Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

James J. Wyatt

Newspapers (Suburban)

In the decades following World War II, the dramatic demographic, industrial, and retail decentralization that transformed the United States into a suburban nation also caused a major restructuring of the American newspaper industry. The massive influx of people and commerce into the suburbs led to rapid growth for numerous vibrant and profitable suburban daily and weekly newspapers in metropolitan areas, including the Philadelphia region. Suburban presses covered local events and issues extensively and provided retailers with targeted access to suburban consumers, thereby generating steadily rising circulation and advertising revenues at a time when consolidations and closings became a reality for urban dailies like the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

[caption id="attachment_27372" align="alignright" width="281"]Various Community Centered Newspapers for Philadelphia Neighborhoods. Within the city of Philadelphia, localized newspapers catered to the interests of distinct neighborhoods. Some of these community newspapers are shown here in 1978, such as the Mayfair Northeast News, South Philadelphia Chronicle, North Penn Chat, South Philadelphia Review, Germantown Courier, Welcomat, and the Olney Times. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Traditionally referred to as “grassroots” or “community” presses, these papers came in a variety of shapes and sizes but had much in common. Some, including Norristown’s Times-Herald (1799) and Doylestown’s Daily Intelligencer (1804), originated near the turn of the nineteenth century. Many others were born during the industrial era. The Chester Daily Times was established in 1876 and the Bristol Daily Courier in 1910 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. New Jersey’s Gloucester County Times began in 1897 as the Woodbury Daily Times. Most were independently owned and operated, published in the afternoon, and maintained circulations that paled in comparison to Philadelphia’s large-circulation dailies. 

Despite their modest size, the community presses provided a vital service to their readers through extensive coverage of local happenings often ignored by Philadelphia papers. Editors and publishers operating in the surrounding counties filled their pages with coverage of local political and business developments, court proceedings, school board meetings, marriages, and community events such as parades, fundraisers, and holiday celebrations. Their papers also served as local filters for the larger regional, national, and international stories acquired from the news wire services. As a result, the local presses often served as the voices of their communities, editorializing on issues large and small and highlighting intrusions that had the potential to upset the economic, social, or cultural status quo.  Retaining high local readership levels was only part of the equation, however, as the community presses also relied heavily on advertising revenues from local businesses and classified ads to ensure profitability.

A Niche Without Competition

By carrying news and advertising not generally found in the Philadelphia Bulletin or Inquirer, community presses carved out a secure, if circumscribed, niche during the first half of the twentieth century. Although many of their readers also read one or more of the Philadelphia dailies, the papers’ provincial focus ensured that they would have little competition. They operated in the same metropolitan area as the Bulletin and Inquirer but did not really compete in the same marketplace.

The surge of residents into America’s nascent suburban areas following World War II altered this dynamic greatly. Between 1945 and 1962, newspapers operating in the suburbs of America’s ten largest metropolitan areas gained more than eight million more new readers than their urban counterparts. Established community weeklies and dailies immediately reaped the benefits of the new arrivals and often expanded their existing operations. In some areas, the construction of large suburban subdivisions and shopping centers fostered the emergence of wholly new newspapers. In other locales, urban papers followed the exodus out of the nation’s cities, built new plants in the suburbs, and either transformed themselves into suburban dailies or provided suburban versions of their urban products. 

[caption id="attachment_27368" align="alignright" width="300"]Street View of the Bucks County Courier Times Building in Levittown, Pennsylvania. The Bucks County Courier Times came from a merger of the Bristol Courier and Levittown Times in 1954. (Google Maps)[/caption]

Nearly a dozen daily newspapers and a large coterie of weeklies operated in the seven Pennsylvania and New Jersey counties surrounding Philadelphia at the outset of the post-war era, while three large dailies served the city: the Evening Bulletin, Inquirer, and the tabloid Daily News. In Bucks County, the construction of the Levittown subdivision and subsequent arrival of more than sixty thousand new residents provided the foundation for the weekly Levittown Times, launched by publisher Ira L. Joachim (1925-2014) in 1952. In traditionally parochial fashion, Joachim promoted the paper as the only reliable source for news specific to Levittown and filled its pages with stories that helped residents navigate the ins and outs of suburban life. The publisher’s editorials often encouraged “Levittowners,” as they came to be known, to form civic organizations and engage in discussions about important issues, including property taxes, municipal government, and how best to maintain the community’s idyllic appearance. Joachim’s provincial approach proved popular, and the paper drew advertising from retailers with stores in Levittown’s large Shop-A-Rama shopping center. 

In 1954, Joachim sold the Times to S.W. Calkins (1898-1973), the founder of Calkins Newspapers Inc., who converted the paper into an evening daily. Calkins also purchased the Doylestown Daily Intelligencer and Bristol Courier that same year. He later expanded into New Jersey by founding the Burlington County Times in 1958 to capitalize on the construction of the third Levittown subdivision. In 1966, Calkins created the Bucks County Courier Times by merging the Levittown and Bristol papers.

A Magnet for Advertising

Calkins’ newspaper network proved immediately successful, due in no small part to the increased advertising revenues the papers generated. Community papers typically tied advertising rates to their circulation levels and thus charged substantially less than large-circulation dailies like the Evening Bulletin or Inquirer, which offered broad but expensive coverage. Calkins’ dailies proved highly attractive to national retailers with new stores in the area. With seemingly ever-increasing readership among the upwardly-mobile suburban families prized by advertisers, papers like the Levittown Times and Bristol Courier offered targeted access to consumers at a much lower cost. Adding to the allure, advertising could be packaged across the newspapers. By the end of the 1950s, Calkins’ papers had established an entrenched position in Philadelphia’s fast-growing northern suburbs.

A similar push to capture readers and advertisers took place east of Philadelphia in Camden County, New Jersey, where the owners of the Courier-Post joined the rush of residents and retailers to the suburbs. In 1947, Harold A. Stretch (1891-1951) purchased and merged Camden’s Morning Post and Evening Courier daily newspapers, forming the Camden Courier-Post. Seven years later, the Stretch family moved the paper’s operations from its headquarters at Third and Federal Streets in Camden to a gleaming new plant in the suburbs near Route 38 in Delaware Township. Located amid a growing network of highways that eventually crisscrossed southern New Jersey, the new plant made afternoon home delivery to suburban readers much easier. The plant’s technologically advanced presses, which could print multi-colored advertisements and inserts, attracted advertisers and foreshadowed the advertising opportunities created in 1961 with the opening of the Cherry Hill Mall, the first climate-controlled, enclosed shopping center in the eastern United States.

The Stretches sold the Courier-Post to Gannett Company Inc., a growing newspaper chain, in 1959. The mall’s opening two years later and the continued residential development of Camden County’s suburbs proved a financial boon. In 1962, the Courier-Post gained over one and a half million additional lines of advertising over the previous year, and in 1965, it ran more lines of classified advertising than the Evening Bulletin. The paper’s circulation topped one hundred thousand for the first time during the 1960s as well. The Courier-Post proved so lucrative that Gannett later purchased an additional group of ten weekly newspapers based in Camden and Burlington Counties. When combined with the Courier-Post, the papers gave Gannett a dominant position in the South Jersey portion of the Philadelphia newspaper market.

While Calkins and Gannett were carving out positions in the northern and eastern parts of the metro area, publisher Ralph Ingersoll (1900-85) began acquiring newspapers west of Philadelphia in Delaware and Montgomery Counties and in New Jersey. Between 1961 and 1967, Ingersoll acquired the Trentonian (Trenton, New Jersey), the Delaware County Daily Times, the Pottstown Mercury, a small daily operating in Montgomery County, and Suburban Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., a chain of weekly papers that included the Main Line Times and the News of Delaware County, one of the largest-circulation weeklies in the country. Similar to the Courier Post in New Jersey, the Delaware County Daily Times had been the Chester Times until its move from the City of Chester to Upper Darby Township in 1959. Its relocation capitalized on the substantial residential and retail growth taking place in the suburbs.

A Ring Around Philadelphia

Led by the Calkins, Ingersoll, and Gannett chains, suburban newspapers emerged as a significant economic factor in the Philadelphia newspaper market during the 1960s, collectively creating a ring around Philadelphia and siphoning circulation and advertising revenues from the Evening Bulletin and Inquirer. The Evening Bulletin was long the dominant force in the metro area and the paper of record for most Philadelphians. Consistently ranking among the nation’s largest-circulation dailies for much of the twentieth century, the paper’s slogan, “In Philadelphia, Nearly Everybody Reads the Bulletin,” seemed apropos. Philadelphia’s status as the commercial heart of the region helped ensure the Bulletin brought in substantial advertising revenues from national and local retailers as well. The Inquirer, owned until 1969 by Walter Annenberg (1908-2002), ranked a not-too-distant second in the regional market. Less a paper of record than a mouthpiece for its outspoken publisher, the Inquirer benefited from its status as a morning paper, as it did not compete directly with the Bulletin for readers or advertising. The Inquirer’s large Sunday edition, whose circulation at times hovered near one million subscribers, helped close the Bulletin’s weekday circulation and advertising lead.

[caption id="attachment_27371" align="alignright" width="249"]An Article Explaining the Philadelphia Inquirer Expansion of its "Neighbors" Program. The Neighbors news sections that were published with the main newspaper provided local coverage that aided the big-city Inquirer in its subscription battles with suburban weeklies and dailies. (Article courtesy of Donald D. Groff)[/caption]

Executives at the Evening Bulletin were especially aware of the trend of competition from the suburbs and actively attempted to combat the suburban papers’ growth, but they were hamstrung in their efforts. In 1964, the Federal Communications Committee thwarted their attempts to build a network of affiliated suburban papers in the region via acquisitions and consolidations on the grounds that doing so would violate federal antitrust laws. 

Without the staff and printing facilities that would have been gained from acquiring established suburban newspapers, Bulletin executives attempted to cover the suburbs from their headquarters in Philadelphia with strategic semi-weekly zoned editions. The zoned editions attempted to compete in the areas where the Calkins, Ingersoll, and Gannett papers were prospering, but they were broad, shallow, and ineffective. Approaching the metro area’s many autonomous boroughs, townships, and municipalities through a regional lens prevented the Bulletin from supplying suburban readers with the consistent, in-depth coverage of local government affairs, public school board meetings, and high school sports they received from their local dailies and weeklies. The zoned editions failed to match the quality and depth of the suburban papers, and they failed to lure more readers and advertisers.

The suburban presses continued to prosper during the 1970s and 1980s, and their collective dominance of the growing suburbs helped reshape the regional newspaper market. By 1973, more than 150 newspapers with a cumulative circulation in excess of a million and a half readers operated in the thirteen counties surrounding Philadelphia. Without a strong presence in the suburbs, Philadelphia’s urban dailies each saw their market share decline. The Evening Bulletin felt the sting of this competition acutely as an evening daily competing head-to-head with suburban papers also published in the afternoon. The Bulletin’s failed attempts to break into the suburban markets contributed significantly to an economic freefall from which it never recovered.  Meanwhile the purchase of the Inquirer by the national Knight-Ridder Newspapers chain in 1969 and the subsequent hiring of Eugene L. Roberts (b. 1932) as executive editor helped transform the daily into a nationally recognized, Pulitzer Prize-winning paper. In 1980, the Inquirer finally surpassed the Bulletin in daily circulation, becoming the Philadelphia area’s most widely read newspaper.

Suburban Papers Mature

The transitions that occurred in the Philadelphia newspaper market reflected larger national trends. During the 1960s, the number of suburban papers operating in the United States increased by more than one hundred percent. National trade organizations such as Suburban Newspapers of America formed during the early 1970s and helped establish suburban papers as a distinct branch of the national newspaper industry. The organizations facilitated greater communication among suburban editors and publishers. They also enhanced advertisers’ capacity to circumvent the more expensive big-city dailies and simultaneously place their advertising in strings of suburban papers in the nation’s largest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas. In this environment, urban dailies, particularly afternoon papers, were squeezed out of the suburban markets and often left with dramatically reduced revenues. A wave of mergers, consolidations, and closings ensued. By the 1980s, most cities could not support two competing newspapers.

Ironically, in the immediate aftermath of the Bulletin’s closing in 1982, Roberts led an expensive initiative to expand the Inquirer’s suburban reach. This strategy was predicated on the notion that supplying in-depth local news alongside award-winning national and international investigative reporting would attract more of the middle and upper-class suburban readers advertisers prized. The result, however, was remarkably similar to the Bulletin’s unsuccessful forays into the suburbs. The Inquirer established eight new suburban bureaus that were intended to match the suburban dailies’ coverage of local events and provide stories for the paper’s new zoned “Neighbors” sections. The new sections were initially printed up to three times a week and included as separate inserts within the larger paper. As with the Bulletin’s zoned editions, the Neighbors sections failed to draw enough new readers or advertising revenues to offset their costs. In the decades that followed, the sections were sometimes printed as broadsheets, with varying regularity, while the Inquirer’s circulation and advertising revenues tumbled. By turn of the twenty-first century, the paper attracted fewer readers than the suburban dailies operating in Philadelphia’s seven neighboring counties.

During the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Philadelphia’s suburban papers remained the predominant sources for local news. They were not immune to broader industry-wide pressures, however. Beginning in the 1990s, as newspaper readership declined across the industry, the trend toward consolidation and cost-cutting that had engulfed urban dailies spread to the suburban presses. Between 1994 and 1999 almost 40 percent of all small newspapers in the United States were bought or sold. 

In the Philadelphia area, the Journal Register Company (JRC) owned by Robert Jelenic (1950-2008) quickly expanded by taking over ownership of several suburban dailies following the demise of Ingersoll Publications Inc. in 1990.  By 2001, the JRC’s “Greater Philadelphia Cluster” included seven dailies, 113 nondaily papers, and reached near four million readers. By 2008, the company owned twenty-two dailies and more than three hundred non-daily papers in six geographic areas across the country. Under Jelenic, the JRC centralized its newspapers’ operations in an effort to reduce costs and extract the ever-increasing profits required to maintain loan payments and drive stock prices up. These transitions included widespread pay cuts and staffing reductions that increased the difficulties associated with covering local news. Other new newspaper chains founded during the 1990s, including Liberty Group Publishing (New York) and Community Newspaper Holdings (Alabama), followed suit. As a result, the newspaper workforce in the United States declined by almost twenty thousand jobs, or 39 percent, between 1996 and 2016.

Additional industry-wide factors, including declining newspaper readership among virtually all age groups and declining advertising revenues following the 2008 economic collapse, created additional instability for suburban newspapers. Following Jelenic’s passing in 2008, the JRC went through two rounds of bankruptcy, in 2009 and 2012, prior to being purchased by 21st Century Media.  Despite the upheavals, suburban newspapers continued to occupy a central place within the Philadelphia regional newspaper market.  The papers continued to collectively far outstrip the Inquirer in circulation, and they remained entrenched as their community’s best source for local news.

James J. Wyatt is the Director of Programs and Research at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education at Shepherd University and President of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress. He is curator of the traveling exhibit “Robert C. Byrd: Senator, Statesman, West Virginian” and co-curator of the collaborative digital exhibit The Great Society Congress, an ACSC project. Wyatt earned a Ph.D. in History at Temple University. His doctoral dissertation, “Covering Suburbia: Newspapers, Suburbanization, and Social Change in the Postwar Philadelphia Region, 1945-1982,” focuses on the emergence of suburban newspapers in the Philadelphia metro area following World War II.

Blue Route

Famous for the many protracted conflicts that delayed its full construction for decades, Pennsylvania’s Mid-County Expressway, also referred to as the Veterans Memorial Highway and, more commonly, the “Blue Route,” is the southernmost section of Interstate 476. The expressway stretches through southern Montgomery and Delaware Counties, linking the Pennsylvania Turnpike interchange at Plymouth Meeting with I-95 north of the city of Chester.

[caption id="attachment_20845" align="alignright" width="300"]A map showing the three different routes Mid County Expressway planners designed This planning map from 1960 shows possible routes for Interstate 476, a new north-south highway connecting Interstate 95 with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The routing marked in blue was eventually chosen and “Blue Route” became the highway’s informal name. (I-476 Improvement Project via Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Calls for construction of a north-south expressway through Delaware County, southwest of Philadelphia, first emerged during the late 1920s as a new organization created by municipal reformers, the Regional Planning Federation of the Philadelphia Tri State District, began to work toward a comprehensive plan for the region. Published in 1932, the plan proposed a Delaware County expressway with two route options to alleviate traffic congestion, an outer belt roadway, and a limited access parkway. However, the plans were dropped as the United States became enmeshed in the Great Depression and World War II.

In the immediate postwar years, a large influx of auto-reliant suburbanites further choked Delaware County’s roadways and made it increasingly difficult for manufacturers to efficiently transport goods to and from the Chester area. To remedy these problems, the planning commissions of Delaware and Montgomery Counties submitted a joint application in 1955 for a nineteen-mile expressway, which the Southeastern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Association (a public regional planning agency created by the planning commissions of Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties) quickly approved. Regional planners viewed the project as a core component of a developing highway network that would ease transportation woes, facilitate commerce, help manage sprawl, and keep the Philadelphia region on par with the nation’s other major metropolitan areas, most of which constructed similar freeway systems during the era.

A Boost from Federal Funds

The road’s prospects seemed to increase with passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which promised federal funds for up to ninety percent of its costs. The Highway Act transferred responsibility for the expressway to the Pennsylvania Department of Highways (PDH), which then developed three possible routes, labeled Red, Blue, and Green. The Red Route, later redesignated as the Yellow Route, cut through high-population, predominately working-class communities like Springfield Township in the eastern part of Delaware County. The northern portion of the Blue Route followed the same course but included a separate southern loop that avoided populous areas by cutting westward through the undeveloped Crum Creek Valley and the western edge of Swarthmore College. The Green Route ran farther west than either the Yellow or Blue Routes through mostly undeveloped land.

With most Delaware County residents in favor of a highway but wary of its possible location, the PDH selected the Yellow Route on July 11, 1957, on the grounds that it was the most direct and least expensive course. However, following three months of protests by local residents who feared losing their homes and property tax revenues, the U.S. Department of Public Roads rejected the plan and recommended the PDH move the highway’s path farther west.

Almost three years later, in June 1960, the PDH chose an alternate Blue Route path that bypassed Swarthmore College. Again the announcement drew protests, as this location threatened newly developed parts of Nether Providence Township and appeared to accommodate Swarthmore College at the expense of nearby homeowners. Swarthmore College President Courtney C. Smith (1916-69) downplayed the accusations and refused to endorse the revised route, but many believed it the result of private negotiations between the college and state officials. Lacking public support, the PDH announced an extended delay for selecting a final expressway route.

Fighting the Blue Route

In the intervening years, businesses and residents of Delaware County’s working-class communities supported the alternate Blue Route plan, believing it would aid Chester’s flagging industrial sector. However, many of the county’s middle-class and affluent denizens living near the newly proposed path vehemently opposed it. Recalling some of the earlier criticisms leveled at the Yellow Route, anti-Blue Route protesters claimed the expressway would spur declining property values, rising taxes, increasing crime, and the ruination of the Crum Creek Valley. Angry residents formed civic organizations like the Citizens Council of Delaware County to lead the anti-Blue Route fight and loudly voiced their displeasure at community meetings. Some advocated the PDH revisit the Green Route despite Pennsylvania highway officials’ claims that it was located too far from the county’s population centers to effectively alleviate traffic congestion.

[caption id="attachment_20846" align="alignright" width="224"]A picture of Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton signing a bill in his office Among Pennsylvania political figures who had roles in the development of the Blue Route were Governor William Scranton (above) and U.S. Representative Robert Edgar. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Despite growing opposition, Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton (1917-2013) approved a revised Blue Route plan in May 1963. The plan gained federal approval a month later with four contingencies: that the impact on Swarthmore College be reduced as much as possible, that Swarthmore be aided in acquiring land to offset property lost to the highway, that the highway’s design preserve the area’s natural esthetic, and that portions of the Crum Creek Valley be made available for public use. On June 22, 1965, the revised plan gained final federal approval.

The PDH broke ground on the Blue Route in 1966, but acquisition delays and conflicts with local municipalities hindered the project from the start. Several ongoing disputes emerged over locations of the interchanges that would control getting traffic on and off the highway. Since the expressway’s initial plans did not include the interchanges, each required separate negotiations and approvals by the state and affected municipalities. By 1970, less than ten percent of the expressway had been built, and its estimated cost had skyrocketed from $30 million in 1956 to $173 million.

Grassroots Activism Elsewhere

Anti-Blue Route activists were not alone in protesting an unwanted expressway during the 1960s and 1970s. Grassroots activists successfully prevented the construction of unwanted roadways in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, New York City, and numerous other cities across the nation. In Philadelphia, anti-highway forces successfully prevented the construction of the proposed Crosstown Expressway, a highway project slated to run parallel to the Vine Street Expressway (I-676) near Lombard Street linking I-95, I-76, and I-676, during the 1970s.

As the freeway revolts dragged on, activists increasingly utilized the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which required states to file Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for all federally funded projects, as a tool for combating construction initiatives they opposed. Anti-Blue Route activists adopted these tactics and quickly secured several court decisions that prevented work on most of the approved expressway route during the early seventies. In 1974, Pennsylvania Transportation Secretary Jacob Kassab (1918-2004) ordered the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDot) to present an EIS for each section of the Blue Route not already under construction. The decision required additional public hearings and raised the possibility that the project could be abandoned. Delaware County’s “Blue Rooters” as well as those opposing the highway turned out en masse for the meetings and ultimately contributed more than 3,900 pages of testimony to PennDot’s final report.

PennDot submitted the revised Blue Route plan to the Federal Highway Authority (FHWA) in 1978, but a state budget crisis prompted the agency to halt its review a year later. In 1980, U.S. Representative Robert Edgar (1943-2013) established a task force to develop a plan for salvaging the project. The subsequent report called for reducing parts of the highway from six to four lanes, shrinking the size of its interchanges, and tying it to mass transit lines. PennDot adopted the task force’s suggestions, and in 1981 the FHWA approved the project. Not to be dissuaded, several local municipalities and citizens groups then filed two lawsuits on the grounds that PennDot had not adequately investigated less-disruptive routes. The court cases again halted construction and resulted in the completion of a supplemental EIS, which anti-Blue Route activists also contested. Finally, on March 24, 1986, the Blue Route’s path to completion was cleared by the Supreme Court of the United States, which upheld a Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision to allow construction to proceed.

[caption id="attachment_20844" align="alignright" width="292"]A picture of the town of Conshohocken Pennsylvania, from the year This 1952 view shows Conshohocken, along the Schuylkill River (across middle of photograph), eight years before the routing of Interstate 476, also known as the Blue Route, was selected. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The Blue Route fully opened to traffic on December 19, 1991, thereby completing the network of highways surrounding Philadelphia. At a final cost of $750 million, the Blue Route significantly impacted the western part of the Philadelphia metro area, if not fully in the ways its planners intended. Chester’s industrial areas did not experience the economic boost the Blue Route’s supporters anticipated, and the near thirty years of unpredictable delays prevented Philadelphia-area developers from constructing the sorts of large commercial and retail centers that anchor communities and mitigate sprawl. However, the expressway alleviated traffic congestion on Delaware County’s north-south roadways and made it easier for residents to live, work, and shop in the region’s western and southwestern suburbs without entering Philadelphia. Several communities located in close proximity to the Blue Route, including Conshohocken and West Conshohocken near the highway’s intersection with the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76), experienced rapid development and dramatic economic growth during the 1990s and early twenty-first century. With more than 100,000 motorists using the Blue Route each day in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the highway continued to be critical factor in the economic and physical evolution of Philadelphia’s southwestern suburbs.

James J. Wyatt is the Director of Programs and Research at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education at Shepherd University and President of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress. He is curator of the forthcoming traveling exhibit "Robert C. Byrd: Senator, Statesman, West Virginian" and co-curator of the collaborative digital exhibit The Great Society Congress, an ACSC project. Wyatt earned a Ph.D. in History at Temple University. He is revising his doctoral dissertation, “Covering Suburbia: Newspapers, Suburbanization, and Social Change in the Postwar Philadelphia Region, 1945-1982,” for publication.

Printing and Publishing

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. However, during the post-World War II era, publishers in the Greater Philadelphia area experienced an extended period of upheaval that resulted in the sale or closing of several of the most famous and venerable companies.

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 (1804-78) 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 (1830-78) targeted a narrower readership. Godey sought readers among the rising numbers of middle-class women in the United States, 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 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 (1850-1933), 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 became famous 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.

[caption id="attachment_6664" align="alignright" width="213"]“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)[/caption]

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 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.

Expansions and Consolidations

Philadelphia’s printing and publishing industries continued to prosper well into the 1950s despite the tumult caused by two world wars and the Great Depression. Competition and market changes reduced the number of daily newspapers operating in the city from thirteen to three by mid-century, but the Evening Bulletin thrived and consistently ranked among the nation’s most widely read papers with a daily circulation that often exceeded 700,000. In 1955, the Bulletin Co. opened one of the most technologically advanced newspaper plants in the world, with presses capable of producing near one million newspapers an hour, near Thirtieth and Market Streets. In 1946, Inquirer publisher Walter Annenberg (1908-2002) founded Triangle Publications Inc. and began branching into magazine publishing and broadcast media. By the late 1950s, Triangle’s stable of publications included the Inquirer, the afternoon tabloid Daily News, Seventeen magazine, and TV Guide, which grew into the nation’s largest weekly periodical by the 1970s. The publications provided the foundation upon which Annenberg built Triangle into one of the nation’s largest and most profitable multi-media corporations.

Other Philadelphia publishing stalwarts continuing their successes into the postwar era included the Curtis Publishing Co., which entered the entered the period as one of the largest and most profitable in the world and broke ground in 1946 on an enormous new production facility in Sharon Hill, Pa. The facility, with the capacity to produce more than a million magazines a day, introduced the first successful four-color “perfecting” presses capable of printing rolls of paper on both sides simultaneously. Although Philadelphia’s book publishers were not able to turn back New York’s emergence as the nation’s preeminent publishing center, specialized book publishing, particularly in the areas of science, medicine, education, and religion, remained a successful hallmark of the city’s industry. As one of the nation’s largest book publishers, the J.B. Lippincott Company maintained branch offices in New York City, London, and Canada and successfully expanded beyond medical publishing into elementary and high school textbooks, reference materials, and religious works. In 1961 Lippincott acquired A.J. Holman Company, a noted a publisher of Bibles and religious books, and shortly thereafter opened a 140,000-square-foot distribution center on Roosevelt Boulevard. By 1975, the company’s gross sales exceeded $45 million.

Despite these gains, Philadelphia’s publishers were not immune to the larger market shifts that transformed the national publishing industry during the postwar era. Beginning in the 1960s and carrying forward into the early twenty-first century, the growth of suburban areas and  emergence of new communications mediums contributed to a prolonged wave of consolidations and closings among book, magazine, and newspaper publishing companies across the nation. 

Philadelphia felt these shifts acutely. During the 1950s, a diverse array of suburban daily and weekly newspapers capitalized on the outflow of people and retailers from the city and established a dominant hold on the region’s lucrative suburban markets by siphoning circulation and advertising revenues from their urban counterparts. Outside corporate ownership also increased during the postwar period. In the 1960s, the Gannett newspaper chain purchased several daily and weekly newspapers in southern New Jersey. In 1969, Annenberg sold the Inquirer and Daily News to Knight Newspapers, and in 1978 Harper Row Publishers Inc. acquired J.B. Lippincott. The company was sold to Wolters Kluwer, a Dutch company, in 1990 for $250 million.

Many Philadelphia publishers and publications did not survive this shifting landscape. During the 1960s, changing reader tastes and increased competition from magazines like Life and Look as well as television contributed to the rapid decline in the popularity of Curtis Publishing’s periodicals. A series of poor management decisions compounded the company’s dwindling profits and led to its rapid collapse by the end of the decade. In 1969, the Saturday Evening Post ceased publication and the Ladies Home Journal was sold. Among the city’s remaining newspapers, the Evening Bulletin experienced a prolonged, though no less stunning, slide. Facing increased competition from the Knight-backed Inquirer and thriving suburban daily and weekly newspapers like the Camden Courier-Post and the Bucks County Courier Times, the paper suffered declining circulation and advertising revenues for almost two decades. In 1980, the McLean family sold the paper to Charter Media Company, and in 1982 the Evening Bulletin’s doors were shuttered for good, leaving the city without a large independently-owned daily newspaper. In 1990, Lea & Febiger, a prominent Philadelphia publisher of scientific books with historic roots extending to Mathew Carey’s publishing company, was purchased by Waverly Press of Baltimore and ceased operations.

The closings and corporate takeovers of the late twentieth century rocked Philadelphia’s printing and publishing industry, but they did not fully cripple it. The shifting market conditions created opportunities for some established publications to expand and for new companies and publications to emerge. While many of Philadelphia’s established ethnic and religious newspapers failed to survive past the 1950s, some, like the Jewish Exponent (1887-), grew into regional publications. The Philadelphia Gay News was established in 1976 to service the city’s growing LGBT community, and two free alternative weeklies, Philadelphia Weekly (1971-) and the City Paper (1981-2015) quickly gained popularity. Additionally, the influx of new immigrant groups into the region fostered development of new ethnic newspapers. Al Día, a free tabloid serving Latino communities, began publishing in 1992, and Metro Chinese Weekly appeared in 2007 to serve Asian-Americans. 

In the realm of book publishing, the long tradition of religious publishing in the Philadelphia area continued at two publishers with roots in the nineteenth century, Judson Press (formerly the Baptist General Tract Society), the publishing ministry of American Baptist Churches, USA, and the Jewish Publication Society. Additionally, several independent publishing companies, including Running Press Book Publishers (1973), Camino Books (1987), and Quirk Books (2002) began operation in Philadelphia during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Running Press, founded by brothers Lawrence (1941-2014) and Stuart “Buz” Teacher (b. 1947), published how-to, self-help, and other non-fiction works across the globe. Beginning with a headquarters at 125 S. Twenty-Second Street, the Running Press expanded to include branch offices in New York and London before its purchase by the Perseus Book Group in 2002. Quirk Books gained recognition for publishing several New York Times best-sellers, including Ransom Riggs’ (b. 1979) Miss Peregrin’s Home for Peculiar Children (2011).

Although the region’s printing and publishing industry in the early twenty-first century no longer maintained the lofty status it once enjoyed as one of the nation’s foremost centers for the printed word, the region’s publishers continued to carry on the independent traditions established by Philadelphians like Benjamin Franklin.

James J. Wyatt is the Director of Programs and Research at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education at Shepherd University and President of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress. He is curator of the traveling exhibit “Robert C. Byrd: Senator, Statesman, West Virginian” and co-curator of the collaborative digital exhibit The Great Society Congress, an ACSC project. Wyatt earned a Ph.D. in History at Temple University. His doctoral dissertation, “Covering Suburbia: Newspapers, Suburbanization, and Social Change in the Postwar Philadelphia Region, 1945-1982,” focuses on the emergence of suburban newspapers in the Philadelphia metro area following World War II.

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