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What is a Penny Press?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “penny press” can have several different meanings, including the original historic meaning of a specific type of newspaper commonly hawked in the streets during the 1800s. All of these meanings revolve around the penny, a small unit of coin which is common to many currencies. Pennies are usually among the smallest unit of currency, and the term “penny” is sometimes used to imply that something is inexpensive or of low value.

Historically, a penny press was a tabloid newspaper put out for the price of a single penny. These newspapers began to appear around the 19th century as competitors for editions which cost slightly more. The newspaper was classically made with cheaper materials, and the staff minimized the use of engravings and other expensive features to keep costs lows. Originally, these penny presses were simply meant to appeal to people who were tight with their money, but eventually they began to fill a specific social niche, thanks to their low cost.

Members of the working and lower classes who could not afford newspapers could afford to buy a penny press, so these papers began covering social issues of interest to these groups, providing news coverage where none had existed before. Many penny presses also dealt with political issues, and they included commentary on emerging political and social issues. Although these newspapers were cheap and sometimes sensational, they were a valued source of news for many people who would have otherwise been deprived of information.

Penny presses have largely fallen by the wayside, but some small publishers refer to themselves as penny presses. These publishers produce chapbooks and other small volumes which are often inexpensive and produced in small editions, and it can be difficult to obtain the publications of a penny press outside of the area where it is located. A variety of authors may be carried by a penny press, and the press usually offers mail order services, sometimes selling everything by mail rather than going through distributors.

People may also refer to a press a penny machine as a “penny press.” These machines are designed to produce novelties which are made by subjecting a penny to immense pressure and imprinting it with a design. Favorite tourist spots often have a penny press which people can use to make a cheap souvenir, and some people like to collect flattened and stamped pennies from various sites they have visited.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Charred — On Jul 22, 2011

@SkyWhisperer - I believe that tabloids nowadays have largely carried on the great tradition of the penny press newspaper.

They have a mixture of news, gossip, entertainment, and of course fiction masquerading as news.

However, I think that most of the public is aware that you have to take the stuff in tabloids with a grain of salt, whereas when the real penny press publications came out I’m sure that they were consumed quite eagerly and thought to be totally credible by the public.

By SkyWhisperer — On Jul 22, 2011

When I first looked into getting my own book published I checked the annual Writer’s Market. There is a section in there called small presses or penny presses.

These were viewed as the most accessible types of book publishers for first time authors. In the market listing you would see the name of the press, how many average manuscripts per year they get and what percentage they publish. Obviously the higher the percentage the better your chance of getting accepted.

I never did follow through, however, because I found the ebook and digital publishing route to be even more accessible than a penny press, although you have to do your own marketing in that case. So I started researching on how to do that instead.

By Sara007 — On Jul 21, 2011

Visiting a place that lets you make your own penny with a penny press sounds like fun. I am always trying to find places to visit that have unique souvenirs.

If you wanted to try using a penny press yourself, where would be a good place to go and look for one?

I am imagining that something like a historical reenactment village might be a good place to start as they always seem to have some quirky old gadgets you can use from a hundred or so years ago.

Do the pennies you make at a penny press usually come with a special case? I would love to display mine once I made it.

By letshearit — On Jul 21, 2011

Learning about the modern penny press can be a very interesting endeavor. Zines are self-published chapbooks that fall into the penny press category, as they are usually very inexpensive to make and contain issues directed at a very particular audience.

If you love 1920's animation, there is a zine for that, if you enjoy reading about feminism and fashion, you can certainly find a zine for that too. Basically any topic can be the focus of a zine.

Zines have huge followings and there are conventions where people meet and trade their zines. They also sell them for a modest price and you can find some pretty unique publications if you are willing to look around.

By Glasshouse — On Jul 20, 2011

@Istria- did you know that you can find pressed penny books to store your souvenirs? We have taken a number of road trips, and we collect souvenir pressed pennies whenever we can. We keep our pressed penny books with our photo albums. every once in a while, we sit around and go through our photo albums and penny books to compare the places we have been. It's just a fun way to bond as a family and remember the good times we have had over the years.

By istria — On Jul 20, 2011

My daughter has an extensive coin press collection. Our family racks up the frequent flier miles, and she has to collect at least one pressed penny from every place we visit. When we travel overseas, she keeps a coin of the country's currency. I almost feel like these simple machines will never go out of style.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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