Thomas Fitzgerald jumped into Philly journalism and never looked back. He liked to write; loved to lead, and insisted on challenging the status quo.
The name of the “racy and spicy” newspaper Fitzgerald started as a weekly in 1847 and soon grew into a daily changed again and again: The City Item, Fitzgerald’s City Item, The Philadelphia City Item, The Evening Item. Everyone always knew it as The Item—and that it stood for the little guy. Fitzgerald promised to be “constantly aggressive in all that relates to the equality of Man before the Law and ever striving to break down barriers of Prejudice and Caste.”
“If a house is burnt in this city, or a store robbed, or an omnibus upset, or a fiddler hissed, or an actor applauded, look for it in The City Item. If a poor fellow goes in two with a railroad car on Market Street, or a gentleman of aldermanic rotundity falls down in his own street in a quiet, comfortable, respectable fit of apoplexy, look for it in The City Item. If a fair maiden is lured from the pathway of peace to the pathway of vice by a fellow with a huge pair of moustaches, look for it in The City Item. If an elopement takes place between one man’s wife and another wife’s husband, look for it in The City Item.”
Fitzgerald, who very much looked the part, had, demanded reforms aimed at improving the common good: removing gates from public squares, reforming the street numbering system, upgrading the police and fire departments with telegraphs, building public baths and establishing a city morgue. He fought to demolish the sheds that ran up the center of Market Street since the 17th century and to replace them with modern market buildings. He “ridiculed the red-brick monotony of the city’s architecture” and campaigned for music in the schools.
In June 1869, Fitzgerald called for mixed-race baseball. “Such a game would be interesting and well patronized,” he argued, asking “Who will put the ball in motion?” and signing off as “A Lover of the Game.” (A few months later, Fitzgerald got his wish, serving as the umpire of the game—the first of its kind– between the African-American Pythians and the Caucasian Olympics.)
Circulation of The Item grew until it hit its stride in the 1880s “as a crusading penny paper with a press run that sometimes reached 200,000 copies.” By 1890, nearing the age of 70, Fitzgerald retired handing the operation over to his sons. Harrington Fitzgerald became managing editor.
In 1894, Inquirer editor Charles H. Heustis described The Item as a successful afternoon paper with a Sunday edition that “especially reaches the working classes.” He observed that “Item boys are seen in every quarter of the city, and when the Item wagons are drawn up in a line on Seventh Street, at the hour of publication, they form an extended procession.” That procession led to circulation that bypassed Heustis’ own paper.
As we said in an earlier post, no less than a dozen dailies started up in the city between the mid-1830s and 1880, and all were in the same neighborhood. Next door to The Item was The Call. Just across Ranstead was The Evening Star. Diagonally across 7th Street was The Daily News. The Evening Bulletin, The Public Ledger and the Philadelphia Demokrat, a German-language newspaper were found within a block to the east. Half a block to the south at Chestnut were The Press, and The North American. (The Press Annex still stands at 7th and Sansom.) Further to the west on Chestnut was The Times Printing House.
Competition was stiff. But by 1901, John Henry Hepp notes, The Item had them all beat every day of the week. The Sunday Item surpassed The Philadelphia Inquirer by more than 17,000 copies with circulation of 184,009.
But winning wasn’t enough for the feisty, fastidious Harrington Fitzgerald. The following year, in a full-page advertisement in N.W. Ayer & Son’s American Newspaper Annual Fitzgerald boasted “THE ITEM LEADS; OTHERS FOLLOW” and presented his own, higher circulation numbers for each day of the entire previous year. Fitzgerald challenged his competition to join in on a bet worth as much as $40,000 for the newspaper with the highest circulation in Philadelphia.
By 1911, with the bet still untouched, Fitzgerald increased the stakes to $120,000. Still, no takers came forward.
Behind the bluff, The Item was losing ground. After Thomas Fitzgerald’s departure, the paper gradually lost its spirit, its talent, its focus and its popularity. Circulation plummeted from 200,000 to a paltry 10,000 and in 1914, it folded. Harrington Fitzgerald went from bragging in print to selling at auction. On January 12, The Item’s two buildings, five Hoe presses, 12 linotype machines, its fittings and furniture—all of it went to the highest bidder.
(Additional sources include: American Newspaper Journalists, 1873-1900. Perry J. Ashley, ed. (Gale Research Co., 1983); “Executor’s Sale, Estate of Thomas Fitzgerald, Deceased,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 3, 1914; “Fitzgerald Estate,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, July 12, 1914.)
2 replies on “Want a Better Philadelphia? “Look for it in The City Item.””
Fascinating story. What caused its decline and demise? Profligacy? Incompetence? What?
I really wish we knew what caused the collapse of The City Item, this major urban newspaper a century ago. From working on this piece, there are a few things we do know: They were sued for damages by a pedestrian injured by one of their delivery wagons. The second generation of management focused (perhaps too much) on the ends – their circulation numbers – as opposed to the means – the journalistic content. The estate of founder Thomas Fitzgerald remained unsettled for more than 20 years after his death in 1891. And, as I wrote in a post about the Evening Telegraph, “Between 1913 and 1930, [Cyrus] Curtis, who had been hugely successful as a publisher of magazines, purchased five Philadelphia dailies, three of which he would fold.” Perhaps this is a case of too much expansion, too fast, and the the bubble burst in the 1910s. (Here’s the earlier post: https://phillyhistory.wpengine.com/index.php/2012/04/never-a-dull-moment-the-rough-and-tumble-history-of-philadelphia-newspaper-publishing/.)