The History of Mass Media in America

Mass Media incorporates all those mediums through which information is distributed to the masses. These include advertisements, magazines, newspapers, radio, television, and the Internet. Although some media may have originated in Europe, the mass distribution and development of most mass mediums occurred in the United States.

Advertising 1841-1929

The expansion of the United States from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and the Industrial Revolution set the stage for the advertising market. Campaigns for products manufactured in the East were needed to inform Western markets about their availability.

In the beginning of modern advertising, newspapers were the primary medium of distribution. Most cities had their own newspaper that carried local advertisements. As distribution avenues improved through the construction of the transcontinental railroad system, new markets opened up, and the demand for out-of-area advertising campaigns increased. In 1841, V.B. Palmer started the first American advertising agency in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its main income source was selling newspaper ad space to companies outside the city. This company was so successful that Palmer opened other agencies in Baltimore, Boston, and New York.

The oldest ad agency, J. Walter Thompson Company, was founded in 1861; from this point on, advertising agencies rapidly multiplied and filled major cities. By 1870, 5,691 newspapers were in circulation compared to the 715 newspapers in 1830. This provided a huge market for ad space sales and also allowed for multi-city, multi-state, and even national advertising campaigns to be implemented with ease. The next step was to regulate advertising commissions. N.W. Ayer and Son set this at 15% in 1875. It was also to this company’s credit that the concept of the full-service advertising agency was due. They were the first company to offer its clients the planning, creation, production, and placement of advertising campaigns.

In 1880, the next breakthrough in the advertising market was introduced by the father of “honest advertising,” John E. Powers. He created a style of advertising that was fresh and honest and emphasized the product’s luxuries and comforts. The end of the 19th century saw another transition. This time, it was geared towards women. Because women did most of the shopping, advertisers turned their campaigns to the interests of women. Now, advertisements emphasize its health benefits, family values, sex appeal, and ease of use in order to corner their piece of the housewife demographic.

Entering the 20th century, money spent on advertising represented 4% of the national income. Nearly $600 million was spent by big businesses in 1910 alone. As the advertising market increased, it spread to magazines and, in 1920, to the first commercial radio station, KDKA, broadcasting out of Pittsburgh, PA. Radio was a popular new medium for advertising, and in 1929, the Eveready Hour was the first of many product-sponsored radio programs. Other products like Ovaltine, soap, and cigarettes had their own self-promoting shows that utilized the Vaudevillian talents of the day, including Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, and Red Skelton. By 1920, over $10.5 million was spent on radio advertising alone. Because of its entertainment value, radio advertisement was the fastest-growing medium around. Between 1919 and 1929, advertising expenditures rose from $2.282 billion to $3.426 billion.

Advertisements are intended to entice its audience into thinking they can’t live without the product or service being presented to them. They prey upon our weaknesses and insecurities, and they use our desires and needs to seduce us. A good advertisement will make you buy a product, but a great advertisement will make you need a product.


The magazine industry was established in 1741 in the historical city of Philadelphia, PA. The initial problems that faced magazines were a lack of material to print and a market that had little interest in reading the material that was printed. As the US matured and developed its own culture, the prestige behind being an author flourished. Copyright laws evolved alongside the rapidly expanding literary market in order to protect the published material from pirating by other publications. This, in turn, created an “exclusiveness” to stories and developed a marketable asset. Before copyright laws became applicable to magazines in 1820, magazines were “borrowed” from other sources, such as books, newspapers, public and political meetings, and other magazines.

When the Civil War broke out the magazine industry was a vital thread in the American cultural tapestry. Magazines were no longer loose-leaf pamphlets or single page journals, but printed and bound booklets that were issued in regular intervals.

Magazines had a structure for financing their operation and distribution. Advertisers paid high premiums to promote their goods in the most popular publications; publishers oversaw business operations like finances, subscriptions, supplies, printing, distribution, etc.; authors and artists provided material for a commission; and patrons pre-paid for subscriptions or bought the finished magazine at a newsstand.

Magazines specialized in a subject matter and tried to corner a specific demographic. The first magazine had serious political, legal, religious, or literary topics. The publication Literary Magazine and American Register which was published between 1803 and 1807, was a critical review of literary material but it also contained critics of other topics as well.

Although magazines had a rough start, the first “golden age of magazines” occurred between 1825 and 1850. During this period, 2,679 magazines were founded. This magazine boom was a result of three things: the literacy boom, the new concept of paying authors for their contribution and making writing a profession, and the implementation and enforcement of copyright laws.

Magazine life span increased as the industry stabilized. Magazines originally only had seven main categories: religious, literary, agricultural, general, medical, miscellany, and social reform; as the modern magazine era was entered, new categories were added at an exponential rate. Today, there seems to be a magazine covering every topic imaginable. Some of the new magazine genres are fashion, health, interior design, pets, teen life, children, parenting, adult entertainment, mechanics, military, and technology. This sub-category division of magazines is advantageous for advertisers, making it easier for them to reach their target demographic.

As the electronic age evolved, the Internet and WWW established another marketing tool for magazines. By publishing an online version of the magazine, a broader market can be reached, additional advertising spaces can be sold, promotion of the printed version can be accomplished inexpensively, and subscriptions can be sold and paid for electronically.


Newspaper is perhaps the one word most commonly referred to as a mass media, and it is the oldest form. The first American newspaper was the Publick Occurences Both Foreign and Domestic. It only lasted one issue before the Governor of Massachusetts shut it down because it offended him. This was the first instance of press censorship and illustrated a need for freedom of speech.

The first established newspaper was the Boston News Letter. It went into publication on April 24April 24, 1704, by John Campbell.

One of the most important episodes in journalism history occurred in New York in 1735. John Peter Zenger was tried for libel when he printed several critical articles about Governor Cosby. Zenger was arrested in November 1735 and jailed for 10 months before he stood trial for libel. Andrew Hamilton was his counsel. They fought the charge of libel, citing that the articles were not libelous if they were true. The case was acquitted, and Zenger went free. The news of his triumph was published in his own newspaper. The case was one of the first steps in defending the freedom of the press.

In 1765, the Stamp Act was put into action. It levied a tax on all legal documents, official papers, books, and newspapers. In response to this, many newspapers began to be published as handbills or stopped printing altogether. In 1766, the act was repealed, and most of the papers went back to the presses.

In the 1780’s daily newspapers became the fashion with the publication of papers like the Pennsylvania Evening Post, the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser, and the New York Daily Advertiser. Daily newspapers provided up to date information on time sensitive material like sailing vessel progress and schedules and political happenings.

Politics greatly affected newspapers, and by the end of the 18th century, each party had its own newspaper. The Federalist paper was the Gazette of the United States, and the Republicans were represented in the National Gazette.

The Industrial Revolution streamlined printing and made it cheaper to do and easier to mass-produce. By 1833 there were three times as many newspapers being printed in the United States than there were in either England or France.

The Civil War was widely covered in newspapers. Eyewitness reports known as “specials” filled every paper on the East Coast. Stories were told and printed as a whole and not summarized, death counts were printed, and maps illustrated troop movement.

Sensationalism became very popular in Yellow Journalism type papers and they were widely distributed. Using easy to read formats, and the utilization of sensational, gory, and often times fabricated stories made yellow journalism rags so popular that they often times replaced respectable journalism. This eventually became a problem because most of the information contained in the yellow journalism publications was false and libelous.

The modern advent of desktop publishing has made the journalist’s and publisher’s jobs much easier. Stories can be typed into a laptop computer in the field and transferred directly to the editor via the Internet or fax modem. Editing, formatting, and layout can all be done on a computer and sent to the printer with minimal additional steps. Correction, additions, deletions, and rearranging can be done without having to cut and paste manually. Click and drag options in the desktop publishing software allow for changes to be made, saved, and printed with amazing speed and ease. This revolution has consolidated publishing jobs and cut down on turnaround time. Online publishing allows real-time news to be viewed by readers around the world.


The radio broadcasting system as we know it today developed from the evolution of Morse Code and wireless technologies originally used to communicate between ships.

As new technologies were developed, Morse Code was improved upon, and new wireless transmission devices were implemented, which then, in turn, advanced and updated. Nathan 1892 from Murray, Kentucky B. Stubblefield has been established as the man who sent the first “wireless voice transmissions.” Later, in 1865, James C. Maxwell predicted electromagnetic radiation (RF). This form of radiation is the basis of radio transmission and reception.

The prediction of (RF) was further explained with mathematical equations that both proved the existence of RF and also showed that visible light was also a high-frequency radio wave. Marconi’s experiments are perhaps the most publicized of the radio pioneers. His first attempt to transmit across the Atlantic Ocean originated in Poldhu, England. The transmission towers used were each 200 feet tall. The transmission that was produced spanned about 500 meters, which is equal to 600 kHz. It took about 18 kilowatts to power this transmission.

In an attempt to create a long-distance transmission, Reginald Fessenden rigged up a carbon telephone transmitter to an Alexanderson alternator that was located at a shore telegraph station in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, and on Christmas Eve 1906, he sent out a transmission of Bible readings and music. Fessenden’s creation demonstrated a “continuous wave” broadcast for the very first time.

Edwin H. Armstrong developed many sections of radio broadcasting, including the super-regenerative reception and the superhet receiver, and later, he was deemed the father of FM radio (1930.)

The beginnings of radio was plagued with squabbles over patents, lawsuits over who would own, control and regulate the new technology and what would be allowed to be broadcast over the airwaves. Luckily commercialism and entrepreneurship won and today we have commercial airwaves that provide a wide array of programming to cater to all musical and listening tastes.

After the development of the technology behind the radio, it became the fastest-growing and most used technology in the United States. Almost every home in America had a radio in their living room. It became a focal point in family life. In fact, radio is like television today. Soap operas, story hours, sitcoms, and commercials played during prime time, entertaining American families and creating a windfall of commercial revenue for advertisers and stations. The format for television programming would later be modeled after popular programs on the radio. For example, CBS Radio aired a situation comedy, “My Favorite Husband,” which later became the foundation for the TV series “I Love Lucy.”


For the first time in history, pictures and sounds were transmitted directly into the homes of American families. At first, television was not taken seriously, and companies were reluctant to devote resources to developing material to be broadcast. CBS, NBS, and ABC kept their holdings on the radio steady and broadcasted old movies and made-for-television versions of their radio shows. Television was said to be a flash-in-the-pan fad that would not stand the test of time against radio. However, this would be proven incredibly wrong.

The development of television actually started with the advent of the motion picture. In 1907 the cathode ray tube produced the first television image. Later in 1923 the forerunner of the picture tube, the iconoscope was patented. During the early 1930’s RCA began experimenting with black and white television broadcasts. The results seemed promising but still in need of “tweaking.”

In 1945, the television empire was, at the most, a small village with only 7000 sets in the United States and only nine television stations sending out a broadcast signal. It was obvious that if television were to take off, changes would need to be made in the quality of the picture, and the public would need a grander demonstration of its abilities.

RCA came out with a better camera that produced sharper images and gave a demonstration to promote this advancement. In addition, Gimbell’s department store in Philadelphia gave a grand demonstration that drew in over 25,000 people to watch the television broadcast at the store. In 1946, the first sports event was broadcast, drawing in 150,000 people.

Significant to note these 150,000 people were watching this program on only 5,000 sets. That’s about 30 people to a set. It was obvious now that interest in television was increasing, and it was time for a push to expand the empire.

1947 began the march for new and improved programming. Howdy came on the air with educational and entertainment value for television’s younger audience. Kraft Television Theater and Meet the Press also premiere this year. Color television, the next advancement is put on hold, but still considered to be the next logical and necessary step in televisions evolution and business expansion.

1948 marks the beginning of commercial success. The Ed Sullivan Show goes on the air, and advertising revenues are up 515% from the previous year. 933 sponsors bought spots, and television is becoming more popular. As programs are developed and premiered, American culture is forever altered. Television has become the fashion, pop iconization, and model for American life. With the great advancements in television and its rising popularity, two other mediums feel the same result.

Radio and motion pictures suffer from this utilization of this new technology and fixtures in American homes. People stay home to watch TV instead of going to the theaters to watch a movie, and they watch TV instead of listening to their radios.

In 1952, times were changing. Most national advertisers had taken their business away from radio and placed it entirely with television. Because of the commercial power now vested in television, hundreds of new programs have been added to the lineup, and talk of morality and values being presented in the programs was debated. The National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters ratified guidelines and codes that addressed these social concerns. Most of the code was aimed at advertising. In addition to the moral concerns of the public viewing, the House of Representatives investigated the “offensive” and “immoral” topics of some television programs.

By the end of 1952, the number of televisions in American homes had grown from 7000 in the 1940s to 20 million. Advertising revenue also rose to a record $288 million.

Other developments:

  • 1953 color television
  • 1956 videotape replaces 16mm film. Cheaper and easier to use.
  • 1960 debates between Kennedy and Richard Nixon aired.
  • In 1963, racial equality on the air was required, and the first black boy was seen in a Wisk commercial.
  • On August 28August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • November 22, November 22 Kennedy is assassinated, and in a live broadcast of Oswald being transported by law officials, he is shot.
  • 1963 Television beats out newspapers as the number one source of information.
  • 1964, the first cable regulations were established.
  • 1965 color television beats black and white.
  • 1969 PBS starts up.

By the mid 70’s cable television was taking a hold with HBO and Showtime. Other growing concerns centered around program content and advertisements during hours when children were most likely watching. New regulations established a protocol for what types of ads could be placed and what type of programming could be used during these children’s viewing times.


Mass media is a relatively new concept in human culture. Word of mouth was the primary form of communication before print. This limited the information being transferred between people to that of immediacy and importance. This usually meant that the information only dealt with local or political issues. The advent and spread of print material like newspapers, handbills, books, and magazines accomplished many things. First, it increased the demand for literacy. In fact, printed mass media is probably the most significant factor in the high level of literacy in the United States.

Because the country is so large and spread out, information needs to be transmitted, and if it is being transmitted in print form, people have to know how to read to receive the information, and they have to learn to write to transmit their answers and respond back. Speed of transmission and distance of transmission were the next areas of development. These advancements changed the type of information people wanted and received. Now, information being transmitted deals with national and eventually international news and information. With this ease, other less urgent information could also be transmitted, like fashion, art, culture, and entertainment. Mass media technology is always advancing. Becoming faster, more accessible, and more interactive. In the future, all media will be accessible on a handheld device.

News, entertainment, and educational materials will be delivered to this device via wireless Internet systems. Electronic media will more than likely replace print media, and newsprint will only exist in museums and electronic files.

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