The Philadelphia Inquirer has experienced a range of transitions in its near 200-year lifespan. Much like its city’s famous son Rocky Balboa, it has earned its reputation as a publication ready and willing to pick itself up from the canvas and fight back, even when all hope appears to be diminished. Here, we examine some of the key moments in the history of one of America’s oldest daily newspapers. You can explore genuine, original issues of the Philadelphia Inquirer in our archive, letting you choose any date.
Turn the page to:
- Founding and Early History
- The Civil War
- New and Improved
- A Difficult Transition
- The Annenbergs
- A Remarkable Turnaround
- The “Oldest Newspaper in America”
- Circulation Figures
The Philadelphia Inquirer history journey begins with its founding on June 1, 1829 by a young printer named John R. Walker and John Norvell, who had previously been editor of the Aurora & Gazette, the city’s largest daily newspaper at the time. Norvell’s new publication, born as the Pennsylvania Inquirer, would have to compete not only with his former employers, but with six other dailies in the city.
The Inquirer immediately established itself as a newspaper for the people, pledging support to Jeffersonian Democracy and then-President Andrew Jackson, who had taken office earlier in the year. As the story goes, Norvell had departed the Aurora & Gazette due to a perceived editorial shift towards supporting the European class system, and the potential imitation of it within the United States. Norvell believed that by championing the lower classes and the interests of the masses, the Inquirer could poach a substantial portion of the Aurora & Gazette readership. Indeed, in the very first issue, the editorial promised a devotion to “the maintenance of the rights and liberties of the people, equally against the abuses as the usurpation of power”.
Despite their passionate intentions, within six months Norvell and Walker had found themselves in financial difficulty, thanks in no small part to the oversaturated print news market in the City of Brotherly Love.
In November, the pair sold the Inquirer to Jesper Harding, the leading Bible publisher in the country. Harding, who had experience in the industry as an associate editor of the United States Gazette (one of the Inquirer’s closest competitors), shifted publication from the morning to the afternoon, although with the acquisition of the Morning Journal the following January, the Inquirer moved back to mornings, where it has remained ever since. Four years later, the Inquirer absorbed another of its rivals, the Daily Courier, after its publisher James Gordon Bennett moved east to establish the New York Herald.
By 1840, the Pennsylvania Inquirer had established itself as a major Philadelphia newspaper, moving into its own building on the corner of Third Street and Carter’s Alley. In addition to swallowing yet another competitor, the National Gazette & Literary Register, the Inquirer obtained exclusive rights to publish several of Charles Dickens’ novels, becoming the first American newspaper to do so, and building circulation by using fiction alongside its news content.
In 1856, Jesper Harding’s son William became a partner, and three years later, following his father’s retirement, took control of the Pennsylvania Inquirer. William made several big changes to the publication and its production, most notably changing its name to the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also sought to move away from the subscriber-heavy focus by dropping the price, creating delivery routes and hiring newsboys to hawk the paper on the streets. His methods were a huge success, with circulation growing ten-fold from 7,000 to 70,000 in his first four years at the helm.
However, the Inquirer’s boom in readership can also be partly attributed to the breakout of the American Civil War in 1861. Due to public interest, the entire news industry thrived during the conflict, but the Philadelphia Inquirer in particular doubled down and took full advantage.
While the newspaper made no secret of its support for the Union, Harding endeavored to keep its coverage as neutral and as accurate as possible. This led to it becoming the newspaper of choice for soldiers on both sides, so much so that the federal government requested that the Inquirer produce a special edition specifically for its armies. Even the Confederate General Lee, noted for being suspicious of newspaper reports in general, is said to have trusted the Inquirer’s coverage, in spite of its support for the opposition.
The paper’s reliability arguably peaked at the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861. The first official bulletins from Washington and the subsequent releases from the other Philadelphia newspapers all declared a Union victory. This, however, was pure propaganda. Inquirer journalist Uriah Painter had witnessed the Confederate triumph with his own eyes, and published his authentic account accordingly. A resultant angry mob threatened to burn down the newspaper’s headquarters for what they judged to be sympathizing with the enemy.
The Reconstruction Era following the war was perhaps the darkest chapter in the history of the Philadelphia Inquirer. 1869’s Black Friday devastated the economy and William Harding fell seriously ill. By 1888, the Inquirer’s circulation had fallen to below even pre-war levels. While the population of Philadelphia had quadrupled since the Inquirer’s inception to almost a million people, the newspaper was at this point only reaching 5,000.
In 1899, the year of his death, William Harding sold the Philadelphia Inquirer to British-born James Elverson, a publisher who had also served as a telegraph operator during the war. The Inquirer was at this point viewed as a mere relic of a formerly valuable asset and institution. Elverson, though, was nothing if not ambitious. He implemented the most advanced newspaper equipment of the time throughout the Inquirer’s new building at 929 Chestnut Street, and also became the first publisher to run a pressroom entirely by electricity.
An issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer from April 19, 1865
The “new” Philadelphia Inquirer came hot off the press on March 1, 1899. In its lead editorial Elverson promised that the paper would be “moved by all the wide-awake spirit of the time and behind in nothing of interest to people who want to know what is going on every day and everywhere”. Elverson also harked back to the spirit of the publication’s Civil War coverage that had been lauded for its accuracy beyond its convictions, stating that this new iteration shall be “steadily and vigorously Republican in its political policy, but just and fair in its treatment of all questions”.
By the fall of that year, Elverson had launched a Sunday edition of the paper, as well as dropping the price and increasing its size. One of Elverson’s strongest beliefs was that classified advertisements sold newspapers. For a time, the Inquirer offered space in the “situations wanted” section for free, leading to a surge in popularity amongst those looking for work.
The Inquirer’s renaissance continued after Elverson’s death in 1911, at which time his son, James Elverson Jr., took charge. In 1925, the Inquirer moved to the brand new $10 million Elverson Building on the corner of Broad and Callowhill. The 18-story construction, which would later become known as the Inquirer Building, was heralded as the most modern and equipped newspaper plant in the world, and would remain the home of the paper until 2011.
Elverson Jr. dedicated his life to the Inquirer, so much so that the 12th and 13th floors of the Elverson Building initially formed his living quarters. It was in this apartment that he would die of a heart attack in 1929.
As Elverson himself was childless, the heir of the Inquirer was his sister Eleanor, now of the French ambassadorial Patenotre family. Based in France, neither Eleanor nor her son wished to run a Philadelphia-based newspaper, and sold the majority (51%) share to Cyrus Curtis in 1930 for $11 million. Curtis, who was already an octogenarian at the time of the purchase, died three years later. Shortly thereafter, in the midst of the Great Depression, Curtis-Martin Newspapers Inc. defaulted on their installments, and the Inquirer returned to the Patenotres.
Between 1934 and 1936, the Inquirer was guided by Charles A. Taylor, who had come aboard following the merger with the Curtis-Martin publication, the Public Ledger, six months prior. Since Elverson’s death, the Inquirer had fallen behind its now-sole morning rival, the Philadelphia Record, due to the continued decision by editorial to totally ignore the bleak ongoing economic situation. Still, in 1936 long-time Hearst associate Moses Annenberg saw an opportunity and purchased the paper for a reported $12 million.
Under Annenberg, the Inquirer’s fortunes changed almost immediately. By 1938, it had moved ahead of the Record once again, and broke the one million mark for its Sunday circulation. However, in 1939, Moses Annenberg pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Some suggested that were it not for the growing popularity of his Republican newspaper, he would have been let off with a fine. As it happened, he would die in prison three years later.
Following his death, Moses’s son Walter took control of the newspaper. The Inquirer continued to thrive, and in 1947, after the Record closed its doors, became Philadelphia’s final surviving morning newspaper. A year later, Annenberg expanded the Inquirer Building to accommodate the increase in circulation. The new space also incorporated Annenberg’s other properties, Seventeen and TV Guide magazines.
Though the numbers on paper looked attractive, Annenberg’s tenure was not without its struggles. In 1958, the Inquirer was hit with a strike over pay that would last for 38 days and decimate the paper’s workforce, with many reporters accepting buyouts. One of the few star reporters remaining, Harry Karafin, was found in 1967 to have spent the previous eight years withholding and suppressing stories of corruption and scandal in return for a monetary bribe from those with something to lose. Karafin was sent to prison for extortion, and the Inquirer’s circulation and advertising revenue continued to decline.
Philadelphia Inquirer from October 7, 1941
On New Year’s Day 1970, Knight Newspapers Inc. acquired the Philadelphia Inquirer for a fee of $55 million. Knight executives soon discovered that they had inherited a newspaper run by inexperienced staff and outdated equipment. In 1972, Eugene L. Roberts Jr. of the New York Times was brought in to steer the ship back in the right direction. Ten years later, Advertising Age magazine wrote:
The Philadelphia Inquirer, a little more than a decade ago a journalistic embarrassment, has become one of the country’s top papers, In fact, for its size and for what it attempts, it can be argued The Inquirer now can lay legitimate claim to being the country’s best city newspaper.
Time magazine echoed these sentiments two years later when selecting the Inquirer as one of its top ten dailies nationally, calling its transformation “one of the most remarkable turnarounds, in quality and profitability, in the history of American journalism”. Between 1975 and 1990 the Inquirer won 17 of its 20 Pulitzer Prizes, and more journalistic awards overall than any other newspaper.
By the late 1990s, none of the reporters from Roberts’ glory years remained, all having departed before retirement age, most to take up positions at other publications. Corporate interference was often cited as the reason for the staff exodus, with Knight Ridder (named such after Knight Newspapers’ merger with Ridder Publications) becoming overly concerned with profitability and cutting costs wherever possible.
Since the turn of the millennium, the Philadelphia Inquirer has continued to hemorrhage readership, largely due to the revolution of online news content with its unlimited number of sources and competitors. The Inquirer as a property has been passed between several corporate entities, enduring widespread job losses and shrinking circulation. In 2011, the Inquirer’s owner Philadelphia Media Network sold the Inquiry Building, the paper’s home of 86 years. And in 2012 the paper was sold to a group of local business leaders for $55 million, the same amount it had been worth over forty years earlier, and a mere ten percent of the amount it had been purchased for only six years earlier in 2006.
As of 2016, the Inquirer is owned by The Philadelphia Foundation, and is currently the largest newspaper in America to be operated by a non-profit organization.
Founded in 1829, the Philadelphia Inquirer is supposedly the third-oldest surviving daily newspaper in America, behind the New York Post (1801) and the Hartford Courant (1764, daily since 1836). Interestingly, from 1962 to 1975, the Inquirer laid claim to be the oldest daily newspaper in the country, incorporating this boast into its Page One flag. This was after the paper hired local historian Nicholas Wainwright to trace the origins of all of the publications absorbed lineally by the Inquirer, eventually ending with the Pennsylvania Packet, first published by John Dunlap on Oct 28, 1771.
However, after removing the claim from its header after thirteen years, the Inquirer also published an official retraction in 2009, acknowledging the two aforementioned publications, as well as its own mortality.
Below is a list of Philadelphia Inquirer circulation figures for both the daily and Sunday editions (print only):