Joseph Addison and his friend Richard Steele ushered in a new age of journalism in the 18th century with their papers The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian. They sold several thousand copies a day – and it’s estimated they were read by more than a tenth of all Londoners.
The news-sheets were founded, sourced and circulated in the bustling coffee houses of London where men met to share and discuss the news and opinions of the day.
They cost two pence to buy but were free to read for anyone who paid the penny admission fee to enter a coffee house. Tables in coffee houses like Button’s were covered with every available piece of media – newspapers, books, essays, prints and pamphlets. Because of the range of reading material and the admission charge they became known as “Penny Universities”.
Button’s was popular with literary figures of the age, as well as writers and journalists, who would listen to the debate and share the news with the rest of the country.
The newspapers were printed on both sides of a “single folio half sheet” and contained a mixture of news, opinion, letters and essays on various subjects of interest. Each publication was written by various contributors all using the same “nom de plume”.
Steele and Addison founded The Tatler in 1709 and contributors included Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. All the contributors wrote under the pen name “Isaac Bickerstaff”.
The Tatler published the kind of news and gossip overheard in coffee houses, with a good dash of fiction and exaggeration for effect. Steele pretended to place a reporter in London’s four most popular coffee houses to gather content and gossip: manners from White’s, literary notes from Will’s, notes of antiquarian interest from the Grecian Coffee House and news from St James’s Coffee House.
Two years later Steele and Addison liquidiated The Tatler and co-founded The Spectator, which proved even more successful.
The Spectator ran to 555 editions and was popular both with England’s emerging middle classes, merchants and traders, and American readers. James Madison read The Spectator avidly as a teenager, and a 12-volume set of essays from The Spectator was among Alexander Hamilton’s most prized possessions. Hamilton’s biographer Ron Chernow – whose book inspired the hit musical – says: “He frequently recommended these essays to young people to purify their writing style and inculcate virtue.”
In March 1713 The Guardian was launched as a successor to The Spectator. Addison was busy writing his most famous play Cato so early editions were edited by Steele. However, Addison took over July 1713, while his friend was campaigning to be elected to Parliament. Addison was a big believer in virtue and wanted to ensure The Guardian only told the truth.
Addison hit on the idea of creating a splendid Lion’s Head post-box to generate some good PR for the new paper and to encourage more people to contribute stories and comments.
He announced the plan for the Lion’s Head in the 98th edition of The Guardian on Friday, July 3, 1713, saying it was inspired by the lions' mouths he’d seen in Venice – where citizens in the 15th century could post anonymous complaints.
He wrote: "There will be under it a box, of which the key will be in my own custody, to receive such papers as are dropped into it. Whatever the Lion swallows I shall digest for the use of the public.”
Just over two weeks later the Lion’s Head was installed on the western wall inside Button’s Coffee House – and Addison said: “If my correspondents will do their parts in prompting him and supplying him with suitable provision I question not but the Lion's Head will be reckoned the best head in England.”
It was one of the first ways people were able to share contributions with a newspaper and from his innovation emerged newspaper leader columns and opinion and letters to the editor.
The influence of Addison and Steele in the history of journalism continues today. Although their original newspapers The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian are now long gone, their names are all used today by other publications.