Teens with Printing Presses, 1812-1859

Pat Pflieger's picture

Most early American periodicals for children were edited and published by adults, but some notable ones were produced by teenagers.  The publications won’t be remembered for the quality of the contents, but what they lacked in quality, the editors more than made up for in enthusiasm.

Some periodicals were written or edited by the young, but overseen by adults. The Juvenile Key (1830-1837) was famously printed by Zeruiah-Juan Griffin, Joseph Warren Griffin, and George Griffin, but edited by their father, publisher Joseph Griffin.  Boys at the Orphans’ Home in Germantown, Pennsylvania, set the type for the first year of The Busy Bee (1866-1874), while students at the North Carolina Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind set type for The Deaf Mute Casket (1861-1865).  Students at the Cherokee Female Seminary published Cherokee Rose Buds and A Wreath of Cherokee Rose Buds in the 1850s; students at the Cortland Academy in Homer, New York, published The Juvenile Literary Cabinet in 1823.  Factory workers in Lowell, Massachusetts—many of them teenagers—published the Lowell Offering (1840-1845), which was organized by Abel Charles Thomas, and the Operatives’ Magazine (1841-1842).  And uncountable magazines were carefully created by hand for family (the “Home Casket,” 1858) or schoolmates (“The Violet,” 1860 and 1861; The Floral Wreath,” circa 1855).

But some young publishers had greater ambitions, producing works for a wide audience. Thomas Donaldson, Jr (age 15), handwrote copies of The Weekly Magpie (1859) until it became too popular: “Formerly, it was in manuscript, but the demand for copies daily increased, so that we were not able to supply even one half of the applicants, thus depriving the world of the enlightening and refining influences of this popular journal, and retarding, for some time, the march of civilization.” [editorial. 1 (18 June 1859); p. 3]  Thomas Gray Condie (age 15) founded The Juvenile Port-folio (1812-1816), which had several hundred subscribers; G. M. Dilworth (age 16) edited Young America (1856-1858) for two years.  Origen Bacheler (age 18) edited the Juvenile Gazette for another publisher when it appeared—for a few months—in 1818; Oliver Kendall (age 14) kept afloat his own Juvenile Gazette (1827-1828) for a year by sending out sample issues and advertising widely.

Like many adult editors, these young entrepreneurs worked hard, often writing much of what went into each issue. “No Contributions are inserted from persons over 15 years of age,” Donaldson declared in early issues of the Magpie, though he raised that age to 15 1/2 when some contributors—including Donaldson—aged out.  Dilworth “[set] all his own type and [worked] off his own paper, on a hand press, besides writing editorials, selecting copy and doing all the etcetras which belong to the publishing of a newspaper.” [May 1857, p. 3]  Ross Alley (age 16), who apparently established a new periodical each time his family moved in rural Indiana, built his printing press from a cider press when he began to publish the Youth’s Casket (1850-1852) and the Genius of Youth (1852).

For the most part, the publications were small-scale versions of periodicals for adults.  Quite literally: most of these publications were only four pages, with a page size under nine inches high; Oliver Kendall’s Juvenile Gazette could almost be hidden by a poker card.

Contents also mimicked publications for adults: poetry, stories, essays.  Poems describe how “Death bore the cherub from us, to the tomb,” or bewail a rabbit dead “of too much cherishing.”  [M. Louisa Chitwood.  “Mementoes;”  The Genius of Youth 1 (1 June 1852); p. 4.  “The Tale of a Rabbit.” Weekly Magpie 1 (9 July 1859); p. 15]  The Magpie and the Port-folio printed serialized stories stuffed with adventure and melodrama and “phrenzy”-filled romance: “I wept my hard fate in the arms of my juvenile lover,” a character declares in the Port-folio, “who, exasperated almost to phrenzy, vowed destruction on himself unless I would consent to become his wife, without the knowledge of my father,” which turns out to be a bad idea.  [“Bromley Melmot.”  3 (4 March 1815); p. 33]  In the Magpie, Sir Victor, Sir Tristram, Sir Ottonitz, Sir Wigmund, and Sir Mardin go to slay a dragon for noble ladies who say “prithee” and “methinks” and faint on cue.  As in periodicals edited by adults, fiction could be didactic: Kendall published a three-part story (all of six paragraphs) in which Nancy No-Point demonstrates the importance of understanding punctuation.

Essays allowed these editors to explore a variety of subjects.  Dilworth listed useful personality traits and explored “How the Birds are Treated in Japan” (first sentence: “Very kindly.”).  [“Keep It Before Yourself.”  Young America 2 (May 1857); p. 1.  “How the Birds are Treated in Japan.” 2 (May 1857); p. 2]  Kendall reviewed various childrens’ sports and games in a series of one-paragraph essays, noting prudently that flying kites was “against the law, for horses are often frightened by them” and that when playing Blindman’s Buff, “the little boy or girl that is blinded should move slowly and carefully lest a broken nose be the consequence.”  [“Flying the Kite.” Juvenile Gazette 1 (1 March 1828); pp. 59-60. “Blindman’s Buff.  1 (16 February 1828); p. 52]  Condie’s Port-folio had much to say about matrimony.  In the Port-folio, women were to juggle an astonishing number of traits: “softness of manners, complacency of countenance, gentle unhurried motion, a voice clear and yet tender, internal strength and activity of mind, capable to transact the business or combat the evils of life; [and] a due sense of moral and religious obligations.”  [“Rudiments of Taste, and a Polite Female Education.” 1 (3 July 1813); p. 150]  A correspondent, however, noted that women couldn’t hope to please everyone:  “If women are of a disposition, gay, lively, and cheerful, they are then censured as bold, forward, and assuming; if they are thoughtful and reserved, they are stigmatized by the epithets of prudes, mopes, so that however prudent and consistent their conduct may be, they are sure to fall under the lash of some male tongue, which is accustomed to utter nothing but slander.”  [C.  Letter to the editor.  3 (1 April 1815); p. 51]  Donaldson’s breezy editorial comments point out that “The youth of the neighborhood would find it greatly to their advantage to devote themselves more to athletic exercises, (and as some one suggests) less to girls” and announces that “The other day Miss E. D., in the course of her morning ramble, was so fortunate as to find a mammoth toadstool.  It will be remembered that Miss E. D. is the same young lady who secured 36 tadpoles some time since; she has, from her infancy, shown a full appreciation of the animal and vegetable kingdoms; and has been particularly active in securing rare specimens of them.”  [“The Nest.”  Weekly Magpie 1 (2 July 1859); p. 12]

That many of these periodicals weren’t published long also imitated those published by adults.  The Weekly Magpie lasted six months.  Kendall’s Juvenile Gazette ended after a year. Young America folded a few months after Dilworth handed it over to another editor.  Some editors “aged out” of their own publications: at age 18, Ross Alley founded The Forest Rose and at 19, The Literary Messenger—both for adults.  At age 20, Thomas Gray Condie shifted from editing a periodical for children—The Juvenile Port-folio—to one for adults—the Parlour Companion, which he published for almost two years. Only one seems to have made any kind of a career in publishing:  Origen Bacheler edited the Anti-Universalist as an adult and wrote several books.  Oliver Kendall built organs; Thomas Condie became a lawyer.  (Ross Alley died at age 20.)  As editors, none of them produced great literature, but what they did produce often has a sort of wonky charm (and some very creative spelling).

Where to read some of the periodicals: The Juvenile Port-folio is available in the American Periodicals Series and the American Antiquarian Society databases. Young America and the only known issue of Genius of Youth are reproduced in the American Antiquarian Society database.

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Dr. Pflieger, Thank you for sharing!
This may also be of interest to our colleagues over at H-Childhood ( https://networks.h-net.org/h-childhood ) and The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing ( http://www.sharpweb.org/main/sharp-l/ ).

Dear All,

This is a fascinating post. I found myself wondering how the young editors mentioned here covered politics, if at all, especially since some of the publications coincide with the sectional crisis / Civil War / Reconstruction. Abolitionists certainly wrote and published for adolescent readers, I wonder how many of their readers tried their hands at publishing. 

Best wishes, 

David Prior
Assistant Professor of History
University of New Mexico