In Portsmouth: All the news that’s fit to print — or not

The Portsmouth Weekly News kept residents informed in the late 19th century

By Jim McGaw
Posted 11/27/23

PORTSMOUTH — The United States is continuing to lose local newspapers at a rate of more than two per week.

That sobering statistic came from a report released last year by the Medill …

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In Portsmouth: All the news that’s fit to print — or not

The Portsmouth Weekly News kept residents informed in the late 19th century


PORTSMOUTH — The United States is continuing to lose local newspapers at a rate of more than two per week.

That sobering statistic came from a report released last year by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, which also predicted the United States is on track to lose about a third of its newspapers since 2005 by 2025.

It didn’t used to be this way of course — especially during the boom years of newspapers in the late 19th century. Using data from the Library of Congress, Stanford University found there was a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. papers from about 4,400 in the 1890s to over 13,000 in the 1890s.

One of them was The Portsmouth Weekly News — no connection to this weekly paper, which didn’t arrive until 2013 — edited by Frank H. Sherman. The masthead of the late-19th century publication, which was published on Saturdays, stated it was located in “South Portsmouth” and cost a penny a copy. (A year’s subscription was just 50 cents!)

The Portsmouth Weekly News reported on all the news that was fit to print — and some that wasn’t. Besides local government news, you could learn who had just arrived in town, who was taking a trip, who was sick, and who was on the mend. There were also bad jokes, an almanac, reprinted articles from Harper’s Almanac, trivia, poems, and more.

The lead story in the July 11, 1891 paper was about the low price of potatoes — and how the farmers’ business strategies were to blame. 

“Potatoes are being hurried to market so fast, the price dropped from $3 to $1.50 at 25 and 50 cents at a time,” the story said. “If the farmers would all club together and stop digging, the price would rise in a few days. The trouble is, the market as full of Norfolk potatoes when the farmers began to dig theirs.”

Another story reported on a church leader who was a regular ironman when it came to his preaching: “Rev. Seth C. Rees, having injured his back in lifting a stove, did not attend the services at the Friends church on Sunday last. This is the first time he has been absent from a Sunday morning meeting for seventeen years.” 

Get well soon

The general health of its readers was considered front-page news for the Portsmouth Weekly in its Aug. 29, 1891 issue. Under a headline titled “SICK WITH MALARIA” came an account of George Allen, youngest son of John Allen of Oakland Farm, “who has been at work at the ‘Breakers,’ Newport, R.I., is at home sick with Malaria.”

Another item: “Alfred H. Borden has recovered from his recent sickness, which he thinks was caused by drinking impure water.”

And yet another: “Miss L. F. Sherman arrived home Monday after a stay of six months and three weeks at a hospital in Boston.”

In the same issue, the section of Portsmouth then known as “Newtown” — a former village located east of East Main Road, between Church Lane and Child Street — had its own corner of the front page. 

It was reported that “Mrs. Joseph G. Dennis and daughter returned from a 200-mile trip on Tuesday, which they have accomplished in two weeks using their own conveyance. Among the places which they visited are Gardner Lake, Conn., Jamestown, Narragansett Pier, New London, and other places of interest.”

(Apparently the news pickings in Newtown were a bit dry, since under that story appeared a wanted ad for a “good reporter from Newtown” who was asked to “state price expected” when he or she applied for the job.)

Another travelogue was featured in the Sept. 5, 1891 issue:

“Mr. John T. Brown went to Fall River, Mass. on Sunday, returning on Tuesday. Prof. Victor E Hammerell and wife, who have been at Henry W. Almy’s on Union St. the past month, left for their home in Providence on Thursday. Mr. Bert H. Manchester left on Monday for a week’s vacation. He will visit Boston, and other places of interest. Thus he celebrates reaching his 21st birthday, which he did on Sunday.”

Sometimes the paper reported on the trials and tribulations experienced by townspeople, no matter how inconsequential. Under the headline, “Spends Thirty-Five Dollars,” a story breathlessly reported on John E. Manchester’s unfortunate visit to Newport, where his buggy sustained $35 in damages after colliding Aug. 12 with a team of horses on Broadway. 

“He should be reimbursed,” the unnamed author wrote. “The street lights were not lighted at the time.”

In the same issue, the editor addressed one of his pet peeves on the front page, complaining that residents often referred to Glen Road as “Glenwood” or “Glenwad.”

In addition to local news, The Portsmouth Weekly News helped fill its pages with not only snippets of national and international news, but tall tales and jokes (if you want to call them that):

“Charles Youngnoodle (stock clerk): ‘Mr. Duste, can I go on the road?’

Employer: ‘I have no particular objection, Charlies, if you prefer it to the sidewalk.’”

Don’t hurt your neck

Several issues from 1891 also featured an odd front-page ad by the Newport One Price Clothing Co. that promised the buttons on its “Mother’s Friend” shirt couldn't be torn off “either in wearing, washing or ironing.” On top of that, the ad was printed sideways. With such primitive typesetting back then, perhaps that was the only way the paper could get it to fit.

Thanks to The Portsmouth Historical Society for providing samples of The Portsmouth Weekly News for review.

Portsmouth Weekly News, Portsmouth Historical Society

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.