Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.

Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture

In 1800, the population of the U.S. was five million, but it was about to explode. By 1820 it had doubled. The population was not only growing, but moving: in 1820, eight million Americans lived east of the Appalachians; by 1860 the population was more than thirty million, but half of them lived in the West.

Newspapers themselves grew dramatically during this period—from fewer than 200 in 1800 to more than 3,000 by 1860. Like no other primary documents can, American newspapers published during the first half of the 19th century vividly capture this dramatic expansion of the nation and movement of its peoples.

During the early 19th century, the first "penny papers" were published, ushering in a democratization of the industry that would open new windows onto all levels of society. Widely regarded as the greatest of these penny-paper dailies, the "New York Herald" had the largest newspaper circulation in the world for many years in the 19th century.

Science and technology played a large role, too, in the ability of newspapers to capture 19th-century life in ever more detail and frequency. Steam ships now brought European newspapers to the East Coast every day; railroads took them west overnight.

Then, in 1846, the telegraph made possible the instantaneous delivery of information. This, alongside the formation of the Associated Press, transformed the news industry as never before. It was also during this period that newspapers themselves began to change, in the process opening up significant new avenues for research into gender, race and society in general.

Using Digital Newspapers to Explore American History and Culture

"Out of the Jaws of Death! Out of the Mouth of Hell!" - Dispatches from the Front during the American Civil War

"We are in the midst of the most terrible battle of the war—perhaps history." 1 So wrote General George McClellan to Chief of Staff Henry Halleck and President Abraham Lincoln before the telegraph wires went dead the morning of September 17, 1862. The wires would remain dead all day, as the battle of Antietam consumed the lives of 6,000 men and the fate of the nation lay in the balance.

Indeed, the first report of Antietam's outcome to reach Lincoln would come not from his generals, but from a reporter, George Smalley of the New York Tribune. Smalley had guessed where the two massive armies would converge, and was there from the beginning, joining General Hooker on horseback. During a crisis early in the battle, Hooker's attention was drawn to Smalley, who was gazing at the battle around him with cool aplomb. "In all the experience which I have had of war," Hooker would later write, "I never saw the most experienced and veteran soldier exhibit more tranquil fortitude and unshaken valor than was exhibited by that young man." 2

Early in the fighting Hooker turned to Smalley and enlisted him as his official messenger to his officers, which put Smalley in one of the most dangerous and important roles on the battlefield. Smalley had two horses shot out from under him, but lived to not only deliver Hooker's orders but to observe the entire battle so keenly that his published report in the Tribune came to be known as the standard against which all battlefield reporting would be measured.

That Smalley managed to do this at all is surprising enough, but that he did it so well almost defies belief. A sample:

"Out of the Jaws of Death! Out of the Mouth of Hell!" - Dispatches from the Front during the American Civil War

Welcome to The Readex Report

This online publication explores diverse aspects of digital historical collections and provides insight into web-based resources, including the Archive of Americana and Archive of International Studies.

Stay in Touch

Sign up to receive product news, special offers and invitations.

Recent Issues

Back to top