been insatiable consumers of information, and this compulsive, even obsessive need to know has driven the development of commerce, politics and, perhaps most tellingly, the citizenry's sense of itself as a nation.
Newspapers and magazines have been the chief means of satisfying this hunger for knowledge, argues Betty Houchin Winfield, a media historian and professor of journalism at MU. Over the span of U.S. history, she says, print media have provided readers with accounts of historical happenings momentous and mundane, heroic and infamous. Taken as a whole and over time, these narratives have helped create a set of shared assumptions and collective memories -- not all of them entirely accurate -- that now help to define the American experience.
Given today's information-laden online alternatives -- not to mention the technologies of television and radio -- print media, daily newspapers especially, seem much diminished in reach and authority. But during the 19th century, the period of greatest interest to Winfield, newspapers were enormously popular and tremendously influential. Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, for example, famously described how Americans living deep in the "wild" were eager, sophisticated news consumers: "He is, in short, a highly civilized being, who consents for a time to inhabit the backwoods, and who penetrates into the wild of the New World with the Bible, an axe, and some newspapers. It is difficult to imagine the incredible rapidity with which thought circulates in the midst of these deserts. I do not think that so much intellectual activity exists in the most enlightened and populous districts of France."
Alexander Mackay, who wrote of his travels around the nation a decade later, sounded similarly impressed: "In connexion [sic.] with American newspapers the first thing that strikes the stranger is their extraordinary number. They meet him at every turn of all sizes, shapes, characters, prices and appellations. On board the steamer and on the rail, in the counting house and the hotel, in the street and in the private dwelling in the crowded thoroughfare and in the remotest rural district, he is ever sure of finding the newspaper. ...The proportion of daily papers is enormous. Almost every town down to communities of two thousand in number has not only one but several."
From the vantage point of 2008, it seems obvious that among this plethora of periodicals many newspapers and magazines would publish stories regularly about the fascinating, unprecedented history of the United States. But during the country's first century of existence, with so little history to mine, it was anything but obvious that periodicals would delve into the past, or how they might portray the nation's lineage.
Winfield wondered how frequently early-19th century newspapers and magazines published stories about America's development and what those stories revealed. So, some 200 years later, Winfield joined with one of her doctoral students, Janice Hume, now an associate professor at the University of Georgia-Athens, to seek answers.