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The Penny Press and the Elevation of “White” Labor

The history of slavery in America shows that the distinctions among economic groups of whites were as dramatic as those between ruling whites and blacks (Du Bois 1935). When Africans first arrived in colonial America in 1619, enslavement of Africans was not institutionalized (Fields 1990: 104). Eventually African slavery entered the legal codes, not as a result of “race,” Fields argues, but because it was more profitable to use African slave labor than that of European indentured servants (104). Working-class Europeans knew that their social status and the lives they lived as a result of this status were distinct from those of elite whites. After the legal system began to institutionalize slavery in 1661,9 and for the next 150 years, white indentured servants continued to be a major part of the economic system. However, that part of the system began to dissipate from the postrevolutionary era through the early part of the nineteenth century. Throughout this period, poor and working-class whites sought to distinguish themselves as non-servants, for servant was often equated with slave (Roediger 1999).

Few things illustrate the institutionalization of the middle classes of whites, as a distinct group, more than the emergence of the Penny Press. The Penny Press put this middle group of whites in the position to eventually share the hegemonic position of whites ruling over blacks. The first Penny Press papers were started by these new classes of whites, whose very existence was a result of an expansion of the “free market ’’system; they disagreed politically with the outgoing national leadership and hailed the rise of Andrew Jackson and his brand of “democracy, ’which expanded rights for middle-class whites, in particular voting rights (Roed- iger 1999). They were part of the new growing, group or class of artisans or wage- earners and resented the upper classes.

Of the seven men identified as founders of pioneer penny dailies, available biographical data indicates that six began as artisans—five printers and one cabinetmaker... . The seventh ... like the others was a wage earner. Men such as these—on the basis of their journeyman’s and editorial skills—might have had access to working credit, scarcely to large capital. One reason for the affinity of their newspapers to Workingmen’s and Jacksonian politics was the anger many of these editors felt at seeing upper-class blanket press dailies subsidized by bank loans . while they themselves were starving for capital (Saxton 2003: 99).

Many of the early Penny Press papers were essentially labor papers that supported a growing labor movement. Not only did they represent the rise of a new socioeconomic class and regions in the society, they were part of “Jacksonian democracy,’ an expansion of rights for white men and no one else. A number of Penny Press graduates served in the Jackson administration; he is said to have “appointed more than fifty [editors] to posts in his administration” (Pasley 2000: 52). In conjunction to earning national recognition through their rapid social and political success, the Penny Press also achieved rapid economic growth. Given the speedy expansion of its readership, the Penny Press materialized as a type of mass media in the United States:

the spread of the penny press expanded both the numbers and class base of newspaper readership. In 1840 there were 138 dailies; in 1850, 254. Average daily circulation rose from 1,200 in 1830 to just under 3,000 in 1850. New York alone had fourteen dailies in 1850 with a combined circulation running well over 150,000. This amounted to 1

newspaper a day for every 4.5 inhabitants, in contrast to 1 for every 16 twenty years earlier (Saxton 2003: 96).

This medium supported and reproduced the group it represented through advertising and editorial content. A review of the pages of the newspapers produced by this emergent industry includes, in both latent and manifest content, representations of these new groups of whites. The simultaneous development of this modern incarnation of newspapers as well as the formation of new socioeconomic groups of whites likely indicates a symbiotic relationship between the two types of social formations: mass media and white racial group consciousness.

 
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