Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Seeing the Sites
Readers, Publishers, and
Local Print Cultures in 1880

Carl F. Kaestle

.  .  .

In 1876 the largest crowd in American history—186,000 people—gathered in Philadelphia to celebrate the nation’s centennial1 (figure 2.1). On opening day, all eyes were on the huge engine built by George Corliss of Rhode Island. Standing before it, the novelist William Dean Howells called it “an athlete of steel and iron, without a superfluous ounce of metal on it.” When President Ulysses Grant threw the switch, the engine began churning out power for thirteen acres of assorted machines, making everything from shoes to wallpaper. Warned by their ministers to avoid the nude paintings from France and Italy, most American visitors reveled in machinery and inventions: electric lights, telephones, and typewriters.2

Four years later, the centennial was only a memory, but the country’s prospects actually looked much better. Businesses had recovered from the depression that had begun in 1873. American commentators celebrated the spread of public libraries, the development of a respectable American literature, the proliferation of local newspapers, and the opening of the transcontinental railroad. Delivering on the dreams of the centennial exhibits, Thomas Edison displayed the first workable electric streetlight at Menlo Park in 1880. That same year, industrialist George Pullman, who had purchased the Corliss engine from the Philadelphia exposition to run the factories that would make his railroad cars, created what he believed would be an ideal company town, just south of Chicago.3

In 1880 as well, the Ivory Soap Company first announced that its soap was “99 and 44/100 percent pure.” Ivory joined Royal Baking Powder and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound among America’s original national brands, harbingers of the budding nationwide consumer market. Ayer’s Advertising Company of Philadelphia performed in 1880 the nation’s first market survey— for a threshing machine sales campaign in the Midwest.4 The country was being drawn together by business, transportation, and print media.

Yet elite Anglo-Americans had not forgotten the depression of the 1870s and

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