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"Newspaperial Etiquette"

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Newspaperial Etiquette.

It is customary, our readers no doubt are well aware, for the sixpenny dailies to plume1 themselves on their "influence."2 They assume a position of pompous dignity, and affect a very sovereign contempt for their little popular contemporaries. In editorial intercourse, the sixpennies seldom deign to notice the pennies, and two pennies3—after the fashion of that code of politeness, prevalent in certain circles, which teaches to "cut" any man who is not, as the Hon. Mrs. Bolton Comfort says, "one of us."4

We have frequently been amused at specimens of this kind of behavior. Men of sense, certainly, are not in the habit of gauging the deserts of what they read in a periodical, either by the size of that periodical, or by its being bought for a cent. It would be as reasonable to suppose in walking through Broadway, that every exquisitely dressed person you meet is a gentleman or a millionaire, and vice versa.5

Had we in America a monarchical or an aristocratical form of government, it is very probable that the sixpenny papers might exercise a greater sway than the small ones. As things are, however, the converse of this supposition is really the case. Here, the mass of men comprise the governing power, "the people." And while the cheap papers have influence with this mass, they can well afford to let their inflated neighbors parade their (somewhat laughable) claims to exclusiveness and the top of the ladder.


1. According to the Webster Dictionary (1840), "plume" means "to pride; to value; to boast" (Noah Webster, John Walker, An American Dictionary of the English Language [New York: N. and J. White, 1840], 753). [back]

2. Whitman's sarcastic comment is poking fun at the self-perceived influence of New York City sixpenny dailies, which were the more expensive subscription newspapers. [back]

3. At this time, the sixpenny dailies, or six-penny papers, were often distributed through subscription. Penny papers, however, were small, poorly printed, and sold on the street. Sixpenny papers contained a wider range of synthesized material for their readers, often merchants, lawyers, or capitalists. In this case, Whitman portrays the penny press as less politically and financially dependent on elite groups and therefore able to give the general public politically and economically independent information (Francis A. Walker and Charles W. Seaton, History or Present Condition of the Newspaper and Periodical Press of the United States [Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1884], 90; William Huntzicker, Popular Press, 1833–1865 [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999], 1–32). For further reading, also see: Jean Folkerts, Media Voices: An Historical Perspective: An Anthology (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992), 165. [back]

4. The Hon. Mrs. Bolton Comfort is a character from the play The Irish Heiress: A Five Act Comedy by Dion Boucicault, which was performed in New York in February 1842. Mrs. Comfort, as she was commonly known, is a rich widow worth an exceptional amount who only accepts people of the higher class into her circle. Whitman is using Mrs. Comfort to represent the subscription-based, expensive sixpenny papers. [back]

5. Whitman is referring to so-called "confidence men." For the general fear of confidence men in the early 19th century, see: Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle Class Culture in America, 1830–1870 (Yale University Press, 1982). [back]

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