Junk Mail, Generic Papers, and Real Estate News: The Unread Media of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Chair and Commentator: Richard John, Columbia University

Property and the Black Press in Jim Crow America
Cara Caddoo, Indiana University

Augusta, Maine, Mail-Order Magazines, and the Political Economy of Junk in Gilded Age America 
Richard Popp, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Delivering Local News via Mass Media: The Hearst Newspaper Chain, 1910 –1930
Julia Guarneri, University of Cambridge

Historians often look to print media for documentation of what we already know to be important. We mine the black press for civil rights stories; we read newspaper headlines to confirm our sense of the national and international events that mattered; and we write the histories of papers of record, such as the New York Times and Washington Post, that are still widely read. Yet our notions of what must be important can blind us to the actual media landscape of the past. This panel assembles three projects that reconstruct the print media of the Gilded Age and Progressive era. The three papers ask simple questions that reveal new stories: what kinds of media actually traveled through the mail? What array of newspapers did Americans actually read? What stories and morals did print media actually communicate each day?

Cara Caddoo’s paper considers the black weeklies of Memphis, Tennessee. One of these, the Free Speech, is known almost entirely for Ida B. Wells’s editorials that denounced the practice of lynching. But Caddoo looks beyond these few famous editorials to the everyday contents of Memphis’s black weeklies and finds something else—a constant emphasis on property as a symbol of security and success.

Richard Popp’s study assesses postal traffic to reveal an enormous trade in cheap magazines—essentially, Gilded Age junk mail. Popp turns the 1870s and 1880s media market itself into the story, and takes a fresh look at the kinds of materials that millions of Americans received in their mail boxes. His paper finds a center of publishing not in New York or Chicago but in Augusta, Maine, and trawls the flimsy pages of the People’s Literary Companion rather than the glossy pages of Cosmopolitan or McClure’s magazine.

Julia Guarneri’s paper examines the Hearst chain of newspapers but looks beyond the company’s flagship titles and past Hearst’s most brazen decades of sensational journalism. Hearst’s papers of the 1910s and 1920s, mostly operating in medium-sized cities, contain little remarkable journalism. Yet their business model—which catered to local tastes using a nationalized, generic template—allowed a mass media to win over varied audiences throughout the United States.

All three panelists get at hidden stories by paying attention to the economics of media. Caddoo is interested not only in the economic lessons that the black press taught its readers, but also in the economy that made the black press possible; she discusses the ways that black owners and readers used their own properties to produce and consume the news. Popp studies the material economy of junk mail alongside the economic rationale for blanketing the country with cheaply-produced magazines. Guarneri shows how, in an era of mergers and syndication, a concern for the bottom line produced generic yet profitable city papers.

Because economics are central to our questions about media, we have asked Richard John to serve as commentator. We look forward to hearing John’s take, as a historian of media and business, on the media landscapes that we evaluate in our papers.

Recorded in April 2018 at the OAH Annual Meeting held in Sacremento, California as part of the Mellon-funded Amplified Initiative.

Full Session


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Junk Mail - Full Session / System Administrator / February 11, 2019

Cara Caddoo


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Junk Mail - Cara Caddoo / System Administrator / February 11, 2019

Julia Guarneri


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Junk Mail - Julia Guarneri / System Administrator / February 11, 2019

Richard Popp


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Junk Mail - Richard Popp / System Administrator / February 11, 2019

OAH Members can access all of the recorded panels by logging into the member portal at the OAH website.