Sunday, April 7, 2013

Article Summary: David Henkin, "City Streets and Urban World of Print"

Street scene in Philadelphia, 1882.
Image: George Augustus Sala / New York Public Library.
David Henkin's contribution to the A History of the Book in America anthology series, "City Streets and the Urban World of Print," explores the role of print in the public spaces of 19th century urban America. Henkin illustrates not just the profusion of print material in the life of a modern industrial city - from newspapers and storefront signs to posters, banners, handbills, fliers, and even paper money - but also the importance of distinctive reading practices for city dwellers.

He positions 19th century urban America within a framework of mass society, in which residents were relatively atomized and anonymous, and thus print was used to address a large, impersonal readership. Indeed, due to the incredible size and diversity of the population in cities like New York, Henkin argues that printed artifacts took on a far more integral role in urban America than they did in the small towns and rural communities of the era. In a sense, the material culture of print was the glue that held these booming metropolises together; writing and reading were what made the physical cityscape as well as the economic, political, and social life legible to all its inhabitants. This fact is indicated by, among other things, the much higher rates of literacy, plus the larger newspaper and mail circulations, found in cities of the era.

Newsboys in Newark, New Jersey, 1909.
Photo: Lewis Hine.
Henkin extends the notion of print far beyond the book. For instance, he discusses how paper money and letters (and institutions like banks and post offices) fostered the anonymous circulation of people and culture that was distinctive of the modern industrial city. Henkin does, however, place the newspaper - in particular the cheap dailies that proliferated after the 1840s - as central to the urban culture of print. Not only were daily newspapers essential for communicating information about local news and events, but they were also a constitutive element of urban street life: newsboys roamed around cities displaying (and shouting) the headlines, and news racks and posters similarly announced the latest news. Henkin compares these newspapers to a form of public space akin to a bulletin board, and to that end describes how people would gather around outdoor vendors, especially during major events like the outbreak of the Civil War, and engage in acts of "collective reading" (p. 334). This outdoor reading, he points out, was also often promiscuous, filled with brothel ads and obscene literature that appealed to the large bachelor cultures of American cities.

Billboards in New York City, 1937.
Photo: Berenice Abbott / New York Public Library. 
Beyond newspapers, cities were dominated by all manner of signage, both ephemeral and permanent. Sturdy, more permanent signs covered buildings and sidewalks, mostly advertising businesses and entertainments. These signs quickly grew to be monumental in size and adopted aesthetic characteristics that took advantage of the "photogenic appeal of the written word" (p. 338). Just as important as this permanent signage, though, was the plethora of ephemeral signage that often quite literally littered the streets: fliers (broadsides and handbills), trade cards, banners. Henkin points out the important role these small, mobile printed materials played in publicizing political and religious rallies, parades, and celebrations. Henkin argues that these signs were addressed impersonally to anonymous readers, part of the mass culture of "the crowd." He describes these urban texts as navigation tools. They helped mobilize large groups of otherwise disconnected individuals, as well as more generally create "a legible cityscape," offering "an avenue of impersonal access to an unfamiliar environment," especially for foreigners and visitors (p. 337). Linked to these new forms of material culture, Henkin describes the labor of urban print culture and the large network of tradesmen that needed to exist to produce it: sign painters, job printers, engravers, lithographers, bill posters, et al. For many printers and booksellers, these ephemeral objects were profitable sideline work that helped subsidize their more legitimate print ventures like book and stationery printing.

The Bill Poster's Dream, 1862.
Image: B. Derby / New York Public Library.
Lastly, Henkin turns to the readers of urban texts, whose perspectives he finds difficult to report since the audience was so vast and these materials were largely taken for granted as a result of their ubiquity and ephemerality. He does, however, point out issues of power and access involved in urban texts. While public print was integral in helping non-English speaking immigrants learn the language and local culture, levels of literacy varied incredibly (even amongst English speakers) and this gave an advantage to the better-educated ("gullible readers," for instance, could be duped out of money if they could not distinguish false bills). Access to print was also limited in that those who owned real estate controlled what signs were displayed. In public spaces like parks, elites involved in government determined what signs were posted and what they said; in this way, urban text could be highly prescriptive and authoritative, a tool for governing public behavior. In fact, Henkin concludes the article by returning to the printed book, in the form of city guidebooks that were popularized in the mid/late 19th century as a way for readers, in particular privileged elites, to navigate the chaos of urban life (and either avoid or consume the rabble).

Although Henkin briefly acknowledges the uneven power and access involved in urban texts like signage, no mention is made of the regulation and active policing of public space that might have otherwise restricted the lower classes and political radicals, in particular, from displaying or distributing print materials. (Much of this regulation likely wasn't codified into law until the 20th century when things like graffiti and noise ordinances become more commonplace, but censorship and suppression of print in public certainly must have existed, even if only informally. But it is not addressed.) The cost of printing, which would have been another barrier to access, is also not discussed; the assumption seems to be that all people who wanted it had access to printed materials, but that surely is not the case.

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