of political newspapers in the 1790s and thereabouts; by the 1830s, these were old hat, though given new life by the rebirth of intense partisan conflict in the election of 1832 and Jackson’s presidency more generally.

Image cite: Wallyg,”NYC – Civic Center: The Sun Clock,” Flickr, CC License.

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Umbrellas, Giant Melons, and Queen Victoria by goosecommerce

Or, Homely as Sin on Horseback


It’s newspaper research time! Some highlights from today’s scanning:

“Women and Umbrellas in Ireland” Southern Patriot (Charleston, SC), 31 Aug 1842, p. 2

Dr. Hagan, in one of his letters from Dublin, says that many of the ladies of Dublin are surpassingly beautiful, while some are as homely as Sin on horseback. But the impression of a stranger on seeing the ladies and gentlemen of Dublin, as they spring into their cars and dash through the streets is highly favorable to their personal beauty, sprightliness and energy.

Of the penchant of the Irish for umbrellas, he says: ‘The Irish seem to have a passion for umbrellas. I have seen men carry umbrellas, and I am certain the paper maker would not give sixpence for all the clothes on their back! I have seen some pretty girls decently clothed, with bare feet, and an umbrella over their heads to protect their faces from the sun!’

“A Mammoth Melon,” Southern Patriot (Charleston, SC), 31 Aug 1842, p. 2

The Raleigh Register says: A muskmelon weighing forty and a half pounds, measuring forty-five inches in circumference on average, was sent us a few days ago, in a very polite manner, by Mr. J. A. Barry, in whose garden on Eden’s Sound, it grew. Mr. Barry informs us that, from a piece of ground about 100 feet square, he has obtained nearly 200, several of them weighing from 20 to 31 lbs.

“Variety is the Spice of Life” [aka misc. column], Southern Patriot, 3 March 1843, p.1

The Pickayune, in giving an account of late weaver riots, says ‘Sheriff Porter was severely wounded in the rumpus.’ We had imagined that the sheriff’s wound was in the breast!

As evidence of the onward march of civilization, it is said that the French have sent a guillotine to Algiers.

Epigram on the Chinese Treaty

Our wars are ended – foreign battles cease. –
Great Britain owns an universal peace;
And Queen Victoria triumphs over all,
Still ‘Mistress of herself though China fall!’

Image cite: Special, “umbrella,” Flickr, CC License

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Great Moments in Taking Things Completely Out of Context by goosecommerce
August 13, 2009, 11:09 am
Filed under: Archival Follies, The Past is a Foreign...Something | Tags: ,

Diplomatic Despatches* Edition


“Feeling excited by the Death of the Duke of Orleans.”

~Edward Everett, U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Great Britain, to Daniel Webster, Secretary of State, 18 July 1842, Despatch No. 17.

* Yes, they spelled it “despatches” not “dispatches.” No, I don’t know why.

Image cite: Swiv,”What?,” Flickr, CC License

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