formation and structure of public opinion

Those interested in the history of journalism should stop obsessing about Walter Lippmann and his ponderous, abstract ruminations in his book Public Opinion (1922).  Unbiased reporting of public opinion in the U.S. began as a business plan for a new magazine that reprinted quotations from other news sources.

The weekly Public Opinion: A Comprehensive Summary of the Public Press on all Important Current Topics first issued in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 1886.  It compiled short excerpts from newspapers, periodicals, public speeches, and other public documents of timely interest (see example page). Public Opinion presented itself as serving an important public function, and it positioned itself as a high-status periodical.  Most high-status periodicals about this time cost 25-35 cents per issue.[1] Public Opinion, however, cost only 10 cents for a single issue or $3 for a year’s subscription to the weekly.  A major cost advantage for Public Opinion was its acquiring of content for free from other periodicals.

Public Opinion’s claim to be unbiased was central to its value added.  On its first non-advertising page, Public Opinion declared that its purpose was “to impartially reflect public opinion.”  It stated that it would print excerpts “without bias toward any political party, commercial enterprise, religious sect, or contending influences.”  With each excerpt, it listed the source, along with a categorization of the source’s political orientation, e.g. Harper’s Weekly (Ind.), Indianapolis Journal (Rep.), N.Y. World (Dem.). The claim to be unbiased and impartial gave aggregate value to the collection of excerpts.  Without a claim to be unbiased and impartial, a collection of excerpts would just be an awkward and disconnected way for a periodical to express its viewpoint.  With its distinctive claim of impartiality and unbiasedness, Public Opinion came to be one of the most important weeklies in the U.S. between 1885 and 1905.[2]

Public Opinion had no personal voice.  The publication described its publisher as the Public Opinion Company.  It provided a company address, but did not list specific persons as the company’s officers. The publication did not indicate the real person of its publisher and editor.  Having no personal identification helped to support the publication’s claim to being unbiased.

The founder and editor of Public Opinion was Frank Presbrey. He was a leader in the early advertising industry.  From 1878-1879, Presbrey served as publicity person for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad.  From 1879 to 1886 he served as the advertising manager for two different newspapers.  He worked as founder, publisher, and editor of Public Opinion from 1886 to 1894. By the mid-1890s, Presbrey was writing promotional booklets.  In 1896, he founded an advertising agency, The Frank Presbrey Co.  The Frank Presbrey Co. became a leading Manhattan-based advertising agency.  Among other activities, it developed special-purpose marketing magazines and placed steamship, railroad, resort, hotel, and travel advertising.[3]

To Far Away Vacation Lands exemplifies Presbrey’s style as an author of promotional booklets.  The text spans thirty-two pages with multiple high-quality photoengravings per page.  In 1896 it appeared as an article in Harper’s Magazine.  Subsequently nearly a half million copies of it were published as a separate booklet made of fine paper.[4]  The booklet has Frank Presbrey’s name under the title, but it does not provide a formal, specific indication of corporate sponsorship. In this way it differs from Presbrey’s booklet The Land of the Sky (distributed between 1888 and 1895), which describes scenery on the line of the Western North Carolina Railroad.  That booklet states on the front cover, “Compliments Pass. Dept. Southern Railway.”  A textual indication of sponsorship of To Far Way Vacation Lands appears on the second page of the text:

the great ocean steamships of modern days, such as those of the North German Lloyd fleet, are so luxurious and so replete with all the comforts and conveniences of life, that to spend a week upon one is like putting up at the Waldorf or some palatial hotel.

The second page contains two subsequent complimentary references to the North German Lloyd Steamship Company. By the last page of the pamphlet, a reader who considered the booklet’s sponsorship could hardly doubt that it was the North German Lloyd Steamship Company. References on the last page of the booklet demonstrate the objective soft-sell:

The lines which the North German Lloyd S.S. Company maintain between Bremen and India, Australia, China, and Japan are as near perfect as money and experience can make them. … [final sentence in the booklet] If you cross on any one of the superb express steamers of the North German Lloyd or on any one of the stately ships of the German Mediterranean Service, you will be sure to have a delightful voyage “To Far-Away Vacation Lands.”[5]

Unlike Presbrey’s Public Opinion, To Far Away Vacation Lands did not explicitly and vigorously assert that it provided an impartial and unbiased viewpoint.  Claiming to offer an impartial and unbiased view wouldn’t provide a good business model for narrowly focused travel booklets.

Presbrey was more successful with corporate promotional ventures than with his own Public Opinion Company.  Newspaper and periodical publishers, educators, judges, and clergy praised Public Opinion.  However, Public Opinion, which began every issue with three full pages of advertising, never achieved sufficient circulation to be a significant business success.  Presbrey sold his ownership of Public Opinion when he left it in 1894.[6]

Presbrey subsequently produced many booklets that combined information and company-sponsored advocacy.  Acadia and Thereabouts (1895) promoted travel to Nova Scotia.  The Plant System, which offered passenger rail service to Nova Scotia and also ran hotels, apparently sponsored the booklet.  The Plant System also sponsored Florida, Cuba, & Jamaica (1897?), which promoted travel to its titular locations.  Presbrey’s Glimpses of colonial days (1897) promoted travel to Virginia.  Old Dominion Steamship Company sponsored it.  The city of Buffalo (1895) touted the city in which Presbrey was born, A Summer paradise touted travel to the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, and To the Orient in search of rugs (1895) apparently promoted New York rug-sellers.  Presbrey’s weightest nineteenth-century work was The Southland: an exposition of the present resources and development of the South (1898). This was a 190-page book filled with facts documenting the economic potential of the South.  It had many photoengravings as well as a detailed route-map of the Southern Railway and its connections. A dedication standing alone on a prefatory page declared:

This volume is dedicated to the people of the South by the Southern Railway Company, whose interests are identical with those of the states traversed by its lines.

The Second Vice-President of the Southern Railway, which of course sponsored the book, immediately upon its publication sent a gift copy to the library of the University of California at Berkeley.   This copy of that important historical book remains in that university library today.

Presbrey’s most widely known work is a 648-page historical account of the development of advertising. Entitled The history and development of advertising, it was published in the first half of 1929.[7]  The book is a rich source of facts and examples from advertising history. The viewpoint is strongly biased toward the social importance and moral value of advertising. The preface declares:

That advertising has been a substantial factor in the upbuilding of prosperity and in widening the horizon and increasing the happiness of the masses is beyond discussion. … A nation is just as enterprising and prosperous as is its advertising. … It is hoped that the history and development of advertising will prove interesting and inspirational not only to the men and women employed in it but [also] to those who recognize its potency for advancement and development.

Presbrey’s history of advertising begins with Babylon:

We owe our knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphics to an advertisement. … [the Rosetta stone] advertised Ptolemy as the true Son of the Sun, the Father of the Moon, and the Keeper of the Happiness of men.

In his history, the forerunners of advertisers were the heroes of the Middle Ages:

When it came to pulling Europe out of the Dark Ages it was business men, the class of men who today are the advertisers, who did it.  Formation by them of the Hanseatic League in the thirteenth century gave us the beginning of modern civilization. [8]

About five months after Presbrey’s The history and development of advertising was published, the Great Wall Street Crash of 1929 occurred.  Over the next four years, GDP fell 46% and advertising expenditure dropped 54%. Presbrey died in 1936. Hence he did not live to see the world climb out of the Great Depression. He of course also never got to see Google’s search-advertising business foster world-wide development and dissemination of knowledge, satisfy billions of persons’ specific information needs, and create huge economic value.

After decades of business success, unbiased reporting appears to be failing as a business model. Nonetheless, it has been astonishingly successful as a noble ideal.

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[1] In 1893, “the two most prestigious ‘quality’ [U.S.] magazines, Century and Harper’s, sold for 35 cents a copy. Their competitors, Scribner’s, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly and Cosmopolitan, cost 25 cents.” In mid-1880s Ladies Home Journal rapidly gained circulation at 10 cents a copy. See David Reed (1997), The popular magazine in Britain and the United States, 1880-1960 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) p. 66.

[2]  Frank Luther Mott (1938), A History of American Magazines (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) v. 4, p. 64. The Literary Digest, a weekly formed in 1890 upon a model similar to Public Opinion, merged with Public Opinion in 1906. By the 1920s, only the Saturday Evening Post surpassed the Literary Digest in circulation. The Literary Digest failed in 1938. Its circulation had been decline from the early 1930s and it  badly missed in its prediction of the 1936 presidential election.

[3] Biographical material on Frank Presbrey include the entry for him in Joseph Waite Presby (1918), William Presbrey, of London, England, and Taunton, Mass., and His Descendants, 1690-1918 (Tuttle Company); a short biography in Printers’ Ink, Feb. 23, 1921, p. 126; and a profile in Pearson’s Magazine, v. 26, n. 6 (Dec., 1911) pp. 771-4.  Presbrey has been inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.  Presbrey helped to develop the Boy Scouts’ Boys’ Life magazine and received the Scouts’ highest award,  the Silver Buffalo Award.  Presbrey died on Oct. 10, 1936 at age 81.

[4] See Presbrey, Frank (1929), History and Development of Advertising (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday) pp. 432-3.

[5]  I found To Far Away Vacation Lands, and Acadia and Thereabouts, and The Land of the Sky in the Library of Congress’s collection. Information on the other titles is from WorldCat entry meta-data.

[6] Mott (1938) p. 650.

[7] A copy in the Library of Congress is stamped JUN 15 1929.

[8] Presbrey (1929) p. 22.  Previous quote from id. pp. 2-3.

5 thoughts on “formation and structure of public opinion”

  1. I have a Public Opinion Book dated April 12, 1890. Would like to know more about it and where I can get information on it. Any help you can provide will be greatly appreciated.

    G. Torres

  2. Thank you for this very interesting piece on Public Opinion and Frank Presbrey. A donor recently gave the Chevy Chase Historical Society (Chevy Chase, Maryland)copies of a special supplement to the July 22, 1893 issue of Public Opinion. The title of the supplement was “Washington, the Paris of America,” and while it begins with a celebration of the District of Columbia, most of the seven page illustrated supplement focuses on the new suburb of Chevy Chase, developed by the Chevy Chase Land Company. Do you think that Frank Presbrey would have written the copy for this piece? I recognize all the images of Chevy Chase as ones produced by the Chevy Chase Land Company, frequently used to advertise lots in this new exclusive suburb just north of DC. The land company, headed by Senator Francis G. Newlands of Nevada, created the extension of Connecticut Avenue and built a trolley line (the Rock Creek Rail Road)to bring new residents to the suburb. I suspect that he was a reader of Public Opinion — and if not, possibly the principles in the real estate company Thomas J. Fisher & Co, which promoted the sale of lots in various subdivisions of Chevy Chase, would have known of Mr. Presbrey’s advertising skills.

    Again, based on your knowledge of Presbrey and the publication history of Public Opinion, do you think he wrote the copy for this particular supplement?

    Thanks for any insights you can give us!

    Gail Sansbury, PhD
    Director, Archive and Research Center
    Chevy Chase Historical Society

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