The History of the Philadelphia Inquirer

Written, Researched and Compiled by
PPA member Gerry Wilkinson

Gerry is an active researcher and one of the leading broadcast historians on the Philadelphia market. He has supplied information to NBC, Time Magazine, Dick Clark's new "American Dreams" TV show, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News along with area television and radio stations. He was a television producer for WHYY-TV and Operations Manager for WDAS AM & FM. Gerry was co-creator of the Adult Urban Contemporary format started on WDAS-FM in 1971 and now used nationally. Wilkinson was also co-creator of "Unity Day," a major annual event held on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.


The Philadelphia Inquirer was founded on Monday, June 1, 1829. It was then called the Pennsylvania Inquirer and is now the third oldest surviving daily newspaper in the United States in its own right. However, through various mergers, the Inquirer can claim, and rightly so, that it is the oldest daily newspaper in America.

When the Inquirer started, the newspaper became the 8th daily paper in the city. Eleven years later, in 1840, the paper's publisher, Jesper Harding, pulled a coup. The paper became the first American newspaper to obtain serial rights for exclusive publication of several novels by Charles Dickens. At that time, the paper was published from a small print shop on Bank Alley, between Front and Second Streets. It also published on February 15, 1845, "The Raven" by Edgar Allen Poe (a resident of Philadelphia) printing under the heading of "A Beautiful Poem." By 1851, the firm of Jesper Harding had moved to 57 South Third Street in Center City.

Jesper Harding was a native Philadelphian, born in a free United States (not colonial) on Tuesday, November 5, 1799. He died here in the city he loved so much on Monday, August 21, 1865. After serving as an apprentice for area publisher Enos Bronson, he started his own business at the age of eighteen in 1818. Eleven years later, in 1829 he purchased the "Pennsylvania Inquirer," which had been publishing for just a few months. At that same time, he began printing Bibles. Harding later became the largest printer and publisher of "the Word of God" in the entire country. In 1825, he printed "The Italian Husband," a dramatic poem. It is one of his earliest known publishing works.

While Andrew Jackson as President of the United States was at odds with the directors of the Bank of the United States, Harding tried to defend the Bank while still supporting the nation's chief executive. It was, at best, a difficult undertaking. Jesper finally threw his support to the anti-Jackson factions and during the election of 1836 supported William Henry Harrison, the Whig Party candidate. The Democratic candidate, Martin Van Buren would win that election, but four years later, Harrison would defeat the incumbent Van Buren in a rematch. The Inquirer became well known for the political beliefs and its support of Whig Party candidates. Harding also owned a Trenton, New Jersey paper manufacturing plant.

When Harding merged the Inquirer with the Daily Courier, it was, at least for awhile (1839) known as "The Pennsylvania Inquirer and Daily Courier." Later (1845), it was called "The Pennsylvania Inquirer and National Gazette."

William White Harding (born in Philadelphia on November 1, 1830), Jesper's son joined his dad in the printing and publishing business in 1855. William assumed the reigns as Publisher of the newspaper in 1859. It was he who changed the publication's name to the Philadelphia Inquirer the next year (April 1860). However, Jesper didn't go out to pasture. President Abraham Lincoln appointed him "Collector of Internal Revenue." The Hardings, by the way, were no direct relation to 20th Century President Warren G. Harding.

William established routes of paper delivery in which the news carriers delivered the paper and collected the subscription price directly from the public. The paper faced intense competition but because of its exhaustive news coverage and modernizing equipment policies, it rose to the top. In 1863, it was one of the first in the nation to use a web fed rotary press. That enabled the Inquirer to have simultaneous printing on both sides of the paper. The physical size of the newspaper was also increased from what in the 19th century was called, "a folio to a quarto sheet."

In 1863, William Harding had a paper manufacturing plant in Manayunk, which was a suburb of Philadelphia in that era. He operated it until 1878. It was at that location where he introduced many new inventions and systems in the paper business. In 1876, at our national Centennial located in the city's Fairmount Park, Harding was presented with a medal for papermaking, binding, and printing. The Harding Company was the only exhibitor who made the paper, printed it, and bound it into the completed work.

During the War Between the States, The Philadelphia Inquirer was circulated among the union troops all along the field & fighting front lines. The newspaper has been reported to have provided one of the most objective news coverage of the conflict. It was definitely pro-union but was read by Confederate officers to find out where the northern troops were located.

In 1889, the news journal became the property of James Elverson, a well-known Philadelphia publisher. One of his first duties as owner was to cut the price of the newspaper in half; from two cents to a penny. He also began accepting classified advertising. It was he who launched huge, major promotions to enlarge the publication's circulation.

Born in England in 1838, James Elverson moved to America during 1847 and was educated in the public school system of Newark, New Jersey. He became a telegraph messenger, a telegraph operator, and later the manager. He consolidated offices in Newark and also at Associated Press. He was the manager of the American Telegraph office in the nation's capital during the Civil War. From 1865 until 1879, he was the proprietor of "the Philadelphia Saturday Night" publication. Elverson started "Golden Days" in 1880, a weekly for boys and girls.

That publication contained serials and articles by Oliver Optic, Harry Castleman and Horatio Alger, Jr. It also featured works by other popular writers for America's youth, and it was a highly successful financial venture. "Correspondent circles" were formed among subscribers, with clubs in all parts of the country.

Elverson lived in Philly until his death in 1911. The town Elverson, Pennsylvania was named after him in 1899. He was a delegate to the 1900 Republican Convention held in Exposition Auditorium in West Philadelphia, at 34th & Spruce. It was McKinley himself who dedicated the building three years earlier in 1897. However, it was a temporary structure and was replaced in 1931 by the Civic Center's Convention Hall, home of the 1940 GOP convention.

At the 1900 convention, Elverson voted for the re-election of President William McKinley. The city was mobbed with delegates and onlookers. Elverson's paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, had a sign that stretched across Broad Street and was made up of 2,000 electric light bulbs. It spelled out "PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER - LARGEST REPUBLICAN CIRCULATION IN THE WORLD." According to the paper, when the sign was turned on, "an involuntary outburst of exclamation of admiration arose from the onlookers."

Newspapers in Philadelphia during 1900 included the Public Ledger, which merged with the Inquirer on April 16, 1934. Also, there was the Philadelphia Tribune, started in 1884 as well as The Bulletin, founded in 1815 as "The American Sentinel, which at the century's turn, rose from last to first in circulation among the area's newspapers. There were also others like the Philadelphia Record, founded in 1870. It was at this time that Elverson decided to add a Sunday edition to his paper, the Inquirer. He also improved the publication's content. The circulation rose like a rocket.

Early in the 20th century, James, Jr. began managing the paper. He was widely called "Colonel Elverson" and by the twenties, the Philadelphia Inquirer was called "the Republican Bible of Pennsylvania." He, like his dad, was heavily involved in GOP politics. He was a national delegate for both the 1920 and 1924 party conventions.

In 1925, the Inquirer moved to its current location, straddling the Reading Railroad tracks at Broad and Callowhill in Center City Philadelphia, just a block north of Vine Street. The Inquirer is still located in that same structure, an eighteen story, white building, commonly called "The Inquirer Building." It is one of the most familiar landmarks in the Quaker City's skyline.

The structure was originally called "The Elverson Building" in honor of James, Sr. and was said to have cost ten million dollars to be erected. On the 12th and 13th floors, the Colonel had a duplex apartment for himself and his wife. They had a collection of paintings hanging on the walls, including five Corots. One piece of art, "Les Baigneuses des Iles Borromes," cost the Colonel $50,000. There were also sculptures and scores of antique and modern clocks. It was like a huge "mom and pop" operation with the owners living above the business.

On January 21, 1929, the paper's ownership headed in a different direction. No, it wasn't the stock market crash, it was the death of Colonel Elverson. Two Pennsylvania governors awarded his "rank" and he was said to be a "fun-loving rogue with a high appreciation of beautiful women and fine sipping whiskey."

The Elversons had no children, so the paper's ownership went to the Colonel's sister, Eleanor, who had married Jules Patenotre in 1894. He was the French Ambassador to the United States. When the Colonel died, his sister was a widow and living in Paris with her son Raymond, a small time French publisher.

Absentee owner Eleanor ordered cuts throughout the paper and instructed the business manager to send her $100,000 monthly from the paper's profits. A year later, Eleanor Elverson Patenotre sold the Philadelphia Inquirer to Cyrus Curtis, publisher of the Public Ledger for ten and a half million dollars. Curtis was 82 at the time and was dead a year and a half later.

His son-in-law, John Martin took over and merged the Ledger and Inquirer into "one great newspaper." However, it didn't work and ownership of the Inquirer (along with the Ledger) returned to the Patenotres in Paris. On July 31, 1936, Moses Annenberg (Walter's father) announced that he had purchased the Inquirer for four million dollars and assumption of $6.8 million dollars in debt. Many sources had placed the purchase price at $15,000,000. Some even said that Moses paid in cash with the money carried in two suitcases. The Annenbergs have always denied the $15 million price and the cash payment. Moses added a slogan to the paper's masthead, "An independent newspaper for all the people."

Moses Annenberg wrote the Inquirer's "new platform" which was:

To print the news accurately and fearlessly but never to be content with merely printing the news; to strive always to uphold the principles of our American democracy, to war relentlessly against alien "isms," to fight intolerance, to be the friend and defender of those who are persecuted and oppressed; to demand equal justice for employer and employed; to work for the advancement of industry in Delaware Valley and Pennsylvania; to oppose political hypocrisy and corruption; to fight and never cease fighting to maintain the sanctity of personal liberty and the inviolability of human rights.

Moses assisted by his sole son, Walter, already had a print empire with the Daily Racing Form and the Miami Tribune newspaper. The Annenbergs had no problem with spending money. They hired new staff and reporters and added features while purchasing their own printing plant.

Daily circulation of the Philadelphia Inquirer grew from around 280,000 copies in July 1936 to 345,000 copies two years later. Sunday readership rose from just under 670,000 to more than a million copies. During this same time period, the Philadelphia Record's circulation (the main morning competitor) dropped by 40%.

Moses Annenberg was indicted in 1939 for evading taxes on more than $3.2 million in income. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison, paying $10 million in penalties and interest.

Released in June of 1942, Moses Annenberg passed away a month later and Walter inherited the business. Walter became a shaker and mover in local politics and eventually an icon on the national level. President Richard Nixon, in 1969, appointed him Ambassador to Britain. He was sworn in on April 14, 1969. At that point, Walter Annenberg thought that he should sell the paper along with the Daily News (started on March 31, 1925 and purchased by Annenberg in 1957 for three million dollars from Philadelphia builder Matt McCloskey). He also elected to sell the WFIL stations, which was owned by Triangle Publications, Walter's company. The same corporation also owned TV Guide, Seventeen magazine and other interests.

The two papers were sold for 55 million dollars to John S. Knight's company, Knight Newspapers, Inc., shortly after the United States Senate approved Annenberg's ambassadorship. The papers had been losing advertising dollars and circulation to the Evening Bulletin, a major player in the newspaper business for most of that century. The paper became part of the Knight chain on December 31, 1969. Shortly after the New Year, Knight formed a subsidy, Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. to operate the two Philly papers. In 1974, Knight merged with Ridder Publishing to form one of America's largest newspaper publishing corporations, Knight-Ridder.

However, the sale of the Inquirer and Daily News wasn't the only time an Annenberg sold a newspaper to Knight. Late in 1933, Moses Annenberg and a small group of investors purchased the Miami Beach Tribune. They ran it for a quarter of a year and then suspended operations. In the summer of '34, Moses purchased the company's assets as the lone bidder in the firm's bankruptcy proceedings. He renamed it the Miami Tribune and started publishing again. Late in 1937, the Miami Herald (Annenberg's main competitor) was sold to John Knight, an Ohio publisher, for two and a half million dollars. Less than a month after purchasing the paper, Knight went to Moses Annenberg to see if the Tribune was for sale. On December 1, 1937, Knight paid Moses $600,000 for the Tribune that hadn't seen much black ink in years. Later that day, Knight padlocked the building and shut it down forever.

In January of 1982, the Evening Bulletin ceased operations leaving the Quaker City with only two dailies, the Inquirer and Daily News. By the mid-eighties, the Inquirer was one of the leading daily newspapers in the nation. This was partly because of Eugene L. Roberts Jr., who previously was National Editor of the New York Times. He became Executive Editor here in Philly.

In November of 1995, they started a website making their content available to the world and 23 months later, in October of 1997, Knight-Ridder started The Real Cities network. It is the site for the company's newspaper websites, city-resource sites and other locally based organizations. Today Real Cities includes non-Knight-Ridder groups like the Belo Corporation and Central Newspapers.

In its own right, the Inquirer is the third oldest surviving daily in America but when you take into consideration other earlier papers that have merged and re-merged over the years, the Philadelphia Inquirer can claim to be America's oldest daily newspaper. Not the oldest surviving daily but the oldest in the entire United States.

Its earliest incarnation was the Pennsylvania Packet with its first issue dating from Monday, October 28, 1771. No, not the sailing passenger ship of the era (called The Pennsylvania Packet) that quite often made port in our city, but the newspaper. By 1790, Philadelphia was the second largest city in the United States with a population of 28,522, according to that year's census. The newspaper was 11" x 18" and folded in half to give the reader four reading sides of 9x11.

The Packet was the work of Philadelphia printer John Dunlap. He was probably most famous for his printing of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Colonial and Revolutionary era Newspapers were normally not carried in the mails but by the postmen as a favor. Remember that the money of one state was had questionable value in another. Newspaper circulations were low with a thousand subscribers being huge. They were slow to pay and the advertisers were not very plentiful. It was not an easy business.

John Dunlap was born in Ireland and came to Philadelphia in 1757. He was an apprentice to his uncle and learned the printing business. By 1768, John acquired his uncle's shop, and on Monday, October 28, 1771 he began publishing a weekly newspaper, "The Pennsylvania Packet," sometimes called "The General Advertiser." The paper soon became a reliable source of news about the proceedings of the Continental Congress and the progress of the War for Independence. On Tuesday, September 21, 1784, Dunlap started issuing the Packet as a daily newspaper, the first in the United States, according to the Library of Congress.

Although Dunlap did not become the official printer of the Continental Congress until 1778, it was in Dunlap's shop in July of 1776 that the first copies of the Declaration of Independence were printed. Continuing to serve the ever-changing needs of the government, Dunlap and his partner David Claypoole officially printed, the Constitution of the United States for use by the Constitutional Convention, and later for the first time, according to the Library of Congress, published it in the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser (a name it used since it became a daily) on Wednesday, September 19, 1787.

Every issue was loaded with items and stories of interest of that era. It included local and national plus international news. Back then, it may have taken months for "news" to reach the public. The stories were brought in from the latest sailing ships to make port in Philadelphia. Many times, newspapers from other cities were delivered and the news events lifted from those sources.

The Pennsylvania Packet sometimes contained articles written by Philanthropos, which was a pen name for Philly's own Benjamin Franklin. Dunlap and Claypoole were soldiers under General Washington's command. In the post-War of Independence years, the Pennsylvania Packet was considered to be "one of the most important and influential publications in America." After a series of name changes including Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet, the General Advertiser, Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser, Dunlap and Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser and Claypoole's American Daily Advertiser, the paper was sold in 1800 to Zachariah Poulson. The new publisher was born in Philadelphia in 1761 and passed away in 1844 and was Librarian at Philadelphia's Library Company until 1806. The paper continued to be published under different names including Poulson's American Daily Advertiser.

In 1839, it was sold to North American Publishing and continued to be printed as a separate publication until 1850. At that time, it was absorbed by "The North American," a Philadelphia based newspaper which started publishing in 1829 (the same year as the Inquirer). By 1926, the North American had merged with the Philadelphia Public Ledger and was published as "The Public Ledger and North American." Cyrus Curtis, a Philadelphia-based publisher, purchased the Ledger (started on March 25, 1836 as a penny newspaper to compete with the Daily Transcript started the previous year) in 1913 from fellow Quaker City printer Adolph S. Ochs, a legend in the business.

Ochs was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1858. He started in the industry as a "newsboy" in Knoxville, Tennessee where he quickly worked his way up to a printer's apprentice and then a composer. By 1878, at the age of 20, he was publisher of "the Chattanooga Times." In 1896, he took over the reigns of the faltering New York Times and through his efforts built it to be one of the greatest newspapers in the entire world. He also acquired the Philadelphia Times and the city's Public Ledger. It was his decision that merged the two papers into one. Ochs was different than the sensational publishers of that era. He stressed nonpartisanship in every aspect of his papers. Many have referred to his approach as "clinical reporting." For 35 years, from 1900 until his death in 1935, Ochs served on the board of directors of the Associated Press and was part of their executive committee.

Cyrus Hermann Kotzschmar Curtis was born in Portland, Maine in 1850. He passed away in Philly in 1933. His newspaper empire, which was never really that successful, was doing business under the name of Curtis-Martin Newspapers, Inc. His first business endeavor was in Boston as publisher and owner of "The People's Ledger." He moved to Philadelphia where he started "The Tribune and Farmer" in 1879. His wife, the former Louisa Knapp, wrote the lady's column of that publication. It became so successful that it became the basis for Curtis' first magazine, "The Ladies' Home Journal", which he founded in 1883 as "The Ladies Journal."

In just seven years, by 1890, the year he founded the Curtis Publishing Company, the magazine had become the advertising choice of makers of household goods, fashions and other items primarily bought by women. He looked for the same success for a men's magazine. Curtis decided to purchase the former "Pennsylvania Gazette" owned at one time by Benjamin Franklin. That was in 1897 and he renamed the publication, "The Saturday Evening Post." In 1911, he purchased "Country Gentleman."

Seven years after gaining control of The Ledger, Curtis also purchased in 1920, a newspaper founded in 1857, "The Philadelphia Press." By 1924, Curtis had added the New York Evening Post to his holdings. During 1928, Edward Filene, a Boston merchant, who introduced "Filene's Basement" at William Filene and Sons, the company started by his dad, tried to persuade Curtis to purchase the Vienna based newspaper "'Neue Freie Presse" but Cyrus declined. He told Filene that he had no interest in new activities. Three years later, he changed his mind and purchased "The Philadelphia Inquirer." It eventually ended up with the Annenberg family who published the paper for a third of a century.

In recent years, partially because of news access on the Internet, the Inquirer's daily circulation has dropped to slightly under 345,000. It had a daily run of 515,000 copies at one time. Now, it no longer ranks in the top 15 for U.S. daily papers. The Sunday edition, however, has kept its circulation high with over 762,000 readers. It ranks fifth among all American publications. The Philadelphia Inquirer serves five counties in Pennsylvania and three in southern New Jersey. Inquirer stories are distributed to 155 daily newspapers on the Knight Ridder-Tribune international wire service, which reaches newspapers with 19.3 million subscribers daily and 24.1 million on Sundays.

The paper's publisher has estimated that in an average week, over two million people read the paper in its various print forms or online. They have received many awards for their outstanding reporting including Pulitzer Prizes and dozens from the Philadelphia Press Association.

On Saturday, November 2, 2002, The Philadelphia Inquirer announced:

The Philadelphia Inquirer had the fifth-highest daily circulation gain among the country's 75 largest newspapers and the third-highest Sunday gain, according to figures released yesterday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. For the six months ended September 30th, the Inquirer's circulation grew by 8,739 copies daily to 373, 892. On Sundays, circulation grew 15,550 to 747,969.

From the official archives of the Philadelphia Press Association
Written, compiled and researched by Philadelphia Press Association member Gerry Wilkinson
All Rights Reserved