Introduction to 19th-Century Periodicals

Why Study Nineteenth-Century Periodicals?

The study of historical periodicals opens up one’s understanding of today’s media: its content, its methods of production and distribution, its materiality (and immateriality), its audiences, its business practices, and the individuals who contribute to or participate in its creation.

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. The nineteenth-century press also engaged in practices that anticipated or inspired today’s media’s practices. Some periodicals were interactive, allowing readers to express their ideas and opinions or ask questions of the larger community. Other publications were didactic, seeking to inform and educate an increasingly literate populace. 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.

Historical periodicals offer not only a rich blend of content that can be easily adapted to a variety of classroom needs, they also contain articles of a manageable length for classroom activities. BLT19 lessons focused on labour and temperance periodicals can be used as stand-alone activities or in conjunction with other nineteenth-century literature or historical texts.

Digitised Nineteenth-Century Periodicals

A few decades ago, it was much more difficult to study historical periodicals. Hard copies were accessible only to those who could physically visit research libraries or archival collections. 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. 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

Labour, trade, and professional periodicals are a segment of the nineteenth-century press that has received little attention. Their niche audiences and specialised content mean that they are unlikely to be digitised by commercial publishers because they do not have sufficient mass appeal. Those that have been digitised, such as 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 pedagogical materials to help instructors 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)

  • British Newspaper Archive
  • Gale Cengage 19th-Century UK Periodicals Database
  • ProQuest British Periodicals Database
  • The Times Archive



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.