Publishing the Area's First Newspaper Was a Huge Challenge

Missouri Governor Meriwether Lewis, in 1808, offered financial backing of $225 to Joseph Charless if he would come to St. Louis and establish a press...The offer made to Charless to come from Louisville and establish in St. Louis was motivated by the fact that Governor Lewis was anxious to have the printer available when the new Territory Legislature met in June 1808. Charless arrived in St. Louis in the summer of 1808 bringing with him his 24-year-old printer, Jacob Hinkle. Establishing himself in the north room of the Robidoux house on the east side of Main, between Elm and Myrtle, Charless ordered a Ramage press brought from Pennsylvania by keelboat and type from Louisville. Presumably the latter was second-hand since there was no type foundry there.

Charless’ Ramage Press was wooden with a stone bed and iron frame tympan. The ink was applied by patting the printing surface with inked balls. Printing was a slow process requiring a half day to print a small edition containing two inside pages. A printer was probably able to set one and one-half or two columns a day. A scarcity of paper made it necessary to print the first two issues of the Missouri Gazette on 8 ¼ X 12 ½ inch foolscap paper procured locally. It first appeared on July 12, 1808, and bears the name of Joseph Charless, “Printer to the Territory.” It was issued weekly but the arrival of mail determined the day of publication. During sessions of Congress, proceedings, if interesting, were published as a supplement.

The first page was dedicated to national and territorial news, and military orders. There were general headings such as “Foreign Intelligence,” “London,” and “Boston.” Obvious news such as war, pestilence, famines, and earthquakes received attention. News items were clipped from Eastern journals and used as “filler” for the paper. Local news pertained to unclaimed mail, or a runaway horse or slave. Like all pioneer editors, Charless conceived of news as politics, as novelty, and as belles lettres…

In the Missouri Gazette October 12, 1816, [Charless] wrote that the editor, unlike the soldier, the mechanic, or the merchant, was a sentinel of the public rights who never sleeps. He, therefore, included in his paper long orations and letters of politicians and statesmen with the object of keeping the enlightened electorate alert. He also promised to entertain his readers with the best offerings of literature using extracts from the contemporary literati as “fillers” for his columns when news was scarce.

The paper, costing $20 a week to print, had 170 subscribers who paid “Three Dollars a year in advance or Four Dollars in Country Produce.” Advertisements not exceeding a one column square cost $1 a week with each continuation costing 50 cents. The paper changed in page size, and as advertisements became more important the front page was used for that purpose. Pages three and four carried editorial and literary contributions and subscribers’ communications…

Charless was not without his problems. He was accused of being partisan. Subscribers were slow in paying, and he had to resort to begging for his money through his paper. In addition to printing he kept a boarding and lodging house and a livery stable, worked in a drug store, sold printing ink, and for a while was the registrar of the sale of lands and slaves. All of these enterprises were undertaken to supplement the meager income he earned as a printer.

(Excerpted from Books, Newspapers, and Libraries in Pioneer St. Louis, 1808-1842 by Eleanor A. Baer in the Missouri Historical Review)