Digital History

The Making of Modern America

The Rise of Mass Communication Previous Next
Digital History ID 3315



The last ten years of the 19th century were critical in the emergence of modern American mass culture. In those years emerged the modern instruments of mass communication--the mass-circulation metropolitan newspaper, the best-seller, the mass-market magazine, national advertising campaigns, radio, and the movies. American culture also made a critical shift to commercialized forms of entertainment.

The Mass Market Newspaper

The urban tabloid was the first instrument to appear. It was pioneered by Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, and E.W. Scripp's St. Louis Post-Dispatch. These popular newspapers differed dramatically from the upper-class and staunchly partisan political newspapers that had dominated 19th century journalism. They featured banner headlines, a multitude of photographs and cartoons, and an emphasis on local news, crime, scandal, society news, and sports. Large ads made up half a paper's content, compared to just thirty percent in earlier newspapers. For easier reading on street railways, page size was cut, stories were shortened, and the text heavily illustrated.

The Hungarian born Pulitzer migrated to the United States at the age of 17 and purchased the struggling New York World from financier Jay Gould. His newspaper crusaded against corruption and fraud. He pledged that the World would be "dedicated to the cause of the people rather than that of the purse-potentates" and would "expose all fraud and sham, fight all public evils and abuses...[and] serve and battle for the people." Using simple words, a lively style, and many illustrations, his newspaper could be read by many immigrants who understood little English. By 1905, the World had a circulation of two million.

Hearst developed the newspaper's entertainment potential. Entertainment was stick in trade of yellow journalism (named for the "yellow kid" comic strip that appeared in the Journal). Among the innovations he pioneered were the first color comic strips, advice columns, women's pages, fashion pages, and sports pages.

Scripps's legacy was the development of the business side of the modern American newspaper. From the early 1870s through his retirement in 1908, he established or bought more than 40 newspapers, stretching from Portland, Ore., to New York City. His biggest innovations were a national news service and a feature syndicate that provided all of his newspapers with common material. He claimed that he only needed two employees--a reporter and an editor--to start a newspaper, because he could rely on his news service and features syndicate. Syndicated material accounted for 25 to 35 percent of each issue and, at times, even up to half or three-quarters.

Instead of directly competing for established readers, he instead sought to serve new readers. In his opinion, most newspapers either ignored or were hostile to the working class. His news stressed labor issues and was directed to a less-educated audience. His newspapers sold for just a penny at a time when others sold for two cents for home delivery and five cents on the street. His papers were half the size of other papers of the time.

His papers exposed trusts, supported strikes, and favored government regulation of food and transportation industries, as well as government ownership of water and electric utilities. They advocated power for the common people by direct election of public office and through initiative, referendum, and recall. They offered advice on how to run a home on a limited budget.

The Mass Circulation National Magazine, the Bestseller, and Records

Also during the 1890s the world of magazine publishing was revolutionized by the rise of the country's first mass circulation national magazines. After the Civil War, the magazine field was dominated by a small number of sedate magazines­-like The Atlantic, Harper's, and Scribner's--written for "gentle" reader with highly intellectual tastes. The poetry, serious fiction, and wood engravings that filled these monthly's pages rigidly conformed to upper-class Victorian standards of taste. These magazines embodied what the philosopher George Santayana called the "genteel tradition," the idea that art and literature should reinforce morality not portray reality. Art and literature, the custodians of culture believed, should transcend the real and uphold the ideal. Poet James Russell Lowell spoke for other genteel writers when he said that no man should describe any activity that would make his wife or daughter blush.

The founders of the nation's first mass-circulation magazines considered the older "quality" magazines stale and elitist. In contrast, their magazines featured practical advice, popularized science, gossip, human interest stories, celebrity profiles, interviews, "muckraking" investigations, pictures, articles on timely topics--and a profusion of ads. Instead of cultivating a select audience, the new magazines had a very different set of priorities. By running popular articles, editors sought to maximize circulation, which, in turn, attracted advertising that kept the magazine's price low. By 1900, the nation's largest magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal reached 850,000 subscribers--more than eight times the readership of Scribner's or Harper's.

The end of the 19th century also marked a critical turning point in the history of book publishing, as marketing wizards like Frank Doubleday organized the first national book promotional campaigns, created the modern best seller, and transformed popular writers like Jack London into celebrities. The world of the Victorian man of letters, the defender of "Culture" against "Anarchy," had ended.

At the International Exposition in Paris in 1878, 30,000 people lined up to see the first demonstration of Thomas Edison's phonograph. The phonograph was treated as a dictation machine for a decade after Thomas Edison invented it in 1877. It was not until 1890 that cylinders of recorded music were first sold. In 1901, cylinders gave way to discs.


In 1898, the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) launched the first million dollar national advertising campaign. It succeeded in making Uneeda biscuits and their water-proof "In-er-Seal" box popular household items. During the 1880s and 1890s, patent medicine manufacturers, department stores, and producers of low price packaged consumer goods (like Campbell Soups, H.J. Heinz, and Quaker Oats), developed modern advertising techniques. Where earlier advertisers made little use of brand names illustrations, or trademarks, the new ads made use of snappy slogans and colorful packages. As early as 1900, advertisements began to use psychology to arouse consumer demand by suggesting that a product would contribute to the consumer's social and psychic well-being. To induce purchases, observed a trade journal in 1890, a consumer "must be aroused, excited, terrified." Listerine mouthwash promised to cure "halitosis." Scott tissue claimed to prevent infections caused by harsh toilet paper.

By stressing instant gratification and personal fulfillment in their ads, modern advertising helped undermine an earlier Victorian ethos emphasizing thrift, self-denial, delayed gratification, and hard work. In various ways, it transformed Americans from "savers" to "spenders" and told them to give in to their desire for luxury.

The Purveyors of Mass Culture

The creators of the modern instruments of mass culture tended to share a common element in their background. Most were "outsiders"--recent immigrants or Southerners, Midwesterners, or Westerners. Joseph Pulitzer was an Austrian Jew, the pioneering "new" magazine editors, Edward W. Bok and Samuel Sidney McClure, were also first-generation immigrants. Where the "genteel tradition" was dominated by men and women from Boston's elite culture or upper-class New York, the men who created modern mass culture had their initial training in daily newspapers, commerce, and popular entertainment--and, as a result, were more in touch with popular tastes. As outsiders, the creators of mass culture betrayed an almost voyeuristic interest in what they called the "romance of real life," with high life, low life, power, and status.

The new forms of popular culture that they helped create shared a common style: simple, direct, realistic, and colloquial. The 1890s were the years when a florid Victorian style was overthrown by a new "realistic" aesthetic. At various levels of American culture, writers and artists rebelled against the moralism and sentimentality of Victorian culture and sought to live objectively and truthfully, without idealization or avoiding the ugly. The quest for realism took a variety of guises. It could be seen in the naturalism of writers like Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane, with their nightmarish depictions of urban poverty and exploitation in the paintings of the "ashcan" school of art, with their vivid portraits of tenements and congested streets and in the forceful, colorful prose of tabloid reporters and muckraking journalists, who cut through the Victorian veil of reticence surrounding such topics as sex, political corruption, and working conditions in industry.

Mass Culture Blossoms

Although they relied on 19th century inventions, the most influential innovations in mass culture would take place after the turn-of-the-century. Thomas Edison first successfully projected moving pictures on a screen in 1896, but it would not be until 1903 that Edwin S. Porter's "The Great Train Robbery"--the first American movie to tell a story --demonstrated the commercial appeal of motion pictures. And while Guglielmo Marconi proved the possibility of wireless communication in 1895, commercial radio broadcasting did not begin until 1920 and commercial television broadcasts until 1939. In the 20th century, these new instruments of mass communication would reach audiences of unprecedented size. By 1922, movies sold 40 million tickets a week and radios could be found in three million homes.

The emergence of these modern forms of mass communication had far-reaching effects upon American society. They broke down the isolation of local neighborhoods and communities and ensured that for the first time all Americans, -- regardless of their class, ethnicity, or locality -- began to share standardized information and entertainment.

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