The term “penny press” can have several different meanings, including the original historic meaning of a specific type of newspaper commonly hawked in the streets during the 1800s. All of these meanings revolve around the penny, a small unit of coin which is common to many currencies. Pennies are usually among the smallest unit of currency, and the term “penny” is sometimes used to imply that something is inexpensive or of low value.
Historically, a penny press was a tabloid newspaper put out for the price of a single penny. These newspapers began to appear around the 19th century as competitors for editions which cost slightly more. The newspaper was classically made with cheaper materials, and the staff minimized the use of engravings and other expensive features to keep costs lows. Originally, these penny presses were simply meant to appeal to people who were tight with their money, but eventually they began to fill a specific social niche, thanks to their low cost.
Members of the working and lower classes who could not afford newspapers could afford to buy a penny press, so these papers began covering social issues of interest to these groups, providing news coverage where none had existed before. Many penny presses also dealt with political issues, and they included commentary on emerging political and social issues. Although these newspapers were cheap and sometimes sensational, they were a valued source of news for many people who would have otherwise been deprived of information.
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Penny presses have largely fallen by the wayside, but some small publishers refer to themselves as penny presses. These publishers produce chapbooks and other small volumes which are often inexpensive and produced in small editions, and it can be difficult to obtain the publications of a penny press outside of the area where it is located. A variety of authors may be carried by a penny press, and the press usually offers mail order services, sometimes selling everything by mail rather than going through distributors.
People may also refer to a press a penny machine as a “penny press.” These machines are designed to produce novelties which are made by subjecting a penny to immense pressure and imprinting it with a design. Favorite tourist spots often have a penny press which people can use to make a cheap souvenir, and some people like to collect flattened and stamped pennies from various sites they have visited.