Friday, July 29, 2016


The Pictorial Press - Its Origin and Progress by Mason Jackson: Chapter 1

[Although this book comes pretty far afield from Stripper's Guide's subject of newspaper comics, I have found it a very interesting read for its explanation of the evolution of the 'illustrated newspaper'. Of course the evolutionary tree of that invention will eventually, in the 1890s, finally offer the particular fruit of which we like to partake, the comic strip. Thus, it serves as the backstory to our own particular source of fascination, and as such, is of interest to those of us with a desire to know its primordial origins.

The author is enamored of very loooong quotes from his source material. I considered clipping a lot of it out, since we are interested more in the press itself than the subjects it was printing. However, doing so would have resulted in a rather choppy narrative, and besides, some of it is quite interesting. If the long quotes aren't interesting to you, be assured that you won't miss out on anything if you skim through looking for the bits about the press itself.

Please note that since this book is British and written in the 19th century (published 1885), I felt it not unreasonable to take the liberty of updating occasional quaint spellings and archaic terms. British spelling has been left alone. 

Thanks to Project Gutenberg, whose digitization of this book is the source material for my own version presented here, in which occasional annotation links have been added. -- Allan]

The inherent love of pictorial representation in all races of men and in every age is manifest by the frequent attempts made to depict natural objects, under the most unfavourable circumstances and with the slenderest means. The rude drawing scratched on the smooth bone of an animal by the cave-dweller of prehistoric times, the painted rocks of the Mexican forests, and the cave-paintings of the bushmen, are all evidences of this deeply-rooted passion. The child of civilised life looks with delight on his picture-book long before he can make out the letters of the alphabet, and the untutored Eskimo treasures the stray number of an illustrated newspaper left in his hut by the crew of some whaling ship, though he cannot understand one word of the printed page. But the pictures speak a universal language, which requires no teaching to comprehend.

When the printing press came into use this love of pictures had a wide field for development. Some of the first books printed in England were illustrated with woodcuts, and many of the tracts, or ‘news-books,’ which preceded regular newspapers, were adorned with rude engravings. It mattered not how graphic was the pen, its work was deemed incomplete without the aid of the pencil. It often happened that the pen was none the better for the fellowship, but the public taste was not fastidious, and the work sufficed for the occasion. In tracing the origin and progress of pictorial journalism we shall find in ‘the abstracts and brief chronicles of the time’ many curious illustrations of contemporary history. The subject is not without interest now that the illustrated newspaper has become a prominent feature in the journalism of every country.

The development of the newspaper press and its unrestricted use as the exponent of public opinion is one of the most interesting signs of modern progress. When we consider the liberty of thought and action that prevails in our own day, it is difficult to believe that our forefathers were liable to the pillory and other degrading punishments when they ventured to publish their opinions without first obtaining the sanction of the ruling powers. We are accustomed to the daily exercise of the right which cost Prynne his ears and brought fines and imprisonment on Defoe. Newspapers have become almost as necessary to our daily life as bread itself. The mind demands its breakfast as well as the body; and to many a busy man the loss of his morning paper would be as great a deprivation as the want of his usual mornng meal.

In London, and in all our great centres of population, the newspaper has become the unfailing accompaniment of the city man’s journey to business. At the railway stations journals of every kind tempt the loitering passenger, while the illustrated papers appeal to him in a language of their own. Whether in the railway carriage, the omnibus, or the steam-boat, the newspaper is eagerly conned, and its contents form the food of conversation. Most of these newspapers are cast aside at the end of the twenty minutes’ or half hour’s journey; and then, at second hand, they amuse the leisure moments of the railway porter, or, better still, they are collected together, and perhaps serve to solace the sick poor during many lingering hours in hospitals and refuges. Day by day the demand is made, and the supply is ready. The printing-machine never sleeps and is never tired. Its voice is one of the voices of the night—most unmusical, yet with a mysterious meaning. The daily newspaper, so potent in diffusing the light of knowledge, is itself the offspring of darkness. The busy brains and active fingers which create it turn night into day in the execution of their quickly recurring tasks, and with unflagging energy they labour on, that the slumbering world may be properly amused and instructed when it wakes.

The intelligent foreigner who happens to reach our southern coast on a Monday morning in summer or autumn, and travels to London by one of the early trains, is astonished, when the train stops, to see most of the gentlemen rush from the carriages and surround a small boy, whom they appear to hustle and threaten with violent gesticulations. The boy appears to buy off the hostility of his assailants by dealing out to each a paper, which he takes from a large bundle under his arm, and with which the appeased passenger returns to his carriage. Cries of ‘Times! Daily News! Telegraph! Standard!—Here, give us one—anything!’ reach the ears of the wondering stranger, who beholds the boy at length take refuge in an empty railway carriage on the opposite side of the platform, and from that place of vantage he continues to deal out the mysterious papers.

After a time the intelligent foreigner learns that these are the London papers of that morning, which are sent out to meet the trains, and are eagerly bought by the gentlemen who have been spending from Saturday to Monday at the seaside, and, having fasted from all newspapers during that time, they are now of course famishing for news. Such is their eagerness that politics are thrown to the winds. The Conservative will put up with a Liberal newspaper rather than have none at all; and he whose ill luck or inertness has left him without the coveted sheet is glad to borrow of his neighbour, that he may not be walking in the darkness of ignorance when he arrives at his place of business. As the train moves off, the intelligent foreigner, if he thrusts his head out of the carriage window, may behold in the distance the newsboy pensively counting his gains and endeavouring to make his receipts tally with the number of papers that have vanished.

 One of the most remarkable phases of newspaper history has been the establishment of illustrated journals. Though this idea, in an immature form, is as old as the newspaper itself, yet it was never fully developed till the late Mr. Herbert Ingram brought out the Illustrated London News in 1842. Since that time the removal of the newspaper stamp and the repeal of the paper duty have imparted a freedom and a vigour to newspaper enterprise previously unknown. Journals of all kinds have sprung into existence, and cheapness has become the rule. Penny and even halfpenny papers compete with the leading journals in activity and enterprise. No expense is spared in obtaining the earliest and most authentic intelligence. Correspondents are sent to every part of the world where any information is to be gleaned, and the presence of the newspaper ‘Special’ is now expected at every great event. Each class has its organ, and ‘he who runs may read.’

When we consider the immense amount of printed matter that is published every day by the newspapers, we cannot but wonder at the public appetite. And this appetite is fed from one year to another upon a diet that is only varied when there occurs a war, a revolution, an unusually disastrous shipwreck, or a murder of uncommon atrocity. Then the monotony of ordinary life gives place to the temporary excitement. There is a run upon the newspapers, which are as susceptible as barometers, and rise or fall according to the state of public feeling. The calamities of nations and the misfortunes of individuals are sources of profit and prosperity to the newspaper.

It was a happy idea to gather together the principal events of the week, to illustrate them with authentic pictures, and place them before the public in the form of a pictorial newspaper. Considering the great cost of production, and the restrictions under which newspapers lay at that time, to say nothing of the difficulty of bringing out news with appropriate illustrations, so that both should be fresh, the Illustrated London News was a bold undertaking. Like most things that are successful, it soon had many imitators, and there are now few large cities in the civilised world that have not their illustrated newspapers.

But the full development of illustrated journalism was immediately preceded by many significant symptoms. Several of the then existing newspapers, on the occurrence of any unusual or interesting event, introduced into their pages rough woodcut illustrations. A great fire—a remarkable murder—a fatal balloon ascent—these were the subjects seized upon at the moment to satisfy the public craving for illustrated news. All this seems to have been the working of an impulse or instinct which existed even before the days of newspapers; for, as I shall presently show, attempts were made to illustrate the news of the hour in tracts or ‘news-books’ before the beginning of regular newspapers in England. The idea of illustrated journalism may be traced from the earliest years of the seventeenth century to 1842, the date of the first number of the Illustrated London News. The art of wood-engraving had fallen very low in the seventeenth century, and the illustrations to be found in early newspapers are mostly of a very rude description; but they show the existence of a germ which eventually grew into full and flourishing life.

The English newspaper, like many other great inventions, was a thing of gradual growth. The news that was sung or recited by wandering ballad-singers at the village cross, or in the courtyard of the squire’s mansion, and the written newsletter furnished to the wealthy aristocracy, were the precursors of the early news-books and the periodical sheets of news. As the art of printing extended, many of the productions of the press assumed the character of news to attract readers. Sermons, satires, and travels, were all put forward under the name of news, and sometimes a single grain of truth was deemed sufficient to leaven a whole bushel of fiction. Most of these publications were small tracts, and published at irregular intervals. Some of them were adorned with engravings on the title-pages, which show that even at this early period the authors or printers of these papers were imbued with the pictorial spirit. The idea of illustrating current events had already taken root, and we find examples of it long before the establishment of regular newspapers.

The earliest form of the newspaper is known to have come into existence during times of war and tumult, and it was for a long time believed that the first English newspaper was brought forth under similar circumstances. But when the English Mercurie of 1588 was proved to be a forgery, the enthusiast in newspaper history received a heavy blow and sad discouragement. It seemed so highly probable, when this country was threatened with the descent of the Spanish Armada, that something like a newspaper might have sprung into existence, that people were only too ready to adopt the imposture. When the whole nation was greatly excited and anxious to learn something about the reality of their danger, nothing was more natural than for the sagacious minister of Queen Elizabeth to appeal to the people through the printing press, and by its means endeavour to calm the public mind by circulating printed sheets of intelligence, ‘for the contradiction of false reports.’ But we were compelled to admit that Lord Burleigh had missed his opportunity, and neglected to use the most powerful means for exciting the patriotism or allaying the fears of his countrymen. The author of this remarkable imposition showed great skill and acuteness in constructing his false newspaper, and fixing the date of its supposed publication. The forgery has been attributed to Lord Hardwick; but what were his motives it is difficult to understand. Unlike Chatterton and Ireland, he never brought his imposture before the world, and if he intended it merely for an antiquarian jeu-d’esprit he had the enjoyment of the joke entirely to himself.

The abolition of the Star Chamber, in 1641, was an important event for the press of this country. The so-called newspapers then began to print English news and discuss home affairs, no longer dreading the fines, imprisonments, and mutilations, that had been so liberally dispensed by that obnoxious tribunal. There was not, however, any considerable increase in the number of newspapers until the Civil War reached its height. During that remarkable contest many hundreds of tracts and newspapers were published, some of them numbered consecutively and published at regular intervals; but the great majority bore no continuous title, and treated of one subject only. During the reigns of Charles II and James II, the press was more or less under a censorship, from which it was not emancipated till the seventh year of William III. Lord Macaulay dates the commencement of English newspapers from this period, when a great many new journals made their appearance. They included political news amongst their contents; and they more nearly resembled in character, but not in appearance, what we now understand by a newspaper than anything that had preceded them. This press revival was not accompanied by any corresponding activity in the direction of pictorial illustration. Art of every kind was in a low condition in England at this time. Even if the art of popular illustration had been better understood, the means of production were exceedingly limited. Newspapers multiplied greatly, but illustrated journalism had to struggle with difficulties, and its existence was only made known by the occasional appearance of a rough woodcut or an indifferent copper-plate.


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