A Free Press for a Free People: Newspapers in America

A Free Press for a Free People: Newspapers in America
Dolley Madison: Sports and Popular Culture

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Three to four class periods


Dolley Madison was one of the most popular First Ladies of the 19th century; she was noted for her ability to welcome people from various backgrounds and with various beliefs to the White House, and to participate elegantly and energetically in the Washington social scene.  Much of this “public” life – as well as the political life of her husband – were chronicled in newspapers, which exerted  growing influence on the popular culture of the time.


In this lesson, students in teams compile a history of the contribution of newspapers and periodicals to the popular culture of the 19th century.  Each student should think of himself or herself as a detective, uncovering as much information about the significance of newspapers and periodicals in creating the popular culture of this time period.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet.  Research materials.  Word Processor (or writing utensils and paper).  Computer presentation program (PowerPoint).


1.  Place students into groups.

2.  Explain to students that they are historical detectives who are responsible for documenting the popular culture of the 19th century as it was portrayed in newspapers and magazines.

3.  Tell students that, as they do their research, they should attend to the questions listed below, as well as any other questions that occur to them as they work. 

4.  The following questions should be a part of the history:
  • What was America’s first newspaper?
  • What was the role of newspapers in the early United States?
  • What did newspapers look like?
  • How did newspapers change over time?
  • How did newspapers portray popular culture ideas?
  • How did newspapers contribute to, or create, popular culture?
  • What were some of the leading 19th century newspapers and periodicals for the  general public?
  • What were some of the leading 19th century periodicals for women?
5.  Have students create a report (or news report) with PowerPoint backgrounds.

6.  Engage students in a class discussion comparing the role of 19th century newspapers in creating and maintaining popular culture with the role of the media in all its forms in creating and maintaining popular culture today.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by taking a person or an event that was part of the popular culture of the 19th century and creating a “presentation” about that person or event as it would be done today.

Sources & Resources:


           The First Newspaper in America

            A Brief History of Newspapers 

            Background on Women’s Magazines
            18th and 19th Century Popular Culture 

            The Daily Newspaper and Urban Popular Culture
            The 19th Century in Print – Periodicals

            Harper’s Weekly in the 19th Century
            The Emergence of Advertising in America
            The Penny Press
            Yellow Journalism


This lesson was developed by Dr. Averil McClelland and adapted by Marian Maxfield, Kent State University.