When a Penny Changed the United States


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

Benjamin Henry Day (1810–1889) & “The Sun”

New York City, September 3, 1833: The public is eagerly awaiting something new and exciting. A first of it’s kind is being introduced today. It’s a newspaper but unlike other publications, up until this time, this one will only cost “a penny”. It a revolutionary idea - instead of buying subscriptions this paper will make money through advertisements. It undercuts most papers in the price (the going rate at the time was 5-6 cents) and it grabs the attention in the public for in the pages of this paper is something new: they print to a new market of readers and stoops to a new level of news.

What else does this paper peddle? Well it has it share of the news but it also prints sensational crimes and just your run of the mill gossip. Many people call this newspaper the “Penny Press”. Some recognize this type of newspaper as a prototype for America’s First Tabloid!

Benjamin Henry Day was born in Springfield, Massachusetts and in 1824 he began his career at the “Springfield Register”. He was just fourteen years old. In 1833 he was ready to make his move in the newspaper industry when he moved to New York City and founded a paper he called “The Sun”, with their mission statement:

“The object of this paper is to lay before the public, at a price within the means of everyone, all the news of the day, and at the same time offer an advantageous medium for advertisements.” {2}

Initially he gathered news from out-of-town papers to reprint in his publication but soon he knew he had to stay competitive so he hired a reporter, George Wisner “if he would get up early every day and attend the police court”. {4} Benjamin Day told him that he would give him four dollars a week. In addition he started another innovation - the newsboys. He hired young boys to go out on street corners to hawk his papers. By putting a newsboy on every street he was able to reach a wider readership. People were interested and people were buying and especially he was able to reach not just the upper class readers that had been the case, but the middle class working people as well.


"The Weary Newsboy”
painting by
James Henry Cafferty (1819-1869)

The Great Moon Hoax

On August 25, 1835 Benjamin Day’s publication the Sun ran a series of six articles based on the claim of British astronomer Sir John Herschel. It was based on his “astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description.” The articles stated that with Herschel’s new and powerful telescope he had discovered:

“planets in other solar systems” and, most remarkably, the winged inhabitants of the moon”. {5}

The Sun even provided an illustration on the new discovery!​


New York Sun Lithograph - Published August 2, 1835

The only problem - - it was a false tale. However Day was laughing all the way to the bank as circulation soared from 10,000 to 19,000. The Sun had officially entered into the realm of what we know today as “tabloid journalism” and other newspapers were watching. Soon others were reporting stories such as:

“murders, railroad accidents, cannibalism, and freaks of nature--horror, gore, and perversity--to build circulation.” {5}

In 1841 the Sun faced its first serious competition when Horace Greeley founded the New York Tribune. He copied Day’s business model (but not necessarily his news model) by charged one penny for his paper. By this time Benjamin Day had already solder his paper the Sun to his brother-in-law for he had become bored with the day-to-day editing and publishing.

Benjamin Day’s motto for the Sun was “It Shines for All”. Charles Dickens was not impressed with the change when he referred to this new form on journalism as either “The New York Sewer” or “The New York Stabber” There is no question that Day changed the newspaper industry during his short reign. He used reporters, newsboys and as he determined the “topics that Americans were interested in reading”. Apparently he was correct.


Printing House Square during the Civil War

1. http://historyofjournalism.onmason.com/2016/04/09/the-penny-press-benjamin-day/
2. https://www.thoughtco.com/benjamin-day-1773669
3. http://historyofjournalism.onmason.com/2016/04/09/the-penny-press-benjamin-day/
4. http://geoffwisner.blogspot.com/2008/05/george-w-wisner-abolitionist-reporter.html
All Photos - Public Domain


Official Vendor
Oct 3, 2020
Taos, NM

Initially he gathered news from out-of-town papers to reprint in his publication but soon he knew he had to stay competitive so he hired a reporter, George Wisner “if he would get up early every day and attend the police court”. {4} Benjamin D
The “Sun” was also one of the first stamp issuing private companies that handled mail. The several 1844 Independent Mail companies pushed the governement to lower postage rates (in 1845) and in 1847 to issue the first US postage stamp.

The letter below that I sold a few years ago shows one of their stamps on a letter used to France. My description:

The Sun Newspaper and Foreign Letter Office, New York, United States, black on orange adhesive stamp tied on folded letter (pencil docket at top left of address panel indicates a 31 July 1844 date) from New York to France, letter missed the 1 August departure of the Cunard steamer from Boston and was carried on the 1 September 1844 Cunard steamer Acadia, red Le Havre entry postmark, manuscript "10" due on reverse, Tours arrival backstamp and letter re-directed to Paris with further 7 decimes due, PF certificate.

The letter is addressed to George Coggeshall for Julia Cleland.

Sun Newspaper operated an under-appreciated 1844 Independent Mail letter mail service operation from New York City to Boston in 1844. The proprietor at this date was Moses Y. Beach. Letters were handled to catch the Cunard steamers departing Boston. Unlike Hales Foreign Letter Office and similar private mails services, the Sun Newspaper used adhesive stamps. The earliest use of one of their adhesives is January 1844 and predates the other 1844 Independent Mail company stamps. I have record of four uses - all from 1844 and on different colored paper, on orange, green (described as blue in one source, Stamp Specialist), magenta and yellow.