German-Language Publishing

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By the 1730s, the American colonies were home to a rising population of German speakers, with nearly 20,000 in Pennsylvania, a number that would increase to one-third of the population of 125,000 by 1776. These readers generated a high demand for newspapers, almanacs, and Bibles printed in their native tongue. The first newspaper in America printed in German was the Philadelphische Zeitung, started in 1732 by Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, Franklin, who was known for his anti-German political remarks, chose material for the paper carelessly; in addition, it was badly translated. As a result, the paper generated few subscribers and collapsed in 1733. More responsive presses directed by Christopher Sauer, located at the Cloister of Ephrata, the seat of communitarian religious leader Conrad Beisel, printed Bibles, a newspaper, and religious tracts for a German audience beginning in 1739. Sauer's press had the advantage, in 1744, of adding its own paper mill to supply printing material. The Sauer press expanded further in 1770, adding the first German type foundry in the colonies to its enterprise. Before this, type in German Gothic lettering had to be imported from Europe, adding cost and inconvenience to the printing process.

Meanwhile, enterprising German emigrants started newspapers in Philadelphia, like Der Hoch-Deutsche pennsylvanische in 1745, closely followed by the Pennsylvanische Berichte germantauner Zeitung in 1746. Editors with connections in the German states often received news unavailable elsewhere and printed it first in German for their readers, including updates on the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) and religious disputes. By 1751, five German-language Pennsylvania papers had circulations of nearly four thousand subscribers each, charging an average of three shillings a year and using both the mails and store sales for circulation. For new emigrants, these papers contained crucial information on land acquisition, sending money back to the German states, and avoiding local scams and pitfalls. After 1750, most papers included woodcut illustrations and substantial advertising sections. The British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (1701) even started a newspaper to Anglicize Germans but found little response.

The American Revolution split the German population, a political trend reflected in the German-language press. The Sauer family, whose politics were pro-proprietor, pacifist, and anti-Revolutionary, published the Pennsylvanische staats-Courier during the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777–1778. The family was, however, bankrupted by the British evacuation and, because of the enormous hostility it faced, had to relocate after the Revolution to German neighborhoods of Baltimore. There, Samuel Sauer resurfaced in 1791 as the editor of Der neue hoch deutsche americanische Calendar. At the other end of the political spectrum, Heinrich Miller, a Moravian from Waldeck, set up a print shop in Philadelphia in 1762, where he published Der wöchentliche pennsylvanische Staatsbote. A pro-colonial paper, on 5 July 1776 it was the first to publish notice of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, in 1768 the papers of both Miller and the Sauer family had printed German translations of John Dickinson's Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, a protest against British taxation of the colonies.

In the generation after the American Revolution, German presses began to decline because there were no large waves of German-speaking immigrants. German was gradually replaced by English as a working language in German-dominated areas, and many second-generation German Americans were deeply self-conscious about the slangy language of the existing German newspapers, which they considered ignorant and derisive. The pacifist tradition informed Der Friedensbote (1812), a German newspaper in Allentown, Pennsylvania, edited by Joseph Ehrenfried and Heinrich Ebner, that opposed the War of 1812. Partisan political campaigning in the early Republic kept alive some other German papers through high-priced advertising aimed at German-speaking voters. German Americans generally voted against Federalists and nativists, as reflected in Der Wahre amerikaner (1804) of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which was a pro-Jefferson campaign organ. In later campaigns, Democratic candidates such as Andrew Jackson appealed to German American voters, especially on anti-Masonic issues, through specially founded papers, including the Reading, Pennsylvania, Readinger demokrat und anti-freimaurer Herold (1826). These papers, however, were only successful when they were written in proper High German, employed German correspondents, and avoided exposing readers to ridicule through vulgar advertising or provincial content.

The religious and political turmoil of the 1830s in Europe spurred intellectual refugees to seek safety and careers in America, and they often gravitated toward existing German publishing. Johan Georg Wesselhöft of Frankfurt emigrated to Philadelphia, founding the high-toned Alte und neue Welt in 1834. Frequently quoting Goethe and Hegel, the paper championed German-speaking small shopkeepers and skilled craftsmen while offering a taste of European cultural material. As Germans migrated westward, German papers followed them, appearing in Cincinnati in 1826, Louisville in 1841, and eventually in Galveston, New Orleans, Indiana and Wisconsin by the 1840s. When the Revolution of 1848 was suppressed in Europe, a new wave of German-speaking emigrants came to the United States, many finding work at German-language papers and carrying over their liberal political traditions into their editorial policies. In Wisconsin, for example, the German press fought a fierce battle against residency restrictions on voting and attacked the Whig Party for its anti-German slurs. Buoyed by new readers, these papers survived into the 1880s, especially in German-dominated regions of Pennsylvania and the Midwest.

See alsoImmigration and Immigrants: Germans; Newspapers; Pennsylvania; Printers; Religious Publishing .


Adams, Willi Paul. "German Translations of the Declaration of Independence." Journal of American History. 85 (1999): 1325–1349.

Arndt, Karl J. R., and May Olson. German-American Newspapers and Periodicals, 1732–1955. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1965.

Wittke, Carl. The German Language Press in America. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957.

Margaret Sankey