One of the consequences of the formation of the new, white middle class in the Northeast in antebellum America was the lengthening of childhood. Children's longer dependency within the family helped create and support institutions, namely private and public schools that provided children with skills and knowledge for the new white-collar occupations. But the rising sons of the middle class could not spend all their time at study, and hours apart from school became playtime, increasing the need for suitable recreations for adolescents. Besides typical boyish pranks, organized sports, and junior political and reform activities, boys and, to a lesser extent, girls between twelve and eighteen published their own newspapers in which the youngsters practiced for adulthood in a world all their own.
Juvenile newspapers all over the Northeast sprang up during the 1840s and 1850s as their youthful editors scavenged used type, cast-off composing sticks, and put their mothers' abandoned cheese presses back into service. Some teenage pressmen depended on their mechanic skill and copied their machines from engravings of Benjamin Franklin's press. However they were able to gather the tools of their trade, the young editors became part of a vast amateur recreation; on March 16, 1846, the editor of the Boston Germ noted that the city boasted eight juvenile papers and Worcester an equal number. Amateur newspapers continued to be a feature of boys' and, on occasion, girls' teen years until 1867, when the invention of the Novelty Press and its later imitators, such as the Cottage, Lowe, and Kelsey Presses, brought publishing within financial reach of an even larger number of children. Selling for between fifteen and fifty dollars, depending on the style, the presses guaranteed professional results, albeit at a slow speed. For those young people who had the economic wherewithal, the presses provided the means to test their literary and journalistic talents and organizational abilities.
The advent of the small, toy press, moreover, ushered in the golden age of amateur publishing during the 1870s. Because subscription lists were large and because exchanging papers was an important element in amateur journalism, the hobby spread from the Northeast across the nation, creating a mass culture for adolescents who shared the experience of reading the same stories and debating the same issues. Louisa May Alcott, for example, had the March girls engaged in writing and editing an amateur paper, The Pickwick Portfolio, in Little Women, and L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, started his literary career with an amateur newspaper, the Rose Lawn Home Journal. Although many of the papers of the 1840s and 1850s generally imitated their adult counterparts by reprinting selections from other periodicals, the juvenile papers of the 1870s were firmly committed to original work. Bereft of stylistic sophistication– metaphor, symbol, character development, and, sometimes, plot–the amateur papers and miniature novels provided a forum for young people's thinking as they used a toy to mark the longer time between childhood and adulthood. Because they were novice writers, the authors often copied or, more precisely, plagiarized plots and characters created by their favorite adult authors: Captain Mayne Reid, Horatio Alger and, especially, Oliver Optic. Nevertheless, in their so-called adaptations of adult work, the amateur editors made significant alterations in characterization and plotting to suit their own perceptions.
In 1876 the amateur authors founded the National Amateur Press Association, holding their first convention in Philadelphia. Aside from allowing the editors to meet one another, the association furnished endless opportunities for reportage and editorials about the politics of the organization and amateur publishing in general. In their discussions of membership requirements, organizational protocols, and publishing problems, the young editors confronted difficult issues. Although the amateur press editors did not reject their parents' views in toto, they experimented with different relationships with women–relationships that included female autonomy and sexuality. They also grappled with race when the amateur editors discovered that several among their number were African American. Finally, they undertook the transformation of public policy, sparring with the U.S. Post Office when an increase in postal rates and reclassification of their papers threatened their newspaper exchange program.
The amateur newspapers and novels produced by novelty press owners show that nineteenth-century ADOLESCENCE was much more complex than socialization explanations involving structural shifts or parental exertions. The stories written by the young journalists capture young men and women in the mutually educative process of interpreting for themselves the complicated array of relationships in their society and freeze them in the act of exploring the possibilities of their own perceptions. Not only do these amateur journals demonstrate the pervasive influence of contemporary children's authors, but they also reveal a new set of values about gender and suggest how young men and women recast middle-class standards to shape the ideology of their own generation. The amateur papers also constitute one of the few places in which children and adolescents speak in their own voices.
Amateur publishing persisted by fits and starts after the first generation of amateur publishers passed from the scene. An article in St. Nicholas, the popular children's periodical, revived the hobby in 1882 and attracted a new group of adolescents to amateur publishing. Never as popular as it was during the nineteenth century, amateur publishing fell on hard times in the early twentieth century but experienced a renaissance in the 1930s, largely as a result of a recruitment program sponsored by the Kelsey Press Company in concert with several amateur publishers. The demographics of amateur publishing had, however, changed; by the 1930s, amateur publishing was an adult pastime. The National Amateur Press Association, the organization created by the young people in the mid-nineteenth century, also maintained its existence, although its membership after 1930 also consisted largely of adults, and continued its program of annual meetings and paper exchanges. The advent of the Internet and World Wide Web ushered in an entirely new form of amateur publishing. Although web browsers and HTML editing software replaced the composing sticks, type trays, and presses of amateur publishing, the spirit of a teenage pastime lives on in the numerous adolescent websites and blogs (Webbased journals, diaries, or accounts) that populate the Web.
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Horton, Almon. 1955. The Hobby of Amateur Journalism, Part One. Manchester, UK: Almon Horton.
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Petrik, Paula. 1989. "Desk-Top Publishing: The Making of the American Dream." History Today 39: 12–19.
Petrik, Paula. 1992. "The Youngest Fourth Estate: The Novelty Printing Press and Adolescence, 1870–1876." In Small Worlds:Children and Adolescence, 1850–1950, ed. Elliott West and Paula Petrik. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
Spencer, Truman J. 1957. The History of Amateur Journalism. New York: The Fossils.