‘Story papers’ were one of the great publishing successes of the late 19thC and early 20thC, and one of the clearest results of the expanded readership for the popular press created by universal education. Published weekly at a penny or halfpenny each, they were aimed primarily at juvenile working-class and lower-middle-class readers (both boys and girls) but also a broader family readership, and were one of the principal forms of entertainment for this huge readership in a pre-cinema age. As their name implies, they specialised in fiction, mainly short and serial stories, which ranged from adventure to romance and historical fiction to school stories, depending upon the particular paper. They also published competitions, advice columns, jokes (of the ‘my dog has no nose’ variety) and factual articles which were informal but informative.
Their entire format and style was designed to appeal to younger readers who were not highly-educated (most people had left school by the age of 14, if not before), but who were literate and enjoyed reading. Their leisure-time however was limited, as working hours were long. Short stories could be read quickly on the tram or during a lunch-hour, and gripping serials with cliff-hanger plot-twists were designed to entice readers back for the following issue – when early cinema produced serials which ended with the heroine tied to train tracks, they were borrowing this convention from the story papers. It was a lucrative and therefore crowded market, and as an Irish Packet editorial put it in 1903, ‘the Editor has a hungry, fastidious and capricious public to feed from week to week. He is anxious to increase the number of his patrons. This he can only hope to do by an abundant and unceasing supply of good things. If there is a falling off of good fare, they may transfer their custom elsewhere’. The market was dominated by the British giants such as the Boy’s Own Paper and its sister the Girl’s Own Paper, as well as the Gem and the Magnet (in America, the Argosy appealed to a similar readership). All of these papers were distributed widely in Ireland (although there are some indications that the Boy’s Own Paper was banned in some Catholic schools on the grounds that it was an agent of Protestant evangelism) and benefited from huge economies of scale by comparison to smaller Irish rivals. They could afford more famous authors, better illustrations and bigger competition prizes.
Story papers were quite controversial, however. They were descendants of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ of the mid-19thC, which had focused on gruesome tales of crime and criminals, and were the focus of one of the first moral panics of the mass media age as it was claimed that they glamorized criminals and even led to copycat crimes. Late 19thC story papers (sometimes referred to as ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’) were the newer, cheaper equivalents with bigger print runs and readerships, and were still viewed with suspicion by many for their influence on young readers – as has often remained the case, young, female or working-class readers were presumed to be easily influenced. In Ireland, the fact that British story papers were circulated so widely was an added source of controversy. Nationalists accused them of being a major source of Anglicisation, while Catholic ‘social purity’ groups such as the Irish Vigilance Association objected to their sensational plots and portrayal of violence and more occasionally sex. DP Moran, author of a famous Leader editorial in 1900 which denounced British imports as being ‘…penny papers…saturated with grossness and which mainly circulate among boys…’, also wrote a (really not very good) 1905 novel, Tom O’Kelly, in which the centre of all cultural malaise in his fictional town of Ballytown was the newsagents’ shop which sold British story papers.
Despite the popularity and scale of British imports, Ireland had its own story papers (each of which will be discussed in future posts). The oldest of these were the Irish Emerald and the Shamrock, both descendants from earlier publications of William O’Brien’s Young Ireland movement, and both published weekly from the late 19thC until around the end of World War One. In the early 20thC, these were joined by Ireland’s Own (one of the great survival stories of Irish media history, given that it is still in existence) and more briefly by the Irish Packet, which was a story paper subsidiary of the Freeman’s Journal. All of these focused upon short and serial fiction, like their British counterparts, but firmly marketed themselves as Irish story papers for Irish youth. One way that they did this to publish mainly Irish fiction, set in Irish locations and dealing with Irish themes and plotlines. They were each slightly different in their precise content and editorial tone, but they all had certain common features. Most of their readers were probably boys and young men between 15-25, but they also published material intended to appeal to young female readers and a broader ‘family’ market.
Irish story papers were able to exploit the powerful alliance of national and religious agendas within the ‘social purity’ movement’s condemnation of imported British papers. Where the British papers were accused of sensationalism and immorality as well as undermining Irish culture and identity, their Irish rivals were keen to present themselves as wholesome and patriotic alternatives. For example, the first ever issue of Ireland’s Own (in November 1902) announced that it was ‘…intended to counter-act the influence and displace a great portion of the vicious and undesirable literature that reaches this country weekly…Our fiction, whether Irish or otherwise, will be pure, and ennobling in the lessons it conveys’. A future post about Ireland’s Own will explore just how ‘pure and ennobling’ some of this material really was, but with British publications providing much easier targets for purity campaigners, Irish story papers were able to position themselves without much difficulty as patriotic and wholesome publications for young readers. This was, for the more successful, one of the ways that they were able to counteract the competition from their British rivals.
Despite being primarily focused on fiction, story papers also published other material. They regularly ran reader competitions – ranging from story-writing to jokes, limericks and word-games – which were clearly popular with readers but also served to boost sales by requiring the submission of coupons cut from the paper with each entry. This meant each entrant to a competition had to buy their own copy, as opposed to sharing and swapping papers within groups of friends or family, a common activity among young working-class readers in order to increase the number of papers they had access to. Readers were invited to ‘write back’ in other ways too – editorial columns in story papers tended to be chatty and informal, and often included readers’ letters, queries and suggestions. They also ran ‘notes and queries’ columns to answer readers’ questions, and ‘exchange and mart’ columns for readers to trade books, sheet-music and other items. Many of them also ran career and educational advice columns – which were particularly pertinent to their core readership of school-leavers and young workers. They placed a particular emphasis on civil service, police and post-office examinations, some even running ‘student’ columns coaching readers about past papers and inviting them to submit composition pieces to be marked, as well as advising on exam technique. All of these kinds of columns offer insights into the lives of ordinary young people at the turn of the 20thC, as well as into the business models, style and content of the Irish popular press of the time, and there will be more detailed discussions of most of them here in the future. But overall, they indicate the lively relationship between story papers and their readers in Ireland – in keeping with the informal and interactive tone of the early 20thC ‘new journalism’, editors encouraged readers to consider themselves part of a community, and it is clear that many readers did so. This may well have been crucial to the survival of Irish story papers in the face of imported British rival publications which could offer stories by more famous authors and competitions with bigger prizes – Irish papers not only ran stories with Irish plots, names and settings, but their smaller circulation also offered a more intimate world of editors who might actually print your letter and competitions you might actually win.
They all published more fiction than anything else, however – meaning that in the early years of the 20thC when the Irish Emerald, the Shamrock, Ireland’s Own and the Irish Packet were all being published every week, they were collectively producing at least 50,000 words of fiction a week; a daunting prospect for the contemporary researcher, especially given that yet more short fiction was also being published in Irish women’s magazines, trade journals and even newspapers, as well as all that appearing in the imported British publications! One of the conclusions we can easily draw from this, however, is that there was an almost unquenchable thirst for narrative among readers of this period. I commented in a previous post that literacy levels rose significantly – and expanded across class boundaries – during the last quarter of the 19thC. But that statement does no justice to the sheer quantity of reading material being consumed each week by ordinary Irish readers by the turn of the 20thC. At the time, it was often remarked that the Irish bought comparatively few books. Even if this was true (and it might have been, given that average incomes in Ireland were low, and books were still relatively expensive), it certainly did not mean that the Irish didn’t read. The quantity of short and serial fiction being read in newspapers and magazines each week suggests that for a significant proportion of the population, much of their leisure time was spent reading the short and serial fiction in the story papers.
DP Moran, ‘Gutter Literature’, Leader, 1 September 1900, p. 11.
‘A Chat with the Editor’, Irish Packet, 10 October 1903, p. 32.
Stephanie Rains, ‘“Nauseous Tides of Seductive Debauchery”: Irish Story Papers and the Anti-Vice Campaigns of the Early Twentieth Century’, Irish University Review, 45:2 (November 2015), pp. 263-280.