Introduction to 19th-Century Periodicals

Why Study Nineteenth-Century Periodicals?

BLT19 (“19th-century Business Labour, Trade and Temperance periodicals”) is rooted in periodicals – or “magazines” as most of us call them – and especially those concerned with various aspects of work, from very general titles like the British Workman and British Workwoman, to very specialist ones like the Stationary Trade Review, The Meat Trades’ Journal and the Building World.  Most are forgotten today, but week after week, month after month, year after year they built up a set of responses and processes in millions of readers that the twentieth century inherited directly, and which still affect us today. 

There are many reasons to look at and read Victorian periodicals  in general. 

For a start, the study of historical periodicals opens up our understanding of today’s media: its content, its methods of production and distribution, its physical substance (the paper it’s made of, the way the pages are laid out, the number of pages it has – all these were determined by the technology of the time), its audiences, its business practices, and the individuals who contribute to or participate in its creation. We can compare those with today to help us see what’s significant today, to make today sharper and clearer what’s passing fashion and what has lasted – the “deep structures” that influence us often without our realising it.

Many of the big names in nineteenth-century literature, politics, art, science, religion, and politics either wrote for or were written about in the periodical press. You may think of Charles Dickens as a writer of novels in book form such as we read them today – but most of his novels appeared as serials either alone or in periodicals. Dickens was much much more involved in periodicals and journalism than in book publishing, and the same goes for many of the best known writers whose work we now read collected together in individual volumes – in boxed sets rather than in tightly controlled episodes spread out week after week or month after month.

It’s this drip-drip effect – what we can call serial reiteration – that has caused the Victorian ideas about work we see in the BLT19 periodicals to last so long and so unconsciously. Again and again they repeated the same kinds of details and omitted the the same kinds of information they thought their readers didn’t need or wouldn’t want to know. Gradually readers took these preferences on board so they didn’t even need consciously to think about them: they just thought “well, of course the world is like that – I’ve seen it so many times before.” Roland Barthes said in a famous essay called “The Reality Effect” that it’s the organised repetition of the same kinds of details that makes us think of a text as “realistic” – its “notation” of reality – and we can certainly see that in BLT19 periodicals, and even in the way they organise their pages into tiny fragments of the same kinds of information. Inspired by studies of fantasy fiction, I’ve called what the periodicals do “World Building.”

These practices feed directly into today’s media’s practices, even electronic ones – the difference is that paper technology is slower. Many periodicals were interactive, allowing readers to express their ideas and opinions or ask questions of the larger community. We can certainly see that on many periodicals on this site. Many anticipate a kind of Public Service Broadcasting, like the BBC seeking to inform, educate and entertain an increasingly literate populace. The market for periodicals was very diverse, just as there are many channels serving different audiences today, so there were many kinds of periodicals: there were entertaining periodicals, informative periodicals, humorous periodicals, music periodicals, mass-audience periodicals, and niche/specialist periodicals. Just like the internet, if there was an interest group or pastime, there was also likely a periodical devoted to it. As BLT19 shows, there were certainly periodicals for lots of different kinds of jobs.

For the teacher, not least, historical periodicals such as those on BLT19 offer not only a rich blend of content that can be easily adapted to a variety of classroom needs, they also contain articles and stories of a manageable length for classroom activities – some just a few lines long!  We’ve also found that the many kinds of visual resources this site offers inspires artists and writers, from the heroic figures of the British Workman and the Navy and Army Illustrated to the dutiful mothers of the British Workwoman to the horrors of the Meat Trades’ Journal.

The teaching materials we offer can be used as stand-alone activities or in conjunction with other nineteenth-century literature or with historical texts, and of course they are easy to adapt in any way you like. They are Open Access, though if you do use them or base your own materials on this site we’d love you to acknowledge that BLT19.org is where you got them.

Digitised Nineteenth-Century Periodicals

For more on the specific digitisation processes that underlie BLT19, see Digitisation. What follows is a very general introduction to the idea.

Only twenty years ago, it was very difficult to study historical periodicals. Hard copies were accessible only to those who could physically visit research libraries or archival collections – that meant a huge expenditure of time and money. The advent of mass digitisation projects, such as Google Books and the Internet Archive, has revolutionised access to and the study of historical publications. Because nineteenth-century periodicals are out of copyright, they have been particularly popular objects for digitisation. Yet, while historical periodicals are more easily accessed today, the digitised materials vary widely in terms of accessibility (many are hidden behind paywalls), interface, ease of use, image quality, explanatory or contextual materials, accuracy of the OCR text upon which searches rely, and pedagogical framework.

You may have heard of some nineteenth-century periodicals: Household Words (1850-1859) and All the Year Round (1859-1895), for example, were two weeklies edited by Charles Dickens, which have been digitised by Dickens Journals Online (DJO). Sherlock Holmes first appeared in the pages of the monthly Strand Magazine (1891-1950), which is available on the Internet Archive. The weekly Punch (1840-2002) deployed both text and cartoons to satirise middle-class Britain and, in doing so, traced important social and historical events over more than a century. Selected volumes of Punch are available through Google Books. A simple comparison of DJO, Internet Archive, and Google Books illustrates the varying quality of the materials provided by large digitisation projects.

At the same time, for every digitised Punch and Strand Magazine, there are hundreds of other, niche magazines that may or may not have been digitised. To date, only a miniscule percentage of the output of the nineteenth-century press is available online. Digitisation projects tend to emphasise certain types of publications: periodicals associated with famous authors, popular publications that reached large audiences and/or ran for long periods of time, periodicals held in large university libraries, and publications that will have a guaranteed market of twenty-first century users, e.g., those of interest to genealogists. Users of digitised materials should be aware that they represent a tiny fragment of the spectrum of ideas, opinions, perspectives, and publications from the nineteenth century. Much of the story of the time period can still only be found in the pages of books and bound volumes on physical library shelves.

The BLT19 Project

Business, Labour, Trade, and Temperance periodicals are a segment of the nineteenth-century press that has received little attention from academics or digitisers. Their niche audiences and specialised content mean that they are unlikely to be digitised by commercial publishers because, while taken all together they cover almost all of society, each periodical on its own does not have sufficient mass appeal: it would therefore very complicated and expensive to digitise sufficient to ensure a profit. Those that have been digitised, such as parts of the British Workman on the Internet Archive, lack a framework explaining their significance in terms of British social, cultural, historical, business, and creative history. The BLT19 Project provides a wealth of materials at a wide variety of levels to help educators and students engage with the publications and their wide-ranging, diverse content.

Pedagogical Approaches to the Study of Historical Periodicals

Because periodicals are inherently collaborative, they are particularly suited for collaborative learning approaches. Teresa Magnum describes periodical literature as a “marketplace collective of writers, illustrators, editors, printers, advertisers, publishers, and a host of workers in related professions and trades.”1Magnum, Teresa. “Periodicals, Pedagogy, and Collaboration.” Victorian Periodicals Review 39.4 (Winter 2006): 307-08, at 307. Web. Project Muse. 27 Apr 2016. The BLT19 lesson ideas encourage the use of collaboration. At the same time, we recognise the diversity of classroom environments and student skill levels, leaving it to the teacher to determine the best approach for his or her students’ needs.

Resources for the Study of Historical Periodicals and Newspapers (Open Access)

Resources for the Study of Historical Periodicals and Newspapers (Paywall)

Your public library, school, college or university may have access to a version of the following.


BLT19: AK and AMH

Works Cited

1 Magnum, Teresa. “Periodicals, Pedagogy, and Collaboration.” Victorian Periodicals Review 39.4 (Winter 2006): 307-08, at 307. Web. Project Muse. 27 Apr 2016.