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1850-1877: Communications: Overview

1850-1877: Communications: Overview

The Wireless Age. At the time of the Civil War, the primary means of communication for most Americans was through personal contact. There were less than one-fifth as many people in the United States as there are today, and only one-fourth of them lived in cities. Most of the population led isolated lives in which contact was restricted to family and close friends. In the middle of the nineteenth century people got their information about the world outside their experience through face-to-face contact, correspondence, and newspapers. There was no radio or television; the telephone was available by the end of Reconstruction, but only to a small, privileged group. The telegraph offered something approaching instant communication, but its use was restricted to areas where lines had been constructed, and practical concerns, including cost and the awkwardness of the system, caused telegraphic messages to be brief.

Snail Mail. Letters were costly to mail and slow to be delivered. Delivery of mail to peoples doors was introduced in Northern cities during the Civil War, but outside cities it was still some thirty-five years off, at best. In 1850, there were 18,417 post offices, and they issued 1.5 million ordinary postage stamps: about one stamp for every fifteen people in the nation; by 1878 there were 38,345 post offices and they issued 170 million stamps, more than three per person. In 1851 a first-class letter could be sent up to three thousand miles for three cents, or five cents if postage was to be collected on delivery. In 1878, the rate was two cents per half ounce or a penny for a postcard in the United States. But those were days when a mans tie cost a dime and pennies counted.

The Penny Paper. Newspapers were read daily in only about 10 percent of American families, and people in the country had limited access to newspapers and magazines. Some small towns had newspapers, but they tended to be published weekly and focus on local news. City newspapers, with their more comprehensive coverage of national events, were only available in rural areas by mail. Nearly 80 percent of the Negro population and more than 10 percent of the white population was illiterate in 1870, and these people had little knowledge of the world outside their daily routines.

All the News That Fits. News had a different meaning in the mid nineteenth century. Even those with access to a daily newspaper were hardly well informed by todays standards. Only about three-fourths of the reports in a daily newspaper of 1860 were of events that had occurred in the past week, and 8 percent of the news coverage was of stories over a month old. The look and the contents of daily papers were also different from today. Papers lacked photographs. During the Civil War magazines and newspapers began to publish line drawings of maps and images of people, but the technology to publish photographs was not yet generally available. Opinions far outweighed news reports in newspapers, because they were easier to come by. News editors shared information, and free postal service was extended to newspaper publishers for the purpose of sending copies of their papers to one another as a means of facilitating coverage of distant events: Chicago news editors reprinted New York reports because, like their readers, the editors knew only what they read in the paper about events outside their city. In 1850 there were 254 daily newspapers in the United States with a combined circulation of 758,000. By 1880 the number of dailies had increased to 971, with a combined circulation of 3.566 million.

Coded Communication. The growth of the telegraph had a direct influence on news reporting. Telegraph was the electronic transmission of messages in a coding system that could be decoded by a receiving machine operator hundreds or even thousands of miles away. With the telegraph, a news story could be communicated almost immediately to stations in other parts of the country. There were three problems: first, telegraph signals passed through cable, so wire had to be laid from station to station, a costly and labor-intensive process; second, telegraph was an expensive way to communicate, and although newspapers paid only one-third to one-half as much as individual users, they also sent more messages the normal rate for ten words or fewer from San Francisco to New York was $7.45 in 1850 and $2.00 in 1876; third, news stories had to be communicated in abbreviated form by operators who were likely to be indifferent to content, so stories had to be elaborated by copywriters at the receiving end and accuracy was often sacrificed. Between 1866 and 1877 the number of telegraph offices in the United States tripled to seventy-five hundred. The amount of wire laid increased from 76,000 miles to 194,000 miles, and the number of messages sent increased from 5,879 to 21,159.

Narrow Circles. Peoples concerns were narrower; their lives were more focused; and their storehouse of information was smaller a century and a half ago. The effects of these differences were profound. Without the distractions of impersonal communication, such as radio, television, and a surplus of newsprint, people spent more time engaging one another. Family life was certainly harder without the conveniences of modern life, but there were also fewer diversions from the responsibilities of the household. In this sense, travel and communication are closely related. In the country, travel was on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage during this era. A ten-mile journey to a town center for news and conversation about current events might take four unpleasant hours round-trip. City life was concentrated in small areas because of the difficulty of getting around the city. The result was that people had close contact with their neighbors and little knowledge of the area outside their direct experience. It was, indeed, a simpler time, but it was also a time of intense curiosity that could only be satisfied by more efficient methods of communicating.

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