Circulation numbers are probably the most frequently requested newspaper statistic. Unfortunately, scholars consider circulation figures for this period to be generally unreliable.1 Almost all circulation figures were self-reported by the newsaper publishers themselves, who were often motivated to inflate their numbers, since higher circulation translated into higher advertising revenue. By 1913, advertising agencies had organized to create the Audit Bureau of Circulations for the purpose of verifying publishers' claims, but during this period there were no systematic attempts to verify publisher claims.
The Decennial Censuses are useful sources of statistical information on newspapers, not only for their comprehensiveness, but also because they enable comparisons between places (states, counties, cities) and time periods. Much of the data collected prior to the 1850 census is not comparable to subsequent data,2 but the 1840 census does include some newspaper-related information, and is included here. In addition to circulation, the censuses can tell you how many newspapers were issued from a place, how many printing presses were operated, the number of people employed, the amount of capital invested, and more. Data set 3 includes some comparisons for 1810, 1828, 1840, and 1850.
Kennedy, J.C.G. Catalogue of the Newspapers and Periodicals Published in the United States: Showing the Town and County in which the Same are Published, How Often Issued, Their Character, and Circulation. New York: John Livingstone, 1852. Based on the 1850 census. A directory of newspapers, that provides circulation and political affiliation for each newspaper. Organized alphabetically by state, then county, then city, and then newspaper title. Available online: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/api/volumes/oclc/24465713.html.
North, Simon D. History and Present Condition of the Newspaper and Periodical Press of the United States: With a Catalogue of the Publications of the Census Year. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1884. In four parts. First part is a history of newspaper publishing in the United States, beginning with the establishment of the first printing press in 1639 (though the first newspaper did not appear until 1690) through 1880. Based largely on statistical data culled from the censuses, and other government information. The second part is a collection of statistical tables, primarily covering the year 1880, with some tables presenting time series back to 1850. Part three is a catalogue of newspapers publisehd during the year 1879. Part four is a chronological listing of newspapers, organized by state, county, and then date. Available online: http://www.archive.org/details/cu31924083814453.
DeBow, James D.B. Statistical View of the United States, Embracing its Territory, Population--White, Free Colored, and Slave--Moral and Social Condition, Industry, Property and Revenue: The Detailed Statistics of Cities, Towns, and Counties: Being a Compendium of the Seventh Census, to Which are Added the Results of Every Previous Census, Beginning with 1790. Washington, D.C.: A.O.P. Nicholson, 1854. Also based on the 1850 census. The newspaper statistics compiled here are less detailed than what's available in the data sets above, but this book is useful for its broad overview of education, literacy, number of libraries, and so forth. Newspapers are treated on pages 154-158. Available online: http://name.umdl.umich.edu/AJB5448.0001.001.
North, Simon D. A Century of Population Growth: From the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth, 1790-1900. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909. Newspapers are covered only for the census year 1790, so this would be a good source for information about American newspapers in the decade prior to the period covered by this tutorial. Available online: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/api/volumes/oclc/165897.html.
The history of antebellum newspapers is closely tied to the history of the U.S. Postal Service.3. This data visualization demonstrates the growth of the U.S. Postal Service. Created by Derek Watson based on data from the United States Postal Service Historian's Postmaster Finder and the United States Geological Survey's Geographic Names Information System.
1. Carolyn Stewart Dyer, "Census Manuscripts and Circulation Data for Mid-19th Century Newspapers," Journalism History 7, no. 2 (Summer, 1980): 47. Dyer points out that some scholars believe circulation figures in newspaper directories like Rowell's and Ayer's can be trusted from the 1880s.
2. Alexander J. Field, "Newspapers and Periodicals: Number and Circulation By Type, 1850-1967," in Historical statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present, Millennial ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 4:1055.
3. Richard B. Kielbowicz, News in the Mail: The Press, Post Office, and Public Information, 1700-1860s ( New York: Greenwood, 1989).