“…nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835-40
Americans in the 19th century were among the most literate people in the world and they read widely. In addition to myriad newspapers that reached an estimated three quarters of all households, the United States was notable for a profusion of journals and periodicals that provided a forum for sharing the latest ideas in science and philosophy.
A great increase in the number of printing presses in rural towns, as well as urban centers, had already drastically improved the rate at which books could be produced and sold to a literate populace, but it was in newspapers that many of the findings in these books were argued and discussed. For example, it was in the New York literary journal The Knickerbocker, New-York Monthly Magazine that Professor Edward Hitchcock defended his work from an anonymous amateur geologist who had submitted a satirical criticism of Hitchcock’s published research on fossil footprints in a previous issue.
This exchange and others like it put scientific arguments before the general populace in a way that would not have been otherwise possible. It helped ensure that ideas such as Hitchcock’s (and those of his critics) would find a place in the public imagination in addition to reaching scholarly colleagues.
The role of books and periodicals in the United States in disseminating information was not only the cornerstone of political participation at the most basic level, but of education in general. It enabled ordinary Americans to observe and participate in the scientific discoveries that might otherwise have been known only to a select few.