Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Material conditions: News and opinion in the 18th century

Susan and Adam discuss the explosion of cheap and popular print in the eighteenth century and its implications on news, opinion and literature.
Inevitably, discussions of the 18th century always return to this idea of a print culture, and this is a term we’re going to be using a lot this week. What do you think of when you hear that phrase? What does it mean? Well, for the early 18th century, which is really where we start this session, we’re looking at the immersion into print of the reading public. We’re looking at periodical publications, political pamphlets, collections of letters, engravings, and prints of paintings. So we find print completely saturating early 18th-century society, principally in the large cities. And what sort of an effect does this new print have on news and opinion? How does it change from before?
Well, we have the lifting of the Licensing Act in 1695, and what that does is it means that there is no more press censorship. And so we have an explosion of print for the news, and we have pamphlets being printed in Dublin and Edinburgh and London within a few days of one another. And so the people in coffeehouses, people on the streets can go and buy their penny pamphlet to get in with the news.
We read at the time about the news mongering: people are anxious to be kept up-to-date with what’s going on in Europe, what’s going on in the provinces, and print culture is really where it’s at, I think. Yeah. I, like yourself, have spent a lot of time working on print culture, and that’s one of the things I find endlessly fascinating about it. I mean, to imagine yourself in the position of someone in the first years of the 18th century, the amount of change that happened in the last 50 years. I know it’s a cliche to describe history as a period of change, but it’s kind of true at the start of the 18th century.
The last 50 years, you’ve had a civil war, you’ve decapitated the king, you’ve had a Parliament take over. You then invite the king back, you have The Restoration. Then you have a Glorious Revolution. Then you have The Glorious Revolution, so you invite some guy from Holland to come and be king. And then in 1707, England unites with Scotland for the first time. And then we have Great Britain. Yeah. So for writers like Joseph Addison, who we’re talking about this week, what it means to be English meant something different for him than it had less than one generation previously. Absolutely. So people, I think, had a lot of questions. The fabric of what it meant to be a person.
The person’s relationship with God, with their nation, with everything, with each other changed. They had questions, and thanks to this print culture you’ve just described, they could ask questions and other people could ask questions. And one of the reasons I think you have this proliferation of voices is the cheapness of print. What do you think the effect of the cheapness of print would have had on print and print culture? Well, I just think that we have this proliferation of them. I mean, what’s very interesting is that we have periodicals like ‘The Spectator’, which starts off in 1711. And it’s issued initially every single day. Now, the cheapness of print.
For an issue to be printed every single day and sold at corner shops or delivered to people, you’ve really got to think that that’s got to be phenomenally cheap. And what happens is that these issues are not necessarily even saved or collected. We find that they go through multiple versions, multiple editions, and they come to be collected, ultimately, in rather nice volumes, such as the ones that we have here. What we have here is a 1757 edition of volume two of ‘The Spectator’, which we’ll talk about a little bit later. But this is interesting because it is a collection of a number of these periodical essays. So we have Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
The Saturday edition, as you know, was Addison’s serious issue where he deals with literature or he deals with God. He deals with these big things. But the volumes themselves were put together long after the fact, and so they were funded by subscription. Friends and great people would put their money together. And they would be prefaced by a letter, a dedication to a grandee. And volume two here is written to Lord Halifax, Charles Montagu, Lord Halifax, who of course was the first Chancellor of the Exchequer. Now, you know about prefaces, don’t you? So what do you think was the most important thing about these prefaces in this kind of volume? Well I think it’s fascinating.
I’m endlessly fascinated by prefaces and anything that supports the text. I think when you look at a book like this, it’s interesting that what we’re reading has changed form. So when it first appears, it’s what we call a periodical. It’s a serial. It appears weekly or biweekly or two times a week, and the engagement a reader would have with that text, I think, is extraordinarily different than the engagement you’d have with a complete book. It’s sort of fleeting. You know that the essay that you’re reading is indebted to the essay before that you may or may not have read and it’s anticipating the next one. So it’s sort of a fleeting engagement with a fragment of a whole. That’s right.
And you might not even ever get to read the second part of the argument again. You might miss that, yes. I think there’s an analogy to be made with how serialised television is these days, where if you watch an episode of a TV programme, you get from it what you see in that episode. It sometimes relies on what you’ve seen before, and then you hope you’ll see it again. Or if you get involved in one of these big TV programmes, particularly American ones, you might not know if it’s ever going to get renewed again, but you have an engagement with that one season. That’s interesting because of course, when there are these separate issues, they are periodicals.
The public expects them to come out at regular intervals, but they don’t necessarily know, even if they had been promised, that the topic is going to continue from the previous one. And we have examples of Richard Steele getting to the end of the week and not actually having any copy, but he has a deadline. And this is where we find him chucking in reader’s letters, or indeed, he makes up the letters himself, doesn’t he? Yeah. And that makes for some interesting reading, doesn’t it? It seems to me that when we’re looking at periodicals in that sense, it’s a bit more like something like ‘The New Yorker’, isn’t it? Yeah, absolutely.
Where it comes out every week, it has a particular format, but it may change in terms of its features or its focus, whereas a serialisation is quite different, isn’t it? It is, yeah. What you’ve got here - and this is a collected edition, again - is a paper that would come out, a serialised paper, that promised that readers, over a certain period of time, an enormous period of time, would collect all of the entries for an ultimate universal encyclopaedia. So from A to Z. From A to Z, and this is A. That’s just A. This is just A.
And what this actually is here is a later collected edition, like these ones, that came out in 1833, and it comes, again, with a preface. And one of the things I think is interesting, too, in a preface is to sort of negotiate that shift in form. So you have to account for the fact that it was a periodical or a serial, the fact that it came out and spoke to an explicit topic or audience, that they’re kind of, in a sense, making it up as they go along. Not to detract from what they were doing, but as you said, Richard Steele needed copy. But then when you buy a book, you expect it to be finished.
And I think with the periodicals and the serials, it’s a different kind of engagement because it’s one that readers can still participate in. They can write letters to Richard Steele. And that’s what happened here. So they put out this encyclopaedia, and the editor explains that it didn’t take long for disgruntled readers to notice that they had missed entries or that they had made mistakes. So what readers then did is they wrote to the editor with suggestions. And rather than defending himself, the editor then invites them to send in their entries. Issues of the serialised text would be populated with entries sent in by readers, by colleagues, by other people.
And in this preface to the editions, he explains that this has happened, and he says it could never be complete but he’s grateful to everyone who wrote in with their entries, and this is a compilation of those. And he’s sort of produced what he says is an encyclopaedia that’s not been written by him and his team, but an encyclopaedia that’s been written by the people. So it’s a bit like Wikipedia. It’s an early 19th-century Wikipedia. I think it is. It’s a different kind of text. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, of course, when we think about composition and preservation of texts like this, it is very interesting, isn’t it?
When we see the collection of the single issues, the periodicals, into the collected edition, we can see a great deal of editing going on. And of those of us who are very interested in the history of books and in the history of editing I think can find a great deal of material, can’t we, to find this? I’m fascinated by the fact that Joseph Addison, in his ‘Spectator 135’, writes about relative pronouns, “who” and “which.” And actually, that’s in 1711. And imagine what he does. When he edits the first volume, he goes through all of his papers and Steele’s and he changes a whole lot of “that’s” to “which’s” and “who’s.”
So he’s almost taken on board this grammatical point and decided that he wants to improve. So we see an example of somebody changing their style in the process of collecting these issues into a particular volume. So there are lots of different implications, aren’t there, for the ways in which people deal with editing? And I think an interesting thing about these serials, particularly ‘The Spectator’, ‘The Tatler’, was that they were read and they were circulated in coffeehouses. Coffeehouses and salons I think would still be vaguely recognisable today. And what we’re going to talk about for the rest this week is what the relationship was between these coffeehouses, these places where you encounter print culture, and country houses. That’s right.
So next, we’ll be looking at the coffeehouse.

In this video, Susan and Adam discuss the explosion of cheap and popular print in the 18th century and its impact on news, opinion and literature. They consult a series of 18th- and early 19th-century texts, all printed as either periodicals or serials.

As you watch the video, you might like to think about:

  • The artistic and commercial consequences of the sudden ‘cheapness’ of print at the dawn of the 18th century.
  • The similarities or differences between the emergence of ‘print culture’ and the rise of the internet.
This article is from the free online

Literature of the English Country House

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now