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  • Youthful Enterprises: Amateur Newspapers and the Pre-History of Adolescence, 1867–1883
  • Jessica Isaac (bio)

In the 1870s, hundreds of teenagers printed their own newspapers. Calling themselves “amateur journalists” and the sphere in which their papers circulated “Amateurdom” (or, affectionately, “the ’Dom”), these young people wrote, edited, printed, and circulated thousands of issues. I spent a week with the American Antiquarian Society’s collection of these papers in 2009, and what surprised me more than their vast numbers or their remarkable writing was the cohesiveness of their sense of audience.1 The amateurs wrote for each other more than for anyone else, and together they imagined the ’Dom to be a complex, vibrant, and important place. They used their newspapers to reach out to one another, but they also used their papers to imagine a new kind of age-based identity. The idea of adolescence that was taken up by social scientists, institutions, and the popular imagination of the twentieth century was articulated most powerfully by G. Stanley Hall in 1904, but the category had already begun to emerge decades earlier. As Kent Baxter explains in The Modern Age, a large number of social, cultural, and structural changes led to what he calls the “invention” of adolescence at the turn of the twentieth century.2 The young people living through those changes experienced an emerging version of adolescence as real, a state produced by their social and cultural conditions. Since that state was new in historical terms, it had yet to accumulate traditions, behaviors, expectations, and precedents. The amateur journalists of the 1870s used their newspapers to develop adolescent traditions and to speak from an adolescent perspective. They used their papers to figure out what an adolescent perspective might be.

As my first section discusses, the amateurs’ papers were made possible by new toy printing presses produced in the late 1860s, but the amateurs’ desire to use the presses to create a public community of teenagers was motivated by changes in education, age stratification, and work that took place in the second half of the nineteenth century. They defined amateur as an age-based category, and amateur journalism fit well into the growing expectation that middle-class [End Page 158] teenagers should spend their time in study or leisure but not serious labor. This section concludes by suggesting that the amateurs collectively developed a peer culture that functioned as a public and that the amateurs’ ability to create a public youth culture alters our understanding of the kinds of collectives young people can create.

The second section describes a few of the characteristics of the amateurs’ self-representations in the youth public that was Amateurdom. To be clear, the amateurs themselves do not use the term “adolescent,” nor do they explicitly articulate their project as one of identity negotiation. Newspapers, however, were thought to be a reflection of their editor’s character, and the amateurs spent a great deal of ink proving, disproving, commending, and insulting one another’s reputations. They were very concerned about how they represented themselves, and how others represented them, on paper. In the service of this concern, they adopted the gestures of formality and respectability, but they over-deployed them. The amateurs defended their reputations so vigorously as to almost seem ironic, as though they were parodying defenses of character. I argue that this over-defensiveness characterized the style of the amateurs’ youth public and that it was a response to the ill-defined social and cultural status of teenagers in the 1870s.

The final section considers the end of the period in which Amateurdom was a site for the development of age-based modes of written self-representation. The presence of aging amateurs seems to have motivated a new perspective on amateur style as well as arguments that Amateurdom ought to function as an “Educational Institution.” Though education was already becoming the “work” of teenagers and printing one’s own paper had all the trappings of educational value, conceptualizing Amateurdom as a belletristic educational institution where politics were unwelcome seems to have discouraged the style of self-representation that had formerly been so prominent in the papers. Concurrently, changes to the postal code in...


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pp. 158-177
Launched on MUSE
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