Benjamin Day

Creator of the Penny Press Revolutionized American Journalism

Lithograph of Newspaper Row in New York City in the 1800s
Newspaper Row in 19th Century New York City. Getty Images

Benjamin Day was a printer from New England who started a trend in American journalism when he founded a New York City newspaper, The Sun, which sold for a penny. Reasoning that a growing working class audience would respond to a newspaper that was affordable, his invention of the Penny Press was a genuine milestone in American journalism history.

While Day’s newspaper proved successful, he was not particularly suited to being a newspaper editor.

After about five years of operating The Sun, he sold it to his brother in law at the very low price of $40,000. The newspaper continued to publish for decades.

Day later dabbled with publishing magazines and with other business endeavors. By the 1860s he was essentially retired. He lived on his investments until his death in 1889.

Despite his relatively short tenure in the American newspaper business, Day is remembered as a revolutionary figure who proved that newspapers could be marketed to a mass audience.

Early Life of Benjamin Day

Benjamin Day was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on April 10, 1810. His family had deep roots in New England going back to the 1830s.

While in his teens Day was apprenticed to a printer, and at the age of 20 he moved to New York City and began working in print shops and newspaper offices. He saved enough money to start his own printing business, which nearly failed when the cholera epidemic of 1832 sent a panic through the city.

Trying to salvage his business, he decided to start a newspaper.

Founding of The Sun

Day was aware that other low-cost newspapers had been tried elsewhere in America, but in New York City the price of a newspaper was generally six cents. Reasoning that working class New Yorkers, including newly arrived immigrants, would read a newspaper if they could afford it, Day launched the The Sun on September 3, 1833.

At the outset, Day put the newspaper together by repackaging the news from out of town newspapers. And to stay competitive he hired a reporter, George Wisner, who ferreted out news and wrote articles.

Day also introduced another innovation, newsboys who hawked the newspaper on street corners.

The combination of a cheap newspaper that was easily available was successful, and before long Day was making a good living publishing The Sun. And his success inspired a competitor with far more journalism experience, James Gordon Bennett, to launch the The Herald, another penny newspaper in New York, in 1835.

An era of newspaper competition was born. When Horace Greeley founded the New York Tribune in 1841 it was also initially priced at one cent.

At some point Day lost interest in the day-to-day work of publishing a newspaper, and he sold The Sun to his brother in law, Moses Yale Beach, in 1838. But during the short time he was involved in newspapers he had successfully disrupted the industry.

Day’s Later Life

Day later launched another newspaper, which he sold after a few months. And he started a magazine called Brother Jonathan (named for the common symbol for America before Uncle Sam became popular).

During the Civil War Day retired for good. He admitted at one point that he had not been a great newspaper editor, but had managed to transform the business “more by accident than design.” He died in New York City on December 21, 1889, at the age of 79.