On Our Birthday, a Look at Our Earliest Issues

This week, The Saturday Evening Post celebrates its birthday.

Our first issue appeared on August 4, 1821, making us the oldest magazine in the United States. (Because our publication was interrupted in 1969, we are not the oldest continually published magazine, however; that honor is held by Scientific American.)

The Post began life as a weekly newspaper, printed on the same equipment Ben Franklin used to publish The Pennsylvania Gazette. The Post‘s four pages were crowded with dense columns of small type; there were no illustrations besides a few crude pictures of hats and boots in advertisements.

The articles may seem archaic today, but those early issues carry a lot of the same content that appears in today’s shrinking newspapers.

For example, there is coverage of national news, particularly the continued growth of the country:

The President of the United Sates, by his Proclamation, dated the 10th instant, agreeable to the conditional power invested in him by an act of Congress, announce the Admission of the State of Missouri into the Union.

Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson was taking up his appointment as first governor of Florida (the territory was recently purchased from Spain, and Jackson was eager to prove the absolute authority of the U.S. in the region):

The Spanish Governor of Pensacola has been arrested and thrown into prison by order of Gen. Jackson. The reasons for this procedure is his not having surrendered up all the papers which were legally claimed by the late treaty. They are now in the possession of the American authorities.

The owners also exercised their right to include moral instruction squarely on page one. On August 18, 1821, they presented the article “Admonition Against Sabbath Breaking”:

It is the duty of every Christian to observe [Sunday] as a day of rest from work, buying, selling, travelling (except in cases of great and unavoidable necessity) and from all kinds of sport and diversion. To spend the sacred time in idleness and amusement; to neglect the public and private duties of the day tends to bring the judgments of God on the country. It leads you to bad company, to a habit of idleness, drunkenness, extravagance, and so on to ruin, as many [condemned criminals] have acknowledged [shortly before their] execution.

But when it came to filling up the pages with copy, the Post did what modern news organizations still do — reprint items of passing interest from other newspapers:

A fact, to the curious.— On the 7th of June last, about five o’clock in the afternoon, there passed over Willistown (NH) and Goshen (VT), a swarm of the animal denominated the “Devil’s darning Needle” [the dragonfly]. The swarm extended a mile in width, and was more than an hour in passing from east to west.

There is now residing in Stafford, a man by the name of Nolan, who is at present married to his twenty-sixth wife, and has by the whole, seventy-three children. He is one hundred and five years of age, and his present wife is now pregnant.

The latest accounts from New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston represent those places as entirely free of malignant fever.

A patent churn has been manufactured in Orange county, (N.Y.) which can be worked by a dog!

A man has been sold at public auction, at the market house in Detroit for being found idle, and not giving an account of the manner in which he obtained a livelihood. The purchaser was to be entitled to his services for ten days, and he was then to be walked out of the territory unless he agreed to maintain himself by creditable labor.

The City Gazette of Washington says, that in [leveling the ground] in front of the President’s house, the laborers came to a spot where five graves were opened. One of the coffins was in perfect preservation, and the remains of a corpse was exposed, exhibiting long dark hair, perfectly strong and neatly folded up under the skull. [The White House grounds are] said to have been the burying ground of the Peerce family, of Bladensburg, and that the bodies have been interred about 40 years.

On one subject, there is a particularly strong resemblance between the Post of 1821 and modern newspapers. Then, as now, journalists love to report on the death of celebrities.