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The Rise of Periodicals in the 18th Century Britain

The beginning of this century (and of this millenium, for that matter) has seen a sudden rise in computer literacy, availability and use of the internet in the world. This development brought a sudden increase in on-line journals, so much so that even the major newspapers have had to move from the hard copy to the world wide web. There are not many people left who buy newspapers and magazines in kiosks.

A similar revolution happened 300 years ago in Europe. There was a sudden rise in the size of the reading public, which resulted in the appearance of various journals. This ascent of periodical publications first started in Britain, but it quickly spread throughout the continent. From 1709 to 1759, the periodical essay, a special form of literature, flourished in Britain.

In 1645, the first newspaper, The Oxford Gazette, had emerged. In 1695, the Licensing Act expired, cancelling monopoly in the publishing industry. Copyright was also virtually abolished. All these events led to the mushrooming of diverse journals. Their most important characteristics were: regular and frequent appearance, presentation of a particular point of view, correspondence with readers, and domination of the essay in them. The rise of the periodicals went hand in hand with the rise of the novel, mainly because the novels were serialised in those periodicals before their publication in the separate, bounded form.

The reader of the periodicals was typically educated, but not too much, younger, often female and middle class. One important characteristic of these journals was that they championed the “improvement” and “correction” of the English language. This effort culminated with the publication of the first English dictionary by Samuel Johnson in 1755.


London was the main literary centre in England and the United Kingdom in the 18th century. This is where the majority of the writers created and where the first literary journals were founded. The intellectual climate of this period was under a great influence of the development of philosophy and natural sciences. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) provides an account of human nature as self-interested cooperation, and treats the world as matter in motion. The empiricism of John Locke (1632-1704) attempts to render human life rational and, therefore, happy through common sense. David Hume (1711-1776), another empiricist, asserted that perception derives from sensation and reflection. His ideas made him a proponent of tolerance and pragmatism.

This is the time of the Enlightenment, a wide-spread mission to improve and spread education. The urban class propagated their worldview in which individual labour and private initiative was the guarantee of common happiness.

Although the reading public in the early 18th century was large in comparison with the past, it was far from today’s standards. Literacy was still relatively low, and only five percent of the population were potential readers of novels. Jonathan Swift’s Conduct of Allies (1711), for example, sold only around 11,000 copies.

There was a limited distribution of literacy, and a few schools the poor could afford. Newspapers were cheap, however, and novels were often serialised in them; there were also much cheaper pirated reprints. Circulating libraries that developed toward the middle of the century finally made the novels available to larger audiences. Most importantly, periodicals and novels did not have to compete with other media, like they do today, because there were none.

Literature became primarily a feminine pursuit, because women had more spare time due to the rise of manufacturing, and led a more sedentary life. Tastes and general attitudes were also changing. The outlook of the trading class with their economic individualism and secularised Puritanism found its expression in Daniel Defoe, and the feminine component of the public found its expression in Samuel Richardson. Those were the two most eminent early novelists.


The first periodical journal, The Athenian Mercury appeared in 1691. It was published by John Dunton, who wanted to use the anonymity of print to create a dialogue with readers. The Athenian Society, which answered letters from readers, is the precursor to the Scandal Club, The Bickerstaff Family, The Spectator Club and Mr. Rambler, the latter popular discussion sites. In them, famous writers developed their celebrated literary personae.

The Athenian Mercury relied on post office, which carried out the correspondence through the penny press, and the coffee houses, where most readers were found. It was published as a folio half sheet, one leaf, with a double column on a page. The journal was dedicated mostly to religious question, natural philosophy, social problems, especially female issues.

Daniel Defoe’s Review , a one-man government propaganda machine, saw the light of the day in 1704. It contained advice from the Scandal Club in a Q&A format. Its tone was less polite and earnest than that of the earlier essayists. "Mr. Review" was Defoe’s arrogant persona. The Stamp Act forced Defoe to trim the Review to a quarter format, and finally to abandon it in 1713.

The Tatler, which appeared in 1709, marked the inception of the periodical essay. Jonathan Swift and Joseph Addison contributed, but Richard Steele was its true creator. It was printed on a half-folio and it was built on the material framework of newspapers. Isaac Bickerstaff represented Swift’s and Addison’s cynical persona. News was soon replaced in it by fictional prose, and the literary was slowly winning over the strictly journalistic. Addison in his essays looks more deeply into human nature and Steele tries to define the roles of men and women in the society.

The year 1709 also saw the appearance of The Female Tatler, an impersonator devoted to women. Delarivier Manley is Mrs. Crackenthorpe, a “lady who knows everything.”  It outdid The Tatler in its focus on women in both articles and advertising.

The first 100 issues of The Tatler appeared, first by an unknown publisher, then by the editors themselves, and after that all successful journals looked for the publication of volumes, usually reduced to an octavo (a smaller format). The periodicals gradually moved from the coffee shop to the library or a drawing room.

The Spectator, which was introduced in 1711,featured the most successful periodical essays. There was but a single, unified essay per issue, with no political news. Roger of Coverly, Addison’s persona, was compared by Samuel Johnson to Don Quixote, a progenitor of a character typically encountered in novels. He is mature and wise. Addison’s essays are philosophical and highly literate. He begins writing literary criticism. Steele is rooted in the modern, local experience, writes about the daily life  in London. He wants to make the world more polite for women. In 1744, The Female Spectator, edited by Eliza Heywood appeared.

Henry Fielding, the famous 18th-century novelist, author of Tom Jones, published The Champion or British Mercury (1739-41) with his persona Alexander Drawcansir.

In 1750, Samuel Johnson, probably the most prominent figure of the 18th century British culture, launched The Rambler. This journal appeared every Tuesday and Saturday for 204 issues. All but seven of them were entirely Johnson’s creation. With his philosophical language, mastery of classical literature and concern with morals, Mr. Rambler is almost indistinguishable from his creator, Johnson. While Swift and Defoe wanted to simplify English, and Addison and Steele wanted to make it more polite, Johnson wanted to create a reformed scientific brand of English.

After The Rambler, essays were placed in larger, heterogeneous and less frequently published magazines, and that marks the end of the genre.

Oliver Goldsmith’s The Bee, the last periodical, was short-lived and written mostly for posterity. The essay gradually moved from the coffee house to the library in larger, bound volumes.

Svetozar Postic

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