Newspapers and magazines are commodities. They are objects that are bought and sold. The businesses and organisations making and selling them need to make enough money to pay the bills and continue producing new issues, and, so they hope, make a profit.

Cover price is one way to generate income; subscriptions are another. However, income from single issues and from subscription do not necessarily cover all of the costs of production–writers, artists, office staff, cleaners, editors, printers, messengers, the heating, the lighting, the rent, the paper and ink costs, the various kinds of machines, and so on. In the nineteenth century, like today, advertisements are an important source of income for covering the costs of production. The British Workman, British Workwoman and the Stationery Trade Review took very different approaches to advertising, and the Building World later in the century created a whole universe around it, as a separate page on this site explains.

The British Workman, the British Workwoman and the Stationery Trade Review were launched after the elimination of some of what were called “taxes on knowledge” – taxes that made publishing expensive in part to limit the politically-dangerous radical press. Taxes on advertising were repealed 1853, the newspaper stamp duty in 1855, and paper taxes in 1861. Even before the taxes were repealed, however, advertising was common. The front pages of newspapers like The Times were filled with text-based ads.

The British Workman did not accept or print paid advertising (at least obviously). It was promoting ideas and beliefs, not consumer culture. At the same time, that does not mean that there was no marketing in its pages. The British Workman for example promoted quilts made from cloth printed with biblical mottos. The British Workwoman very often had tiny adverts for consumer products at the bottom of columns, almost as if it did not want to appear too commercial (the insertions were marked “ADVT” to show they were indeed adverts and not just endorsements by the magazine: see the bottom of these pages for example).

Making Up Mr Mimpriss’ Quilts
British Workman, September 1876, p.88

The case of “Mr. Mimpriss’ Patchwork Quilts” reveals lot about how advertising in the British Workwoman operated. The article, which you can read above, offers the typical fable of try and try again until you succeed (beloved both of the Victorians and us). It shows a marked division of labour – the men manage the women making the products at home – again as we might expect from the Victorians. But then we might also reflect that like some of today’s conceptual artists, Mr Mimpriss came up with an idea that others execute. Unlike the conceptual artists, his cleverly commercial concept was founded on the idea of getting others to work for what he regarded as the social good. Finally, it turns out that the article and its accompanying picture are essentially an advertorial: the publishers, themselves part of the Mimpriss network, display samples in their salesroom. They are advertising others so that potential purchasers of the quilts will visit them. And they claim they are doing this for the good o society: in this scenario, everybody wins!

By contrast, properly trade periodicals like the Stationery Trade Review and the Building World openly relied on commercial advertising both to promote the goods discussed in their pages and to cover production costs. No business records exist, so we do not know if advertisers paid the exact rates advertised in the periodicals, or if they received discounts for bulk or repeat ads. What we can say is that, in line with advertising in general, ads became increasingly eye-catching over the course of the century as the technology for printing mixtures of images and words on the same page got more and more sophisticated.

By the time of the Navy and Army Illustrated in the 1890s, the contents seem to compete with the advertising in visual appeal: just compare this page of ads – the hand bursting through the page to offer the reader a cigar – with “Marching though Northern India” whose photographs make us feel we are present in what would have been to readers a far-away land. Both of the ad and the content use visuals to cancel physical distance, transporting the distant (or at least absent) near to the reader. To us, used to sensational moving and sounding images, the black-and-white photographs may seem tame; yet, given the technology of the time, both the advert and the photographs burst through the page as if to grab us and shake us into awareness that they exist and demand our attention.