Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Printing and Publishing (to 1950)

Reader-Nominated Topic

Page from Poor Richard's Almanac

Poor Richard’s Almanac, first published by Benjamin Franklin in 1736, contained a wealth of information for its nearly 10,000 readers. Eighteenth-century Philadelphians turned to the almanac for calendars, poems, puzzles, weather, and astrological information, like the chart above. (Library of Congress)

From the late seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth century, Philadelphia’s printing and publishing industry was a central component of the city’s evolution from “Green Country Town” to “Cradle of Liberty” to “Workshop of the World.”  Growing their operations from small do-it-all shops into large fully mechanized publishing houses, Philadelphia’s printers and publishers capitalized on the broad social, political, and economic changes that reshaped the region and nation between the revolutionary and industrial periods.  Men such as Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), Mathew Carey (1760-39), William Swain (1809-68), and Cyrus H.K. Curtis (1850-33) utilized pioneering sales and marketing techniques and technologically advanced printing methods while founding some of the nation’s largest publishing companies and establishing Philadelphia as one of the most historically significant publishing centers in the United States.

As Philadelphia evolved into America’s largest port city during the eighteenth century, the number of printer-publishers operating within it grew from one in 1683, to nine in 1740, and eventually to fifty-one in 1785. Philadelphia’s colonial printers generally located their shops close to highly trafficked commercial streets and squares, and most cobbled together a living by performing multiple tasks. Virtually all found their bread and butter in fee-based print jobs for clients. Colonial printers published their own works and the works of others in the form of almanacs, pamphlets, and newspapers, and they often operated as retailers, selling supplies and imported books from their shops.

Of the many printers who utilized this business model, none was more successful than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin understood that the key to success lay in finding steady revenue streams and access to new markets. Shortly after establishing his print shop, Franklin negotiated the purchase of a newspaper and acquired a lucrative government printing contract.  He shrewdly renamed the paper the Pennsylvania Gazette and changed its format to include more news and entertainment, thereby making it one of the more popular publications in the city and a continuing source of advertising revenue. Franklin used the profits from these endeavors to finance one of the first printing networks in the American colonies, training a coterie of apprentices and helping them establish their own print shops in outlying parts of the region. The network of printers enabled Franklin to sell periodicals and books for which he was the publisher to a larger audience, and through it, works like the annual Poor Richard’s Almanac became widely popular. Franklin’s far-reaching and multifaceted business was enormously successful, and it served as the prototype for building a lasting printing and publishing company in the American colonies.

Do-it-all print shops of this sort predominated in Philadelphia until the early nineteenth century, when market changes precipitated the separation of the city’s printers and publishers into two distinct groups.  Philadelphia’s service as the nation’s interim capital during the 1790’s sparked this transition, as several local printer-publishers dedicated themselves to producing crusading, politically partisan newspapers.  Most of these papers, save Benjamin Franklin Bache’s (1769-98) Philadelphia Aurora (1789-1824), did not last much past 1800.  However, in the ensuing decades, entrepreneurs like Mathew Carey furthered this process by building publishing companies that specialized in producing works for specific segments of the American marketplace.

Growing Demand for Bibles

For his part, Carey took advantage of the growing demand for religious reading materials during the period by focusing his company’s energies on the production of Bibles. The publisher correctly theorized that producing a small assortment of easily printed works for a growing segment of the market would reduce much of the speculation and risk that had long been an intrinsic part of publishing and would provide consistent profits.  Carey also pioneered the use of traveling salesmen and book peddlers to carry his products far beyond the Philadelphia region.  These initial successes made Carey a wealthy man and helped prove that publishing, by itself, could be lucrative.  Of course, those successes also invited competition.  In later years, denominational publishers, including the Baptist General Tract Society (1826) and the Lutheran Publication Society (1855), among others, emerged and helped make Philadelphia a hub of religious publishing.

Technological innovation facilitated the further development of Philadelphia’s print-based industries. Area printers and publishers continually sought increased profits through faster and cheaper production methods. During the 1820s, both began experimenting with steam-powered presses and stereotyping, a process by which metal plates cast from molds of set type were used for printing.  Early steam-powered presses tripled and quadrupled print speeds while reducing manpower costs, thereby increasing profits for printers and publishers alike.  Stereotyping saved publishers money while enabling them to more precisely respond to the market.  The plates could be stored and used to print additional copies of books whenever necessary, thus cutting composition costs and alleviating the need to speculatively invest significant capital in unproven publications.  Moreover, the plates could be copied and sold to other publishers for the later publication of licensed editions of books.

Book publishers readily benefited from these technological advances. However, it was in the realm of newspaper publishing that they had, arguably, the most transformative impact.  Steam-powered presses enabled newspaper publishers to reduce the price of their papers to a penny, thus making their products affordable to a much wider segment of the reading public.  Philadelphia became one of the first cities in America to boast a penny paper when Dr. Christopher Columbus Conwell (unknown-1832) founded The Cent in 1830. Conwell’s paper was short-lived, but within a few years William M. Swain’s Public Ledger (1836) had replaced it. Like most penny papers of the 1830s, the Public Ledger played to working-class readers by including sensational headlines and titillating reports, local news and human-interest stories, and entertainment features.  It was an immediate success. Within two years of its founding, the Public Ledger’s daily circulation exceeded 20,000 readers. The paper’s popularity was such that Swain was regularly forced to upgrade its equipment to keep up with demand. A year after beginning with a single-cylinder steam press, Swain added a two-cylinder press to his operation, tripling his printing capacity. Less than a decade later, with the Public Ledger among the most read papers in America, Swain had the first type-revolving press installed in his shop.  By the 1850s, the publisher had the capacity to produce more than 20,000 Public Ledgers an hour.  

Technology Fuels Magazines

Advanced printing technologies also facilitated the development of a nascent magazine publishing industry in Philadelphia during the 1830s. Publishers like Louis A. Godey (1804-1878) utilized powered steam-presses and stereotypes in the production of high-quality monthly publications.  However, unlike the penny presses, magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book (1830-1878) targeted a narrower readership. Godey sought readers among the rising numbers of middle-class women in America, setting high subscription rates to ensure the periodical’s exclusivity.  Following the 1837 appointment of Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) as editor, the magazine emerged as a taste-making, trendsetting journal with national appeal. Hale filled the magazine with poetry and literary short stories by female and male American authors alike, and she regularly incorporated articles and columns dedicated to women’s topics.  It was under Hale’s leadership that Godey’s gained notoriety for the hand-tinted fashion plates situated at the beginning of each issue.  During the 1840s and 1850s, Godey’s became required reading for most women aspiring to or claiming middle-class status.  Its circulation climbed accordingly, surpassing 150,000 in the 1850s.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia had grown into one of America’s foremost printing and publishing centers, surpassed only by New York City, and rivaled only by Boston.  In the latter half of the century, the city’s maturation into a densely populated industrial metropolis enabled the continued success and further expansion of these industries. 

Newspaper publishers benefited immensely from the centralization of people, industry, and commerce within the city’s boundaries. Since newspapers were then the only sources of national, regional, and local news, many people read more than one each day. In addition, the emergence of large downtown department stores such as Wanamaker’s brought increased advertising revenues. Moreover, the development of ever more technologically advanced printing presses and methodologies enabled publishers to produce larger newspapers faster while keeping costs down. By the 1890s, Philadelphia supported thirteen daily newspapers whose cumulative daily circulation exceeded 800,000. Among the papers competing with the Public Ledger for morning readers were the Record, Inquirer, and North American.  Evening dailies, which were actually printed in the afternoon to service the city’s working class, included the Item, Call, Herald, Telegraph, and Evening Bulletin.  Unsurprisingly, they varied in size and tone, and some, like the Inquirer, which was widely recognized as an outspoken mouthpiece for the bosses that ran Philadelphia’s Republican machine, gained notoriety for their political positions.

Philadelphia’s newspaper industry was bolstered by the emergence of numerous ethnic presses.  Newspapers catering to immigrants were nothing new in the city. Ben Franklin’s German language paper, Philadelphische Zeitung had been founded in 1732, however, the city’s varied and rapidly expanding immigrant population prompted the emergence of dozens of ethnic papers during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  Many lasted but a little while, but those that survived and prospered usually published on a weekly or semiweekly basis. Publications such as the Italian Voce Della Colonia (1893-1918), the Polish Patryota (1889-1955), and German Philadelphia Tageblatt (1877-1944) gained popularity by serving as the voices of their communities. They translated important information for non-English speaking readers, carried news of the homeland, and helped establish community bonds by promoting ethnic events and organizations.  Some, like the Jewish paper, Idishe Welt (1914-1942) were considered radical or revolutionary.  During this period, the Philadelphia Tribune (1884-) was founded to perform similar functions for Philadelphia’s African-American community.

Low Subscription Rates

Also taking advantage of the changes wrought by industrialization were the city’s magazine publishers.  Among the industrial era’s most successful publishers, Cyrus H.K. Curtis, kept subscription rates low and interest high by selling enormous amounts of advertising space and incorporating helpful and informative content within each magazine.  The Ladies Home Journal (1883) frequently blended columns addressing fashion, cooking, and homemaking with articles penned by social reformers such as Jane Addams (1860-1935).  Under the guidance of famed editor Edward Bok (1863-1930) and Curtis’ wife, Louisa Knapp Curtis (1852-1910), the Journal became the first magazine to achieve a circulation of one million copies per issue in 1904. Curtis used the profits garnered from the Ladies Home Journal to purchase the Saturday Evening Post in 1897 and then transformed it into America’s most popular magazine. Though the magazine is likely more famous now for the Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) illustrations that graced its covers, the Post initially gained popularity as a general interest magazine that published poetry, short stories, and news.  Seemingly including a little something for everyone, the Post attracted readers and advertisers en masse. By 1910, the magazine’s circulation stood in excess of one million, and its annual advertising revenues topped $5 million.

“In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads The Bulletin!” The impressive Bulletin Building, located near City Hall at Juniper and Filbert Streets, served as the paper’s headquarters from 1908 to 1955. (Library of Congress)

“In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads The Bulletin!” The impressive Bulletin Building, located near City Hall at Juniper and Filbert Streets, served as the paper’s headquarters from 1908 to 1955. (Library of Congress)

Flush with success, Philadelphia’s publishers upgraded their presses and facilities during the first half of the twentieth century. Cyrus Curtis’ enormous Georgian Revival headquarters was completed in 1910 at the corner of Sixth and Walnut Streets. Along with the neighboring J.B. Lippincott Company and Lea & Febiger Publishers, the Curtis Building, as it’s popularly referred to, helped anchor Philadelphia’s publishers’ row for decades. During the same period, newspaper publishers James Elverson Jr. (1869-1929) and William L. McLean (1852-1931), respectively, moved the Inquirer and Evening Bulletin into gleaming new homes that provided the same advantages, centralized operations and faster production.

Despite the tumult caused by two world wars and one Great Depression, Philadelphia’s printing and publishing industries continued to prosper well into the 1950s.  Specialized book publishing, particularly in the areas of science, medicine, education, and religion, remained a hallmark of the city’s industry.  With the Ladies Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, and several other successful magazines in its stable, the Curtis Publishing Company ranked among the largest and most profitable in the world. And though competition and market changes helped reduce the number of daily newspapers operating in the city from thirteen to three by midcentury, the Evening Bulletin consistently ranked among the nation’s highest circulation dailies. Few could have envisioned at the time that hard and swift change loomed less than a decade away.


James J. Wyatt earned his Ph.D. in History at Temple University, where his dissertation was “Covering Suburbia:  Newspapers, Suburbanization, and Social Change in the Postwar Philadelphia Region, 1945-1982.” He is Director of Programs and Research at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Copyright 2013, Rutgers University

Related Reading

Brown, Robert DePue. “Curtis:  Philadelphia’s Best Known Publisher.” Drexel Library Quarterly Vol. 12 No. 3 (1976): 45-58.

Bussey, R. Kenneth.  “Lea & Febiger – All In the Family.”  In Philadelphia’s Publishers and Printers:  An Informal History, edited by R. Kenneth Bussey, 13-22. Philadelphia:  Philadelphia Book Clinic, 1976.

Emery, Edwin.  The Press and America:  An Interpretative History of the Mass Media. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Kahoe, Walter. “Book Publishing in Philadelphia:  J.B. Lippincott Co. and Others.” Drexel Library Quarterly Vol. 12 No. 3 (1976): 3-15.

Mooney, Philip F. “Philadelphia’s Ethnic Press.” Drexel Library Quarterly Vol. 12 No. 3 (1976): 35-44.

Remer, Rosalind.  Printers and Men of Capital:  Philadelphia Book Publishers in the New Republic.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.

Schudson, Michael. Discovering the News:  A Social History of American Newspapers.  New York:  Basic Books, 1978.

Tagg, James.  Benjamin Franklin Bache and the Philadelphia Aurora.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Wolf II, Edwin, The Book Culture of a Colonial American City:  Philadelphia Books, Bookmen, and Booksellers. Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1988.

Wyatt, James J.  “Covering Suburbia:  Newspapers, Suburbanization, and Social Change in the Postwar Philadelphia Region.” PhD. Diss., Temple University, 2012.


The Franklin Collection, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, 120 High Street, New Haven, Conn.

J.B. Lippincott Company Records and Lea & Febiger Records, 1815-1992, Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

Curtis Publishing Company records, 1891-1968, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin News Clipping Collection, Special Collections Research Center Temple University Libraries, Samuel L. Paley Library, 1210 Polett Walk, Philadelphia.

Places to Visit

Franklin Court Printing Office, Market Street between Third and Fourth Streets, Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Bulletin Building, 3001-25 Market Street, Philadelphia.

Inquirer Building, corner of N. Broad and Callowhill Streets, Philadelphia.

Publishers Row, S. Sixth and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia.

The Curtis Center (Curtis Building),  between Sixth and Seventh Streets and Walnut and Sansom Streets, Philadelphia.

J.B. Lippincott Headquarters Building, 227 S. Sixth Street, Philadelphia.

Lea & Febiger Publishers, South Washington Square and Sixth Street, Philadelphia.

Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 219 S. Sixth Street, Philadelphia.

2 Comments Comments

  1. Thank you, Mr. Wyatt, for reminding us what an important publishing center Philadelphia was. There’s not much left of that remarkable array of newspapers that served Philadelphia in the late 19th century.

    Bob Skiba Posted July 23, 2013 at 11:51 pm
  2. I would have liked to have seen at least a few sentences on the first family of printing in Pennsylvania and the country; the Bradfords. William Bradford and his lineage were printers for many years. Included in their accomplishments was being the printer for the First Continental Congress. Benjamin Franklin even apprenticed under Andrew Bradford. There is a collection of items on the Bradford Family available at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

    Peter Posted October 11, 2015 at 10:47 pm

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  1. […] What most people don’t know, however, is that Ben Franklin started publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack as a way to promote his publishing business and expand his personal brand in ways that helped facilitate some of his other business ventures, according to the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. […]

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