Colonial American Newspapers: Character and Content

By Thornton, Brian | Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Colonial American Newspapers: Character and Content


Thornton, Brian, Journalism & Mass Communication Educator


Copeland, David A. (1997). Colonial American Newspapers: Character and Content. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press. 392 pp. Hardback, $49.95.

If you've ever had a student complain that journalism history as it deals with newspapers from the Colonial period is boring, a copy of Colonial American Newspapers by David A. Copeland will cure that student's intellectual ennui.

Copeland's lively and meticulous study demonstrates that this nation's press from 1690 to 1776 was many things-shocking, gruesome, sensational, sexist, racist -but it was never dull.

For example, readers are entertained by tales of pirates on the high seas, shipwrecks, and "skulking Indian enemy" attacks that seem more in keeping with action movies than something so historical as a Colonial newspaper.

Then too there are gory descriptions of "Melancholy Accidents," including details of bloody dismemberments and agonizing poisonings, reports of criminals who are "whipt through the streets and burnt with a hot iron," and activities "of the rebellious Negro slaves." There's plenty of sexist fare as well, including weekly and daily lectures for women designed to teach them how to be "selfless servers of society."

An historian of medical coverage in the press could mine Colonial newspapers for their wealth of information about "guaranteed" homemade "cures" for smallpox, typhus, and measles. Copeland even includes the entertainment beat from Colonial times in his descriptions of the "Chief Amusements of the Cities," that is, concerts, banquets, lotteries, horse races, and boxing and wrestling matches. In sum, the book holds up a mirror in the form of a newspaper and lets life in the 1600s and 1700s unfold in all its rude and rowdy glory. …

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