Magazine History & Collector Tips

Today in 1857 – Paging Through Harper’s Monthly, March 1857


The March issue of Harper’s Monthly cost 25 cents in 1857. Harper’s had been around just under seven years at this point, it’s first issue dated June 1850 and including two stories by Charles Dickens. Harper’s was a hot seller despite the price as that first issue had a print run of 7,500 copies and they quickly moved to a circulation of over 50,000 within six months.

I thought it might be a good time for us to page through an issue together as we near the end of March, 152 years after the magazine I’m holding was originally published.

While the magazine is packed with features, like the heavily illustrated articles about the North Carolina Fisheries and Albany, New York as seen fifty years ago, as well as unillustrated accounts of Samuel Johnson (written by Thomas Babbington Macauley) and a story about the escape of Felice Orsini from an Austrian prison that was so exciting you’re going to see an accompanying post in this space very soon, plus the highlight for collectors: Chapters 51-54 of Charles Dickens’ serialized novel Little Dorrit, we’re going to look somewhere a little different to get a feel for the times.

Front Cover March 1857

Front Cover

In my typical sales listing for an issue of Harper’s Monthly during this period all of those above items of note would be listed, as well as other major stories found on the index page which I haven’t bothered telling you about here. Those are the features. But the news of the day is summarized under Harper’s heading of “Monthly Record of Current Events,” which is all time permits all but the most earnest scholar to pursue.

"Heading Herring" from the story on North Carolina Fisheries

"Heading Herring" from the story on North Carolina Fisheries

Well, we’re going to take the time to pour over one such column together, beyond that I’m going to limit our peek to the first section of “Current Events,” which deals with the happenings of the United States only. Having read through this column a couple of times last night, my best guess is that despite the March date on the cover, this issue of Harper’s left editorial hands during the first week of February 1857.

"Reception of an Old Friend" - Illustration with Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

"Reception of an Old Friend" - Illustration with Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

The Current Events section is all text, no illustrations, without any headings to offset the stories. Just the occasional paragraph break or long dash moves you from one topic to another.

And since we’re once again 152 years back into our time capsule, we’re well inside the public domain, so I bring you the U.S. news of the period, completely unfiltered:

  • Bills have been passed in the House of Representatives which will undoubtedly result in the admission of two new States, Minnesota and Oregon, into the Union…The estimated population of Minnesota is 175,000, and that of Oregon is 90,000, both of which are rapidly increasing by emigration.
  • The Committee in the House have reported adversely to the petition of the inhabitants of a portion of New Mexico for the formation of a new Territory under the name of Arizonia (sic); the main reason given is the paucity of population, which render the formation of a new Territory unadvisable.
  • A portion of the citizens of Carson Valley, in Utah, presented a petition that their district should be annexed to California, on the ground that not being Mormons they suffer great wrongs and grievances from the Saints.
  • A bill has passed the Senate authorizing the Secretary of State, with the approval of the President, to enter into a contract with the Transatlantic Telegraph Company for the transmission of messages, upon terms similar to those offered by the British Government.
  • In the Senate the Republican vote has been greatly increased by the recent State elections…The next Senate, it is estimated, will be composed of 37 Democrats, 20 Republicans, and 5 Americans.
  • The Legislature of Kansas met January 12. Governor Geary, in a long and elaborate message, sets for the condition of the Territory when he assumed the office, and details the measures taken by him to put an end to the troubles and bring about the peace which now prevails, and which he believes will be permanent. He urges that the Territorial Assembly should permit all doubtful questions to remain in abeyance until the formation of a State Constitution; the question of Slavery in particular should be left in the position where it is placed by the Constitution and the Act organizing the Territories, subject to the decision of the courts upon all questions that may arise while Kansas remains a Territory. He recommends the immediate repeal of all of the objectionable laws that have been passed. Among these he specifies the invidious test-acts, and the law requiring all elections to be viva voce (by live voice). The law respecting patrols, he says, is unjust, taxing property in general for the special protection of slave property, and establishing an odious system of espionage.
  • George Carstensen, the architect of the New York Crystal Palace, died at Copenhagen, Denmark, January 4. He had undertaken the publication of a newspaper, and died on the day of the issue of the first number.
  • The vocabulary of crime, especially in New York, has been enriched by a new term descriptive of a new mode of robbery. It is performed by two or more, one of whom seizes the victim by the neck from behind, in such a manner as to strangle him and render him powerless, while the others proceed to rifle his pockets. This is styled garroting from its resemblance to the well-known Spanish mode of execution. Hardly a night has passed for weeks in which some offense of this nature has not been recorded. In a number of cases the offenders have been arrested, summarily tried, convicted, and sentenced to imprisonment for life.

Despite the differences between our time and that inside this issue of Harper’s, especially noticeable in the expansion of Statehood, and quite obvious with the mention of Slavery, the news of 1857 also has an air of familiarity about it with obituaries, crime reports, the expansion of technology. One could even scratch the surface of our differences and classify the seemingly out of date stories simply as news from Washington and battles for Civil Rights.

Interestingly there is no direct mention made of the President by name, only brief mention by title. As this Harper’s went to press we were at the very tail end of Franklin Pierce’s administration with James Buchanan to be inaugurated March 4. In other words, Buchanan was very soon to take office by the time readers held this issue, if he had not done so already.

Governor Geary of the Kansas Territory

Governor Geary of the Kansas Territory

Thus the section on Kansas, which our 1857 reader very likely skimmed through as more of the usual news, stands as the most historically important portion of their news when we look back today. The Governor, John W. Geary, a former mayor of San Francisco, had been appointed governor of the Territory by President Pierce July 31, 1856 to the opposition of the Territory’s pro-slavery faction. While Kansas was more peaceful under Geary than it had been previous to his arrival, there was still a great deal of turmoil caused by border ruffians crossing into the state from the outside. Soon after our reader received this magazine, March 12, President Buchanan would fire Geary, effective March 20.

The reason we didn’t talk about Little Dorrit here, or dig deeper into the North Carolina Fisheries, which after all was the lead story, is that it was my desire to show you just how much old magazines such as Harper’s Monthly contain. All of the above bullet points can be found jammed onto 2-1/2 pages at the back of the issue, just another feature. Collecting magazine back issues can be fun for the curious, but also very rewarding for the researcher.

General 19th century magazine back issues such as this are mostly sold upon the basis of a single article of importance to the buyer. It may be an area of specific interest, for this issue perhaps just a resident of Albany curious about earlier times, it may be for a literary collection, our Dickens entry obviously merits attention in that area, or it may be something about an ancestor, whether they be the subject of the story or the author. My point is that there’s so much information packed inside each and every magazine back issue that they become treasure chests for any intellectually curious person to pick over.

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