Magazines and the making of America

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by Heather A. Haveman

How did a magazine industry emerge in the United States in the eighteenth century, where there were once only amateur authors, clumsy technologies for production and distribution, and sparse reader demand?  Why would anyone launch a magazine-publishing venture under such circumstances?  What legitimated magazines as they competed with other media, such as newspapers, books, and letters?  And what role did magazines play in the integration or division of American society?

My new book, Magazines and the Making of America, investigates how, over a 120-year period, magazines and groups they connected ushered America into the modern age.  It reveals how magazines fundamentally transformed the nature of community in America.  The signature modernizing talent of magazines, like other media, is to connect people – to literally mediate between them, to facilitate frequent interactions between them even when they are geographically dispersed and would otherwise never meet face to face.

Magazines in this era supported many distinct, cohesive, translocal communities – collections of people with common interests, values, principles, ideas, and identities who were often situated far away from each other.  As America became socially differentiated, magazines engaged and empowered diverse communities of faith (in a burgeoning number of religious groups), communities of purpose (in a wide array of social-reform movements), and communities of practice (in commerce, agriculture, and specialized occupations such as medicine and law).

Religious groups could distinguish themselves from others and demarcate their identities.  Social-reform movements could energize activists across the country to push for change.  People in specialized occupations could meet and learn from one another to improve their practices.  But countering their modernizing effects, magazines also supported many communities of place, which embodied traditional localistic reactions to the rise of modern translocal communities.

Magazines both pushed American society toward a common center and pulled it apart into many distinct subgroups.  The many communities nurtured by magazines sometimes competed, other times cooperated, and often intersected across axes of social life – religious, ethnic, political, cultural, and economic.  In this way, magazines fostered the pluralistic integration that was central to American public culture in this era, helping make an American society so different from European ones.

While magazines shaped American society, they were also shaped by that society.  The first magazines were published in 1741, when there were only amateur authors, clumsy technologies for production and distribution, and sparse reader demand, conditions that made magazine publishing a perilous venture.  But 120 years later, magazines were thriving, with over 1,000 in print, many with large nation-wide audiences.  The proliferation of magazines was supported by population growth, especially the concentration of people in the growing number of urban areas; advances in printing technologies and distribution infrastructure (principally the postal system); and the gradual development of copyright law and the concomitant emergence of the convention that authors are professionals, to be paid for their contributions.

Religious magazines in particular were also influenced by the disestablishment of state religions, waves of immigration, and successive outbreaks of religious revivalism that together created a pluralistic but highly competitive national religious field.  Social-reform magazines were also influenced by trends in religion, as well as by the efflorescence of a wide array of voluntary social-reform societies and the modernization of social-reform movements, many of which were supported by and formally linked to religious institutions.  The publication of business magazines was stimulated by the rapid development of commerce.  And the publication of agricultural magazines was spurred by the rise of proto scientific agriculture, a movement that was imbued with great moral import.

The book is based on original, richly detailed (mostly state-level, some municipal-level) data on many aspects of American society between 1740 and 1860:  the establishment and expansion of the postal system; population growth and urbanization; the development of two important kinds of formal educational institutions, Sunday Schools and colleges; the rise of a variety of religious denominations; the flourishing of anti-slavery societies; and of course, the development of the magazine industry.

Studies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have been hampered by the dearth of valid measures of key indicators of social change, so to create opportunities for sociologists and historians, I made many of these datasets available on my website.

In terms of theory, the book reconnects the sociological study of organizations, which has generally focused on organizations themselves or on organizations’ impacts on their employees’ careers, with more macroscopic concerns about organizations’ effects on society at large.  It focuses on the concept of community because that is one of the most fundamental concepts in sociology, a central concern of pioneering sociologists like Ferdinand Tönnies, Gabriel Tarde, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Charles Horton Cooley.

Heather Haveman is Professor of Sociology and Business at the University of California, Berkeley. Her new book, Magazines and the Making of America: Community, Modernization, and Print Culture, 1741-1860 (Princeton University Press), is out now.

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