A History of Newspaper Syndicates by Elmo Scott Watson — Foreword & Chapter 1

[to understand the business world in which newspaper comic strips exist, it is important to understand the concept and history of newspaper syndication. I consider Elmo Scott Watson’s short history, published in 1936, to be a superb (and relatively painless) introduction to the subject. I hope you find it as interesting as I do. — Allan]


 This study of the newspaper syndicate was begun in 1922 at the suggestion of Dr. Frank W. Scott,
then director of the courses in journalism at the University of Illinois, while the author was doing graduate work there. Through the cooperation of Wright A. Patterson, editor-in-chief of Western Newspaper Union, a preliminary study was published the following year under the title of “A History of Auxiliary Newspaper Service in the United States.”

In 1933, when the author continued his graduate work in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern university, the late H. F. Harrington, director of the Medill school, suggested an expansion of the preliminary study into a history of all syndicates as a subject for a thesis required for the degree of master of science in journalism. Through the cooperation of H. H. Fish and Herbert H. Fish, Jr., president and vice president, respectively, of Western Newspaper Union, who made available to the author the manuscript records and account books of the early syndicates, as well as aiding in the collection of other material, this thesis was revised and published as a supplement to The Publishers’ Auxiliary on November 16, 1935. Further revision and the addition of other material since the publication of the supplement has resulted in the present work.


The newspaper syndicate was a child of war. Conceived during an era of peace, its growth was started by an exigency which arose at the outbreak of the American Civil war. Like its parent, American journalism, it originated on the Atlantic seaboard, but this parallelism between the two ends with their beginnings.

Whereas American journalism remained rooted primarily in the East and required more than a century to reach a high state of development, the syndicate was transplanted early in its career to the rich soil of the Middle West and there grew into robust manhood in less than half that time. Seven men, more than any others, were directly responsible for its development and they were all Easterners who migrated at an early age to the Mississippi Valley.1 In so far as six of the seven did their pioneering in this branch of journalism in Wisconsin, that state has a better right than any other to call itself “the birthplace of the American newspaper syndicate.”

By an interesting coincidence, the man who first syndicated newspaper material later became one of the founders of the first American press association formed to gather and distribute news. He was Moses Y. Beach, owner and publisher of the New York Sun.2

In December, 1841, Beach arranged to have a special messenger from Washington bring to New York a copy of President John Tyler’s annual message to congress. Thereupon he printed extra editions of one sheet containing it and sold them to a score of papers in the surrounding territory.3 He used the same type for the body of these editions, changing only the titlehead so that it would be appropriate for the other papers. Their publishers were thus enabled to give their readers the whole text of the message without the delay and expense of setting it in type themselves. There is no evidence, however, that Beach’s experiments with syndicating went beyond this one example so his part in the development of the idea was relatively insignificant.

Four years later a series of events in New England resulted in another syndicating experiment but in this case it was the venture of a young man who was destined to become an important figure in the business. He was Andrew Jackson Aikens, a native of Barnard, Vt. Aikens was graduated from high school in 1845 and immediately began a four-year apprenticeship on the Spirit of the Age, a Democratic weekly published at Woodstock, Vt., by Charles Carriage Eastman.4  Aikens continued his work there when Edgar Allen Kimball became editor and owner of the Age the following year.5 Kimball followed Eastman’s policy of conducting the paper as an independent Democratic organ and also began issuing the Coon Hunter, a small quarto campaign paper printed from type used in the Age.

In 1846, Volney B. Palmer, America’s first advertising agent, bought space in a large number of New England weeklies for the “Boston Business Directory,” a compilation of names and addresses of Boston merchants. By this time young Aikens had been promoted to the advertising case and it was his job to set the Directory in type.

As he did so, he realized that some other printer was doing the same thing in virtually every weekly shop in New England. He had seen Kimball make up the Coon Hunter from the dead pages of the Age and he wondered why a similar plan could not be used on the Directory. If it could, one set of type and one press would do the work of many. A short time later Douglas Jerrold’s story, “The Feather,” was printed in many newspapers in the northeastern states and again young Aikens speculated on the possibility of avoiding the duplication of time and labor in preparing such material for newspaper readers. But he had no chance at that time to attempt a solution of the problem.

On April 9, 1847, Kimball was appointed captain of a company of Vermont volunteers for service in the Mexican war. When he marched away at the head of his Green Mountain Boys, his youthful apprentice was left in charge of the Age.

Then President Polk’s annual message to congress was released to newspapers throughout the country and Aikens had the opportunity to test out his theory. He wrote to a Boston daily which already had the message in type and ordered several hundred impressions of it made on one side of sheets which equaled in size two pages of the Woodstock weekly. He filled the blank side with local news, editorials and advertisements. Then he folded the paper with the two pages containing the President’s message inside and issued this four-page paper as the regular number of the Age.

Perhaps Aikens found that these printed sheets cost too much to be used regularly. Or there may have been some other reason why he did not continue to order them from the Boston daily. At any rate, he does not seem to have followed up his experiment either while he was editor pro tem of the Age or later when he became editor of weeklies at Bennington, Vt., and North Adams, Mass. His name does not appear again in the history of the syndicate service until nearly 20 years later and by that time others had given a stronger impetus to its development than either Aikens or Beach.

Meanwhile New York City had seen another example of syndicated service. Again the name of Beach was connected with it for Moses S. Beach and Alfred Ely Beach had succeeded their father, Moses Y. Beach, as publishers of the New York Sun in 1848.

In 1851 Hagadorn Brothers, publishers of the Staten Islander, a small weekly, began buying printed “insides” from the Beaches.6 In order to make these “insides” from the New York Sun available for their use, the Hagadorns changed the name of their paper to the Staten Island Sun and continued this arrangement for some time.

Ten years later the development of the syndicate idea shifted from New York City westward. In 1855 Ansel Nash Kellogg, a native of Pennsylvania and a graduate of Columbia college, went to the frontier state of Wisconsin.7 There he entered a country printing office in Portage “to finish his education,” as he expressed it.

Later he became editor of the Baraboo (Wis.) Republic, which he was publishing at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. When President Lincoln issued his first call for volunteers, Joseph I. Weirich, journeyman printer and Kellogg’s first assistant on the Republic, enlisted in a Wisconsin regiment. Early in July, Kellogg found that he would be unable to issue a full-sized newspaper on the regular day of publication without the assistance of Weirich.

At that time David Atwood and Horace E. Rublee were publishers of the daily Wisconsin State Journal at Madison.8 From them Kellogg ordered half-sheet supplements printed on both sides with war news to fold inside his own half-sheets. While mailing out this edition, it occurred to Kellogg that the awkwardness of handling a paper consisting of two separate pieces could be removed if he purchased full sheets, printed on one side, instead of half-sheets printed on both sides. Accordingly, he ordered his next supply of paper in that form and on July 10, 1861, the Baraboo Republic appeared as a four-page paper with two printed pages from Atwood and Rublee and two pages printed by Kellogg.

Soon afterwards the publishers of four other Wisconsin weeklies who had been faced with the same exigency as Kellogg and learned how he met it, decided to follow his lead.9 So they began ordering printed sheets made up of news and miscellany which had already appeared in the State Journal but which, because of its general nature, was interesting to readers of their papers as well.

Almost at the beginning of the Madison publishers’ service they introduced an element which was to play an important part in syndicate development. This was the insertion of advertising in the printed sheets. The first of these, a prospectus for the Journal, appeared in the service which Kellogg used in the July 17 issue of the Republic. On August 21 his paper carried the first legal notice, advertising a sale of “forfeited lands.” On November 27 the Republic and the other weeklies supplied by Atwood and Rublee carried the advertisement of T. D. Plumb of Madison who offered law blanks for sale. Thereafter the insertion of advertising in their printed sheets became a regular practice.

A newspaper syndicate, in fact if not in name, was in operation by the end of 1861. Kellogg had been responsible for it and the patronage of the other four Wisconsin publishers made it possible to continue and expand the business. These are the factors which give Wisconsin its claim to being the “birthplace of the newspaper syndicate.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
 1. They were Horace B. Rublee and Andrew Jackson Aikens of Vermont; David Atwood of New Hampshire; William E. Cramer and John P. Cramer of New York; Ansel Nash Kellogg of Pennsylvania and George A. Joslyn  of Massachusetts.

2. Beach was born in Connecticut in 1800. In 1820 he married the sister of Benjamin H. Day, founder of the New York Sun, became business manager and general supervisor of the mechanical department of that newspaper in 1835 and three years later its owner and publisher. At a conference held in the office of the Sun in 1848, Beach and several other New York city publishers formed the Harbor News association, the pioneer in cooperative news-gathering and news distribution.

3. Among them were the Vermont Chronicle, Albany Advertiser, Troy Whig, Salem Gazette and Boston Times.

4. Eastman was born in Maine in 1816 but removed with his parents at an early age to Vermont. While a student at the University of Vermont he was a frequent contributor to the Burlington Sentinel. He founded the Lamoille River Express at Johnson in 1838 and the Spirit of the Age at Woodstock in 1840, both papers devoted to the cause of the Democratic party in that state. Eastman was also a poet
and his verse won for him the sobriquet of “the Burns of the Green Mountains.” Among his better known poems was “The Parmer Sat in His Easy Chair,” which has been the inspiration for numerous parodies.

5. Kimball was born in New Hampshire in 1821. As a boy he worked in a print shop, becoming editor and owner of the Age at Woodstock, Vt., in 1846, when Eastman, its founder, purchased the Patriot at Montpelier and removed to that city.

6. These were probably pages from the Weekly Sun which Beach issued on Saturdays, intended for country circulation, at one dollar a year.

7. Kellogg was born in Reading, Pa., March 20, 1832. When he was two years old, his parents moved to New York City, where he was educated. He was graduated from Columbia College in 1852, second in his class, and after a year’s study in an architect’s office, “being of a journalistic bent of mind, he turned his thoughts to the West,” where, presumably, opportunities were greater than in the East. 

8. David Atwood was born in New Hampshire in 1815. After serving an apprenticeship in a print shop in Hamilton, N. Y., he emigrated to the West. In 1848 he was employed on the Madison (Wis.) Express which he consolidated with a rival paper, the Statesman, renaming It the Palladium. The venture failed and in September, 1852, Atwood established the Wisconsin State Journal. Horace Rublee was born in Vermont in 1829 and removed to Wisconsin in 1840. He began his newspaper career as a legislative reporter for the Madison Argus in 1852 and the next year became editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.

9. They were the Brodhead Reporter, the Mauston Star, the Columbus Journal and the Richland Observer.


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