The Magazinist
Critical Thinking for Publishers

Circulation Directories

Was There Life Before Audits?

Although it’s sometimes hard for publishers to live with circulation auditing bureaus, it’s almost impossible to imagine life without them.Several generations of circulators have built their careers and retired since ABC, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, was founded in 1914.


But for decades before ABC and the other auditing bureaus came along, a different system kept publishers honest. In the 19th century the watchdogs of circulation were two advertising agencies: George P. Rowell and Co. and N.W Ayer and Sons.  These agencies compiled directories which became the Bibles of circulation—the place advertisers turned to find out how many readers a publication really had.

The original idea was George Rowell’s.  His agency took pride in having the latest information on (and recent copies of) every newspaper in the United States and Canada.  Producing this information in directory form was a logical step, and the first edition of Rowell’s American Newspaper Directory appeared in 1869. 

The 1869 directory’s 358 pages offer a fascinating look at American publishing and marketing in the Civil War era.  The main section of the directory listed newspapers and magazines by city and state, providing a thumbnail sketch of contents, contact information, and circulation.  Other sections listed what used to be called “class” periodicals—magazines dedicated to special interests, like business, science, or agriculture.  The directory also listed magazines and newspapers with more than 5,000, 10,000, and 20,000 circulation.

Eighty-three magazines and newspapers made it into that rarified 20,000 section in 1869.  The largest of all was the weekly edition of Pomeroy’s Democrat (a New York City newspaper) with 275,000 circulation.  Here are the next five, in descending order:

-New York Weekly:  200,000
-New York Tribune:  190,000 
-Peterson’s Ladies Magazine: 140,000 
-American Agriculturist:  116,000
-Harper’s Magazine:  112,000

It’s interesting to ponder the survival rate of this small group.  The Tribune is still in business (as the International Herald-Tribune) and both American Agriculturist (founded in 1842) and Harper’s (1850) are still going strong.   The New York Weekly is no longer published, but the firm of its founders, Street and Smith, lives on as a unit of American City Business Journals.  Sadly, Pomeroy’s Democrat is dead as Marley’s ghost, and Peterson’s (1842) was bought and closed by Frank Munsey in 1898.  RIP to them both.

Ironically, the largest periodical in the country didn’t accept advertising and thus wasn’t listed in Rowell’s directory.  This was the New York Ledger, a highly popular story paper that often sold more than 300,000 copies per issue.

Rowell had the directory market to himself for about 10 years.  Then N. W. Ayer, another pioneering agency, launched a competitive directory, the American Newspaper Annual, run more or less on the same principle as Rowell’s.  The two directories merged in 1910.  Ayer continued publishing the combined directory into the 1980s.  After a couple of ownership changes it ended up in the hands of Gale Research and is still produced as the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media.

Back in the 19th century, directory publishers didn’t have access to publishers’ records, but they did have a variety of ways to verify circulation claims.  One was to query the local postmaster for information.  Another was to use population data from the Census Department.  And when a publisher “swore” to a claim, the directories usually published it.

The directories sold advertising to newspaper and magazine publishers.  It was rumored that you’d receive a more generous circulation estimate in the Rowell directory if you advertised.

Using information from the directory, the Rowell agency developed what came to be known as a “list system,” which allowed a publisher to place ads in a “list” or network of newspapers.  This broadened advertising reach at a time when practically all media were local… and brought advertisers one step closer to acquiring a nationwide voice.

These old directories aren’t as rare as you might think—many used bookstores get copies from time to time, and Bookfinder is a great way to track down one or two if you’re curious.  A special spot in heaven is reserved for the saints who digitized some of the oldest and most interesting.  Click here for .pdfs.  They’re well worth a look.

September 12, 2008