Communications varied greatly within the
American colonies based on location and time frames. The American
Revolution dramatically altered the structure as well. The majority of
America was ruled by the English crown. Residents considered themselves
as British subjects versus Americans. This tendency continued well into
the American Revolution as well. Recent historical findings have
concluded that until the latter stages of the American Revolution, only
around 40% of the population openly supported the revolutionary cause.
Many were sympathetic to the cause but fear retaliation if the British
emerged victorious. This factor also affected communications in a variety
communication was personal, often verbal, or via the grapevine. Letters
were often transported by friend who were traveling. Printing presses
were considered potential threats to stability by the British government.
Most early colonists probably considered them irrelevant to their primary
purpose of survival in the new world. The first major printing press was
operated by the Harvard College. Their specialty was broadsides (printing
on one side of a single sheet of paper), religious works, almanacs, and
law books. Broadsides were used to print proclamations and ballads that
pertained to upcoming or interesting community events. British
authorities closed monitored the content of these.
It would be nearly a century after the first
permanent American settlement in America before the concept of a newspaper
would exist. The first successful regular newspaper in the colonies was
the Boston News-Letter in 1704. Most colonial era newspapers were only in
business for brief periods of time. Newspaper publishing would continue
to be sporadic until the 1750's.
What was considered newsworthy in colonial
times would surprise people today. Local events were seldom mentioned
since most communication was via the grapevine. Emphasis was on news from
England and Europe which was dependent on the arrival of ships carrying
newspapers and other communications from England. News from other
colonies, business and commerce events were also important. Advertising
existed albeit in a limited format.
Although deaths of prominent persons might be
noted, births and marriages seldom appeared in print. Local individuals
were mentioned only in relation to business affairs such as having items
for sale (including slaves), detained wandering livestock, had letters
waiting at the post office, or had a servant, slave or wife who had
runaway or been found.
As newspapers became more common and
successful, the British authorities increased their efforts to control the
content. One avenue for control was the Stamp Act of 1765. At this time
period, there were 23 newspapers operating in the colonies. More than 25
others had failed within the previous decade. The only states that had no
newspaper at this time were Delaware and New Jersey.
The Stamp Act decreed that all newspapers,
books, and legal or official documents had to be printed on special paper
stamped paper to prove the tax had been paid. Individual advertisements
were also charged an additional tax. The intent was twofold, generate
income for the crown and put a damper on the increasingly political nature
of some newspapers. Instead, the Stamp Act fueled the forces which would
lead to the Revolutionary War. No American newspaper was ever published
on the designated stamped paper. Some suspended publication, some morphed
into non-newspapers by removing the serial number or the name, and others
defiantly continued publication on normal paper. In the end, the crown
repealed the act.
Relatively few issue of colonial newspapers survive. Almost all that have
survived have been microfilmed by private companies. The Family History
Library has a few in their collection, but the best resource for locating
them is in college libraries located in the general area of where they
and post offices are two other factors in colonial communications.
Initially, postal contracts were royal contracts awarded to individuals.
By the end of the 1600's, only Boston, New York, and Philadelphia had such
contracts. Service was limited to the cities and a few nearby settlements
and those along the roads connecting the three cities. The Postal Act of
1711 altered the system. The Postmaster became a royal appointee, rather
than a private charter. This helped expand and improve postal service,
especially in the southern colonies where settlements were dispersed.
There was a close link during the 18th century
between the mail and newspapers. The Postmaster was often the printer of
the newspaper. Newspapers were often dispersed by the same carriers who
carried the mail. Roads as we know them today were non-existent. News,
whether contained in letters or newspapers, traveled slowly. Winter and
rains caused additional delays.
The Revolutionary War created a difficult
situation in the rebelling colonies because the postal service was
controlled by the crown. Some private postal deliveries services had
become operational which offset this issue with the crown. Other
underground alternatives presented themselves as the war progressed.
Bryan L. Mulcahy
Fort Myers-Lee County Library
2050 Central Avenue
Fort Myers, FL 33901-3917
Tel: (239)- 479-4651
Fax: (239)- 479-4634