The City Gets A New Paper

Posted: May 31, 2009

The first item on the first page of the very first issue of The Inquirer, 180 years ago, was a notice of steamboat schedules.

The Burlington was leaving at 6 a.m. from Chestnut Street, making stops at Trenton, Princeton and New Brunswick, N.J. By transferring to the Swan, passengers could turn a Philadelphia-to-New York excursion into a lightning-fast 11-hour trip.

The prominent placement seems a mystery. Why would a newspaper waste valuable front-page real estate on ship schedules? And why would anyone buy a paper - an Inquirer subscription cost $8 a year - to obtain that information?

The answer: The steamboat schedule was the crucial news of the day.

In 1829, the great railroads did not yet exist. Of course there were no cars or interstates. Rivers, lakes and seas were the American highways. And if you lived in Philadelphia, the biggest manufacturing hub in the country, knowing precisely when a steamer was coming or going was key to your ability to send and receive goods and visitors.

Then as now, information was money. And reading The Inquirer was a route to both.

Vol. 1, No. 1, of the Pennsylvania Inquirer appeared on the afternoon of June 1, 1829, the city's seventh daily in a brutally competitive media market where newspapers routinely opened, closed, and merged.

The Inquirer - Philadelphia replaced Pennsylvania in 1859 - was owned by two men, one a printer named John Walker. His partner, John Norvell, had left the city's largest paper, the Aurora & Gazette, over an editorial shift that he believed favored the creation of a class system in the United States.

"There can be no better name than 'The Inquirer,' " Norvell is supposed to have said as the first issue appeared. "In a free state, there should always be an inquirer asking on behalf of the people: Why was this done? Why is that man put forward? Why is that law proposed?"

That first issue numbered an unimpressive four pages. Its front page bore six columns, each filled top to bottom with dense gray type. No headlines. No photographs. And, really, no news.

Newspapers were still mostly political or commercial sheets, established to support a candidate, religion or policy. The Civil War, which would transform papers into true news-gathering organizations, was 30 years away. Besides, in 1829 no reputable editor would do something so undignified as to send reporters around town to gather information.

News was what was delivered to the office, which for The Inquirer was at 5 Bank Alley, between Front and Second Streets just south of Walnut.

That first front page carried word that R. Megonegal had opened a penmanship academy at 206 Race St., where he guaranteed students would learn to write "with ease, elegance and dispatch."

A long story on the "Moral Conditions of England" told how the British had departed from a proper frugality to indulge in expensive houses, furniture and clothes - and that Americans were at risk of the same.

The Four Nations Hotel on Coates Street was under new management. Fancy cloth had arrived at the offices of E. Sayres, a draper and tailor at 160 Arch St. The Rev. James Patterson alerted parents that "a very large number of children sicken and die for want of the fresh and healthful air of the country."

He invited sons and daughters to accompany him on a summer sojourn, though there was no word on where he planned to take the children or when they might return.

On the day The Inquirer came into existence, Andrew Jackson was a new president. He'd been inaugurated three months earlier, the victor of the bitter 1828 election where opponents derided him as a "jackass." Jackson responded by adorning his campaign literature with images of a donkey, presaging its role as emblem of the Democratic Party.

Jackson arrived in Washington as a living symbol of the common man, representing the ideal that anyone - that is, any white man - could go as far as his talent could take him.

He had grown up poor, but scrapped to become a lawyer, congressman, senator and military leader, a veteran of the Revolution and hero of the War of 1812. Jackson was no scion of a great family - his fame came from killing Indians and Englishmen.

"Capitalism was taking hold in American society," said Sarah Lawrence College historian Eileen Cheng, author of The Plain and Noble Garb of Truth: Nationalism and Impartiality in American Historical Writing, 1784-1860. "There was a lot of belief in the self-made man."

Jackson invited everyone to come to Washington for the inauguration - and nearly everyone did, packing the White House and causing a near-riot from which the new president barely escaped. His aides lured the crowds outside by placing tubs of whiskey punch on the White House lawn.

"Washington society," said Ted Pearson, associate professor of history at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, "is slack-jawed in amazement that this hick has made it to the top of the pile."

But Jackson faced bigger problems than the disapproval of polite society. The 24-state United States was in danger of coming apart.

The rift occurred over a matter that now seems arcane: the Tariff of 1828, imposed on imports to protect Northern industries that were being bankrupted by low-priced goods from Europe, especially from Britain. The subsequent reduction in British imports hurt the South, because it became hard for the British to buy cotton.

Angry Southerners protested the "Tariff of Abominations," and South Carolina went so far as to try to nullify the federal law that authorized the tax. A compromise softened the tariff rates, but not the hard feelings.

When The Inquirer was first published in 1829, change was coming to the 53-year-old nation. The heroes of the Revolution were aged or dead - Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had died three years earlier, on the same day, July Fourth.

Matthias Baldwin had opened a machine shop in Philadelphia that would soon produce the first American locomotive.

In Michigan, William Burt was close to patenting a writing machine he called the Typographer, later known as the typewriter. Joseph Smith Jr. was about to publish the Book of Mormon.

The same month that The Inquirer began publication, British mineralogist James Smithson died in Italy - leaving money to establish what would become the Smithsonian Institution.

"There's a recognition we're on the cusp of significant change," said Franklin and Marshall's Pearson, who is finishing a book on early-1800s South Carolina. "In 1829, people were saying, 'The Founding Fathers have now gone. ... It's now our turn to make something of this country.' "

Turn the page of that first day's Inquirer, and you notice the dark type that marks the newspaper's first editorial. The Inquirer's goal: to support Jackson and the Democratic Party, while reserving the right to disagree.

"The Inquirer has been established for no temporary purpose," the editors wrote, pledging that the paper's operation would be "of permanent duration."

The editors promised to support "the maintenance of the rights and liberties of the people" and oppose "the abuses as the usurpation of power." They affirmed the right of the minority to speak its opinions, "however discordant they may be with those of the majority."

Set across two inside pages were reports of ships docking in ports from Philadelphia to Charleston, S.C., to Quebec City, in what was then the British province of Lower Canada. There was advice on growing robust potatoes - "pinch the blossoms" - and word that Mr. John Watson had been robbed on his way to Hempstead, Long Island. The paper announced sales of cotton, satin, ribbon, thread, molasses and duck, not the fowl but the fabric used for sails.

The Walnut Street Theatre, which had opened 20 years earlier as an equestrian circus, was showing a new play, Cavaliers and Roundheads, the title a reference to the sides that fought England's Civil War. Box seats cost 50 cents.

People who arrived in Philadelphia in 1829 noticed two things: the tall steeples of the churches, and the swaying masts in the harbor.

The city's prosperity was tied to the water - "the single most important means by which ideas came in and out," said Randall Miller, a St. Joseph's University expert on early American history.

Philadelphia's growth was evident in its roads and canals, and in the development of an amazingly diverse array of industries that produced everything from flour to chandeliers to ships' boilers.

Philadelphia accounted for 25 percent of the nation's steel production. Manayunk was a thriving mill town, spinning cotton and weaving wool, known as "the Lowell of Pennsylvania" after the Massachusetts textile center.

Banks, insurers, accounting firms - all sprang up beside the manufacturers. The city was esteemed for education and medicine, home to some of the oldest and best schools and hospitals. Jefferson Medical College had been founded four years earlier, its faculty to include Dr. Thomas Mutter, whose collection of anatomic specimens would form the core of the Mutter Museum.

But for all its success, Philadelphia was slipping in important ways.

The state and federal governments had decamped to Lancaster and Washington. New York had surged ahead in population, casting Philadelphia as the country's second-largest city. Chestnut Street, long the national center of finance, was losing preeminence to a certain New York avenue called Wall Street.

"Commercially the city might have done better had she not been so relaxed and comfortable," historian Nicholas Wainwright wrote. "The city lived to an excessive extent on the diminishing returns of a direction given to its economic life by men long since dead."

One early direction was printing - thriving in Philadelphia in 1829. The city stood as a major publishing center, not just of books and religious tracts but of something even more innovative: handbills.

Advances in printing and paper-making meant that anyone could write out an idea, print it up and hand it out. People who wanted to communicate news no longer had to travel the city making oral reports to friends and neighbors.

The handbill was the Internet of its day, giving ordinary people the means to spread their views beyond their immediate geographic area. Northern abolitionists immediately grasped the possibilities, blanketing the South with handbills that enraged slave-owners - and fueled the tensions that led to the Civil War.

Philadelphia had probably the largest population of African Americans of any city outside the South. Some were still slaves, state law providing for a system of gradual abolition. Segregation ruled the day. And black competition for jobs infuriated Irish and German factory and dock workers, spurring race riots.

A different kind of conflict was brewing near Chestnut Street, one that would speed Philadelphia's slide.

The Second Bank of the United States, in Carpenters' Hall, was the official repository of government funds, and as such it exerted enormous influence. The power to lend was the power to fuel development in one place and cut it off in another.

Jackson and his people distrusted banks, particularly the Second Bank, run by Nicholas Biddle. After all, what was this paper money? And these accountants' books? Gold and silver and goods made by calloused hands, those were the things of value.

After winning a second term, Jackson issued an executive order stopping government deposits into the Second Bank. Three years later, the Second Bank became an ordinary bank, and five years after that it went bankrupt.

Philadelphia would never again challenge New York for national primacy.

Turn to the last page of that first day's newspaper. Sports news? No. And no comic strips or crossword puzzles either.

The last page holds the forerunners of classified ads, merchants selling Havana coffee, New Orleans sugar, New Jersey hams, Cuban tobacco, and Virginia coal.

The last item on the last page was the news that James Hogan had expanded his store at 138 S. Fourth St., and his fleet of horse-drawn carriages now included a hearse. He also had a few hogsheads of Old Cider for sale.

There was no inkling of the news to come concerning the paper: In November, less than six months after starting The Inquirer, the founders sold out. The new owner was Jesper Harding, associate editor of the United States Gazette and soon to become the nation's leading publisher of the Bible.

Harding promised that The Inquirer would be independent, and that opinions of events and public men would be offered "with moderation and forbearance."

By the end of the year, his front page featured news of a cure for fits, at 50 cents a bottle, and word that Dr. Hull's truss would help "those labouring under the distressing and dangerous disease of hernia."

In the next few years, improvements in typesetting "unleashed a flood of newsprint upon the community," Wainwright wrote. Amid that flood, the founders of The Inquirer sank from local view.

City records show a John R. Walker serving as justice of the peace a few years after The Inquirer was sold. Norvell was appointed postmaster of Detroit, and later served as U.S. senator from Michigan.

Their achievement was not in producing a great newspaper. It was in keeping it alive so others might do so.


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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