The Early Pioneers of Amateur Journalism (before 1876)


THE BEGINNING of amateur journalism is shrouded in uncertainty. Publishing for pleasure was no doubt indulged in soon after the invention of printing, and even before. The desire to express one's thoughts in words and to see these words in print is as old as civilization. It is especially present with the young.


A group of young people issued a magazine, in England in 1843 entitled Gatherings by Young Hands. In their initial number they said: "We intend our little work to serve as an occupation for leisure hours; or since youth can claim no hours of perfect leisure, to be in some measure a relaxation from closer and more invigorating studies."


Earlier than this, in 1786, George Canning, later Prime Minister, while a student at Eton, published an amateur paper called the Microcosm, filled with poems, essays, stories and editorial comment. In it the young editor, then 17 years of age, displayed that marked ability which later enabled him to enter Parliament at the age of 23, and to rise to lofty heights in the service of the nation.


Robert Louis Stevenson, at the age of 16, while at home in Edinburgh, issued a paper, printed with a pen, called the Sunbeam Magazine. He called it "An illustrated magazine of Fact, Fiction and Fun." It contained stories by Stevenson, illustrated with pen and ink sketches and colored drawings. It is interesting to note that in 1880 in Sonoma, Cal., S. L. Osbourne, Stevenson's stepson, then 12 years of age, issued a small amateur paper called the Surprise. The first number contained a verse by Stevenson, and a copy of the paper brought at a recent auction sale $1,400.


But amateur journalism as an institution, embodying those characteristic elements which make it unique among youthful endeavours, is distinctly an American product. Youth, unaided, undirected, is its essence. A desire for fun, glory, self-expression, achievement, is the mainspring of its activity, not financial gain.


A distinguished graduate of amateur journalism, James M. Beck, widely known as an authority on the United States Constitution, at one time Solicitor-General of the United States, always contended that Benjamin Franklin, a printer from his youth, was the first amateur journalist, writing and printing with his own hands pamphlets which he gave away, without hope of gain. In a broad sense this is undoubtedly true. But within the more specific meaning with which the term is here used, the earliest American amateur editor on record was Thomas G. Condie, popularly known among his successors as "the Father of Amateur journalism."


It is said that John Howard Payne, best known as the author of "Home, Sweet Home," when 13 years old, published a weekly paper called the Thespian Mirror, but no copies of it are known to be extant. A complete file of Condie's paper is preserved in the American Private Press Associaation library of amateur journals (in the Fossil Collection).


Thomas Gray Condie, Jr., was born in Philadelphia in 1797, the son of a bookbinder. When 15 years old, he started the publication of a weekly magazine known as the Juvenile Port-Folio and Literary Miscellany. It declared itself to be "devoted to the instruction and amusement of youth." It contained four pages, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches in size, printed in double columns. As a sample of its editorial style the final paragraph of its opening address "To the juvenile Public" is reprinted:


The Ladies will receive the Juvenile Portfolio as an entertaining companion, studious of their favour, by courtly manners and valuable information; and the Gentlemen will find in it, a manly and correct conduct, which we hope will not be unworthy of their regard; as, we shall ever be anxious to please the Polite, the Learned, the Witty, and the Fair. In the course of this Salutatory, Condie calls upon other boys and girls to aid him, as he feels the inexperience of youth. "In order, therefore," he writes, "to make up for his own deficiency, he respectfully solicits the favour and assistance of such of the Literary Youth as may have time and inclination to favour him with their communications." That this appeal was successful is shown by his statement at the end of his first quarter. And this editorial paragraph is notable for what is probably the first use of the word "amateur" in connection with youthful journalism. He says that the reception the magazine has met with has exceeded his expectations. It has summoned to its aid "a brilliant assembly of Polite Beauty, Literary Taste, Liberal Opulence, and an emulous Phalanx of the juvenile Amateurs of both sex." The Port-Folio was issued every Saturday for more than four years, a remarkable achievement for a boy in his teens. It was discontinued November 23, 1816, when Condie began the study of law. He was admitted to the bar at the age of 21 and died in his 39th year. It has been suggested that the Port-Folio was not a true amateur journal as it had a paid-up subscription list which brought in considerable revenue. It is true that in the early days amateur journalists tried, sometimes successfully, to pay their expenses with money derived from subscriptions and advertisements. But financial gain was incidental, and not the actuating motive. It may be that with young Condie it played a greater part than it has with the thousands of amateur journalists who have followed him. One of their number, James F. Morton, at this writing [1940]Curator of the City Museum of Paterson, N. J., wrote: "Of what we write the world takes little heed. But amateur journalists write and pay to print what none will pay to read." Eight years after Condie, the future author of the great American novel, the Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, published six numbers of an amateur weekly called after Addison's famous journal the Spectator, 1824. Hawthorne was just 16 years old at the time. His paper consisted of two pages, 71/2 inches long and 6 x 4 inches wide, and was printed by the young editor with pen and ink, as was Stevenson's paper. Its first number was dated August 21, 1820, and contained the following "Editor's Address:"


Our feelings upon sending into the world the first number of the Spectator may be compared to those of a fond Parent when he beholds a beloved child about to embark on the troubled Ocean of Public Life. Perhaps the iron hand of Criticism may crush our humble undertaking, ere it is strengthened by time. Or it may pine in obscurity, neglected and forgotten by those with whose assistance it might become the Pride and Ornament of our Country. Our terms are two cents a month.


The youthful Hawthorne evidently desired to exercise his critical faculties, and he lacked the rich opportunity afforded later amateur journalists of reviewing the work of contemporaries. With a touch of humor he writes in his final issue:


As it is part of the plan of the Spectator to criticise home-manufactured publications, we most earnestly desire some of our benevolent Readers to write a book for our special benefit. At present we feel as we were wont to do in the days of our Boyhood, when we possessed a Hatchet without anything to exercise it on. We engage to execute the Printing and Binding, and to procure the paper for the work, free of all expense to the Author. If this request should be denied us, we must infallibly turn our arms against our own writings, which, as they will not stand the test of criticism, we feel very unwilling to do. We do not wish that the proposed work should be too perfect; the Author will please to make a few blunders for us to exercise our Talents upon.


The longing for something to criticize was satisfied years afterward when amateur journalists exchanged the products of their minds and hands, and to this is due a major share of the success of the institution in a later era.


Again eight years passed, and another New England boy, Oliver Kendall, 15 years old, published the Juvenile Gazette in Providence, R. I. All the literary and mechanical work was done by the young editor. At first he made use of worn-out type, which he collected from material thrown out by professional printers, but later his father, appreciative of his enterprise, supplied him with better facilities. A file of his paper is in the archives of the Rhode Island Historical Society.


Clement Robinson, former Attorney-General of Maine, has recently discovered a bound volume of a paper which is an interesting and important item in the history of amateur journalism. It was called the Juvenile Key, or Child's News- paper, and was published at Brunswick, Me. The first issue is dated September 18, 1830, and contained four pages, each page measuring 7 x 9 inches.


It is noteworthy as furnishing the earliest instance on record of the gentler sex in the realm of amateur journalism. It was published by Miss Z. J. Griffin and J. W. Griffin. It is also remarkable for the youth of its publishers, its first issue having this item:


The publishers, by whom most of the type work has been executed, and by whom the mechanical labor of\future numbers will be principally performed, are children, one but seven, the other nine years of age.


The Key was published weekly for at least a year, carried a serial story entitled "Idle Harry," and was illustrated with occasional wood cuts.


The New England poetess Lucy Larcom began writing poems at the age of seven, and five years later was the "leading rhymer" of a manuscript paper, issued fortnightly, called the Diving Bell, of which her sister was editor. Her work was that of an amateur in the true sense. In her autobiography entitled A New England Girlhood she relates that she one day heard of somebody who earned a thousand dollars by writing poetry. "It seemed absurd," she writes, "money for writing verses! I should as soon have thought of being paid for thinking. I looked upon it only as an agreeable amusement."


As a sample of her poetry at the age of twelve the following stanza is quoted:


When the fierce storms are raging I will not repine,

Though I am heedlessly crushed in the strife;

For surely 'twere better oblivion were mine

Than a worthless, inglorious life.


Miss Larcom went to work in the Lowell textile mills at the age of eleven, toiling 12 hours a day. Her first published literary work was contained in a magazine issued by the girls in the mill called Operators' Magazine, later the Lowell Offering. This publication was issued for five years, its final number being dated December, 1845. Its motto was:


'Tis here young mind her untried strength shall prove,

And onward, upward, shall forever move.


Its editor was Harriet Earley, who went to work in the mill at 15. The extreme youth of its editors and contributors gave point to a typographical error in one of its issues which announced "a poem by a young lady of thirteen" as "inspired by the nurses" instead of the muses. Miss Larcom was a constant contributor.


The magazine attracted considerable attention. A selection from its pages was reprinted in a London paper under the title "Mind Among the Spindles," and Charles Dickens in his American Notes refers to it as follows:


I am going to state a fact which will startle a large class of readers on this side of the Atlantic. The Lowell Offering is a periodical containing original articles written exclusively by females actively employed in the mills, duly printed, published, and sold, and whereof I brought away from Lowell four hundred good solid pages. They labor in these mills, upon an average, twelve hours a day, which is unquestionably work, and pretty tight work too. Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written after the arduous labors of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals.


In 1834 Nathaniel H. Egleson, of Hartford, Conn., then 12 years old, published the Boy, and the same year a lad named Benjamin White issued the Censor. Five years later at Rock River, Ill., Edward C. Kemble published the Comet. It was printed on a home-made press of wood, which required the entire weight of the editor to make an impression. The chase, in which the type was locked, was made of four hardwood strips, and the form was inked by a buckskin ball stuffed with cotton. It was a fine example of the pluck and ingenuity of American youth.


In Buffalo, N.Y., in 1845, a 14-year-old boy named Junius S. Smith, issued a miniature paper called the Buffalo Journal, its pages measuring 3 x 4 inches. In 1846 the Satchell was issued in Philadelphia by A. F. Cox.


William Henry Dutton, afterwards editor of the Boston Transcript, published the Sunbeam from 1846 to 1852. It was a weekly, and was notable for the small type from which it was printed, the size being known as Pearl. From 1845 to 1850 the Gleaner was published weekly in Boston by H. B. and W. B. Hubbard, and in Cambridge the Post Boy was issued by Frank Ames. In 1847 James M. Whiton, Jr., of Boston, published a paper called the Young Ideas, the first appearance of a name later used by Black of New York and Higgins of Baltimore. One of the youngest editors of the period was William P. Hagadorn, who in 1853, at the age of ten, from his home in Stapleton, Staten Island, N.Y., edited and printed, most artistically, the Little Corporal.


One of the men prominent in the newspaper field in Massachusetts, Marcus H. Rogers, who died January 30, 1925, at the ripe age of 90, in his youth was an amateur printer and publisher whose experience was much like that of Kemble's, and, indeed, more or less typical of that of many other amateurs of the period. The future publisher of the Berkshire Courier and the Berkshire Eagle was employed during his summer vacation in 1855 in the village store and post office. Having caught the publishing fever, he invested his wages, amounting to $14, in some type, a pair of cases, and a composing stick. With no money to buy a press he set to work and built one himself, using as a model the Ben Franklin hand press, guided only by a picture of the press in an advertisement and his mother's cheese press.


With this outfit, although he had never been inside a printing office, he set up and printed a small paper which he called the Rising Sun. He issued this journal for over a year. The original press was preserved in. Mr. Rogers' printing office, and with it for 70 years he printed an annual paper on his birthday.


Near the close of the year 1858 a 14-year-old boy named C. H. Kent, living in Lancaster, N. H., started a paper called the Coos Herald. The same year a number of amateur journals sprang into existence in and around Boston, and exchanged with one another. In Boston, Edward C. Richardson edited the Young America Magazine, issued monthly. It was printed by a professional printer in Roxbury and had a wood cut of Benjamin Franklin on its yellow cover. The editor's cousin, William L. Richardson, issued a larger paper, its pages 7 x 10 inches in size, called the Excelsior, while in Roxbury, G. C. Way published the Enterprise, and had for a contemporary the Pioneer, edited by William G. Reed. In, Brookline, C. M. Sampson issued the Young American, and in Charlestown, James H. Lee sent forth the Boys' Gazette. A little away, in Vermont, but on the Boston boys' exchange list, was the Green Mountain Eagle, published by George A. Converse, later Rear Admiral in the United States Navy.


About this time in Boston, James H. Wiggin, later a prominent Unitarian clergyman, and father of Albert H. Wiggin, president of the Chase National Bank, edited and printed a paper called the Carrier Pigeon. It was finely printed and carried an engraving of a pigeon in its heading.


During the decade beginning with 1860 amateur journals became increasingly numerous. Among them were the Union published at Bath, Me., by Robert H. Canfield; the Monitor, of Exeter, N. H., C. M. Lano, editor; the Star and the Welcome Visitor, Evansville, Ind., Henry E. Wheeler, editor. In 1866 Thomas, usually known as Tad, Lincoln, son of the martyred President, published the Holiday Budget from Chicago, with Sterling P. Rounds, Jr., as an associate, later well known as an amateur author. It may be mentioned here that a few years later another son of a President of the United States was an amateur editor. In 1871 Jesse R. Grant published the K. F. R. Journal, and gave his address as "The White House, Washington, D. C." He was 13 years old at the time. Years later he became a member of The Fossils, the organization of amateur journalists of the past.


A name famous in the annals of amateur journalism of early years is that of Nellie Williams. Although, as we have seen, she was not the first or the youngest of the girls to enter the amateur fold, it was long believed that she was, and she was honored as such. Miss Williams lived in Penfield, N. Y., near Rochester, and for fun learned to set type in a small printing office owned by her brother. Her brother was killed in the Civil War, and Nellie, at the age of 12, went into his printing shop, set the type, ran the press, and issued for several years a paper she edited called the Penfield Extra, its first number being dated December 28, 1861. She was a girl of much enterprise, and secured a circulation of considerable magnitude. "Little Nellie's Paper" received a great deal of notice in the press. In one of her issues she calls attention to other papers being published by young editors, for, she says, "Very many young boys and girls have been stimulated by reading my paper to go to work at the type case."


One of the leading newspaper publishers of New England was James D. P. Wingate, for many years president of the Massachusetts Press Association, and proprietor of the Medford Mercury and other daily papers. In his native town of Exeter, N. H., he published a succession of amateur journals while still in high school, and entered directly into professional journalism before his graduation. His several miniature papers were known as the Little Joker, the Boy's Gem, and the Bird's Nest.


The most distinguished name on the membership list of The Fossils, and one of the most distinguished in the world, was added when Thomas A. Edison joined the society in 1921. Mr. Edison's career as a youthful editor and publisher is interesting and characteristic of the later man. In 1862, when 15 years old, he secured the job of selling magazines, fruit and candy on the Grand Trunk Railroad between Port Huron, his home town, and Detroit. At that time the baggage car was divided into three sections, designed for the reception of baggage, mail and express. The latter section was not being used, and young Edison was allowed to store his jars of chemicals and telegraph apparatus, with which, in his odd moments, he busied himself. While purchasing his supply of magazines, he one day noticed an old hand printing press which had been used in one of Detroit's hotels to print its bills of fare. Edison examined it, pulled its lever, and finally bought it for a small sum. He went to the office of one of the papers he sold on the train, the Detroit Free Press, and succeeded in securing some old type.


This outfit young Edison set up in his compartment of the car, and during his daily run, in his spare time, he set up and printed the Grand Trunk Herald. The enterprising boy soon built up a subscription list of considerable size, and also sold many copies of his weekly issues to passengers on the train. The paper contained four pages, three columns to a page. A correspondent of the London Times, traveling on the train, noted the enterprise of the young American and commented upon it in his letter to his paper, saying that it was the first paper he had ever seen printed on wheels.


But this latter statement was not true of the Herald's last days. A sudden lurch of the train one day caused a bottle of phosphorous Edison had among his chemicals to be thrown to the floor, and it set fire to the car. The conductor extinguished the blaze with a few pails of water, but was so incensed over the matter that at Mount Clemens, the next station, the young inventor's chemicals, telegraph instruments, press and type were thrown out on the platform. Undiscouraged, the boy editor gathered up his material, transported it to his home in Port Huron, and continued the Herald for some time. In his later home, until his death, Mr. Edison kept upon his wall a copy of his boyhood paper framed between two pieces of glass. A photographic copy of this issue is on exhibition in The Fossils Library of amateur papers.


In 1869 at Wilmington, N. C., so far as it has been possible to ascertain, occurred the initial awakening of amateur journalism in the South. At the age of nine, Edward A. Oldham, who was later to become a leading publisher of newspapers, weekly and daily, and a distinguished columnist and writer, produced his first effort in mimic journalism, a pen-and-ink journal, bearing the title of the Little Monitor, suggested by his having been selected as monitor in a private school, where he was among the youngest pupils. This little make-believe newspaper was issued often enough to intensify the young editor's ambition to own a real printing press and to print a little paper. He had seen Benjamin S. Wood's advertisement of the Novelty Press in his monthly copy of the St. Nicholas. In time he managed to earn money enough for the purchase of a press and type equipment, and in 1870 he published the Star of the South, four pages, each page 5 x 7 inches, printing one page at a time. This tiny journal set the pace for Southern boys, North Carolina boys particularly, and in that State there quickly followed the Boys' Courier from New Born, with James M. Howard, Charles R. Thomas and Owen Guiort, as editors. The last named became a Superior Court judge, and Thomas rose to political prominence and became a Member of Congress from North Carolina for several terms, in the Nineties and later.


The Boys' Courier was immediately followed by the North Carolina Amateur, with George M. Carr as editor, at Rose Hill. It was easily the most representative non-professional journal in that State, at one time reaching the size of a tabloid sheet, with a goodly list of subscribers. Many other boy editors in different parts of North Carolina brought forth small newspapers. A notable one was the Cornucopia, from Wilson, with Josephus Daniels and Charles C. Daniels, editors. When Oldham went off to boarding school in 1874, he boxed up his Novelty press and printing equipment and shipped it as a present to the Daniels boys. The future Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration, Josephus, has declared that this was the initial influence that started him on the road to prominence as a newspaper publisher and successful politician. The leading daily at the State capital is the Raleigh News and Observer, of which Josephus Daniels was the owner and editor until his death. His brother, Charles C. Daniels, published a professional newspaper the Free Press at Kinston, N. C., but later took up law and moved to New York, where he became a prominent member of the New York bar.


The growth of amateur journalism in North Carolina was notable. Edward A. Oldham in 1877 became founder and president of a State Amateur Press Association that was spoken of as "the banner State association of boy editors in the United States," enjoying a membership of 50 or more and receiving recognition and encouragement from the professional press of the State.


The Bethel Cadet and the Odd Trump, both edited by Edward A. Oldham and published at a famous military school near Warrenton, Va., in 1877, '78, and '79, led the way in Virginia to considerable activity among the boys of that State, especially at Norfolk and Richmond. Thomas Hope and Arthur Perry were active in the first named city, and Oswald L. Williams in the latter city. The Bethel paper was the first school paper in the South, and continued in existence for many years after its young publisher had become prominent in professional journalism.



Exchanging Papers and Organizing


THE LOVE OF ORGANIZATION is said to be an inborn American trait. Confronted with any task, the first impulse is to form an organization, elect a President and a Secretary, and appoint a committee to do the work. The youthful journalists of America felt this urge as soon as they became aware of one another. Then there arose a natural desire to see the product of one another’s pen and press. This led to the practice of exchanging papers. The earliest example of this on record took place in the year 1857. There were then seven or eight amateur journals published in and about Boston, bearing such names as Young American, Eagle, Pioneer, Excelsior, Enterprise and Gazette. The editors of these papers exchanged copies of their respective publications and commented upon one another’s work.


This exchanging of papers is one of the chief elements augmenting the pleasure and profit of amateur journalism. Indeed, it may be likened to the artery through which flows the life blood of the institution. Criticism, suggestion, personal likings and jealousy, ambition to excel — all the various impelling motives of a world in miniature — are given birth. Alexander Black, the veteran author, originator of the pre-film picture play, in his recent book Time and Chance recalling his amateur journalistic days, writes:


I came to have an exchange or a subscriber to my Young Idea in every State in the Union. Exchanges were a vital matter to amateur journalists. The other fellow’s journal and what it might say about your journal seemed more significant than anything else about the game.


The exchanging of papers naturally led to correspondence and occasional visits between editors. From this grew an increasing desire for a more concrete medium for cooperation, interchange of ideas, forming friendships, and gaining experience in the conduct of organized bodies.


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