The Spectator, a single sheet daily newspaper published by two Englishmen - Joseph Addison and Richard Steele - from March 01, 1711 to December 06, 1712 - was a pioneering innovation of its times. What prompted Addison and Steele to start The Spectator? How did they go about it?
History Magazine provides the background (emphasis mine).
Each issue consisted of one long essay, printed on a single sheet of foolscap in double columns on both sides. This turned out to be the right format to appeal to the taste of a relatively new affluent class with an appetite for literature, but without the inclination to read lengthy books on the subjects treated in The Spectator.
The Spectator was narrated by the voice of a character calling himself “Mr. Spectator”, a man who describes himself as taciturn, a poor conversationalist who would rather observe and report than get involved in the scenes that he relates. As Mr. Spectator himself explains, “I have often been told by my Friends that it is Pity so many useful Discoveries which I have made, should be in the Possession of a Silent Man. For this Reason therefore, I shall publish a Sheet-full of Thoughts every Morning, for the benefit of my Contemporaries.” Through him we are introduced to his small circle of friends, each of whom is a kind of social-type writ small. Among these are Sir Roger de Coverley, the country squire and Tory foxhunter; Will Honeycomb, the gallant man-about-town; Sir Andrew Freeport, merchant and man of affairs; and finally there is Captain Sentry, the retired soldier.
The advent of the 1700s saw a rebirth of literary culture in England after a perceived slump during the previous century. During the 1600s, English letters seemed to have taken a bad turn. The English Civil War (1642-49) was followed by the closing of the playhouses during the Puritan period. The settling of events with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 did not seem to improve things. A tendency towards crude behavior and dissoluteness seemed to pass from Charles II’s court into English public life generally. However, by the end of the 1600s things began to look up, and especially later during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14). The English saw themselves as experiencing a cultural flowering comparable to Rome’s Golden Age during the reign of the Emperor Augustus.
It was fine to say that England was experiencing a literary golden age, but only a privileged few had the education or leisure to participate in this high Augustan culture. All this enlightenment had yet to reach the common people. This role was filled admirably by The Spectator. Part of its success in this lay in the fact that the common people wanted to be enlightened.
The expansion of England’s economy resulted in an increasingly affluent but non-aristocratic middle class. This class seemed to have a voracious appetite for reading material. In previous centuries those who could read tended do so intensively; in other words they read only a few works (mainly religious ones) repeatedly. During the 1700s people began to read extensively, reading many different works. In France, where new books needed to be licensed, there were some 300 legally authorized books published in 1750. By the 1780s that number had jumped to around 1,600. Britain had about 25 periodicals being published in 1700. By 1780 there were 158.
The Spectator was one of the first literary endeavors to make a deliberate effort to appeal to a female readership. As Addison remarked in the issue of 12 March 1711, “there are none to whom this Paper will be more useful, than to the Female World. I have often thought there has not been sufficient Pains taken in finding out proper Employments and Diversions for the Fair ones.” It was part of The Spectator’s mission to remedy this neglect.
Much of this attention to women took the form of a paternalistic moralism that would be little appreciated today. Nonetheless, the women of 1711 were flattered simply to be noticed by a literary culture that had hitherto been content to completely ignore them or treat them as mere objects of male desire.
Credit for The Spectator’s popularity must also go to the beautiful prose of Addison and Steele. Gentle wit and a polished style made even the difficult ideas of Locke and Newton accessible to a reader of average education. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) admitted in his Autobiography that The Spectator was his model for stylish writing.
The introduction to a book of selected essays from The Spectator describes what Addison and Steele the founders of The Spectator set out to do, and how they went about it (emphasis mine).
The Spectator was issued daily— the Friday edition confining itself to literary matter, the Saturday to moral and religious; and it aimed to accomplish even a greater work than its predecessor [The Tatler] had done. More and more attention was given to forming and raising the standard of public opinion in "manners, morals, art, and literature." The editors hoped to meet the needs of all people, but especially the needs of women. Addison realized that through them must come the betterment of society and there the reform must begin.
It is a well-recognized failing with a would-be-reformer to aim above the comprehension of the class he wishes to help; and instead of moving on their plane of thought, to expect them to come up to his. Addison made no such mistake. He knew instinctively the people, descended to their level, and in a light, story-telling form, gave them what their minds were able to grasp. As they were not a reading people, as they were not interested in homilies on right living, nor capable of deep, logical thinking, they must be reached by simple discussions on what occupied most of their attention— the little everyday affairs of life. They had to be led as one leads a child— by arousing the curiosity which eagerly asks, "What did they do next?" To most intellectual men, and certainly to illiterate ones, nothing appeals so strongly as the loves and hates, the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures, and the thoughts of their fellow mortals.
And Addison and Steele based their plan of the Spectator on this knowledge of human longing. They present an imaginary club, the members of which are typical people, and with a thread of narrative skilfully binding them together, suggest the lessons they wish to impart, through the experiences of Ned Softly, Tom Folio, Sir Andrew Freeport, Sir Roger de Coverley, or through the Spectator himself— under which name we find Addison; and the English public read and profited. It is safe to say that no publication with equal circulation, ever benefited more people than did the Spectator.
A Professor of English has this to say of the readers of The Spectator and Joseph Addison, its prime writer (emphasis mine).
It was to the credit of the readers of the Spectator that the demand for the paper increased month by month in spite of the absence of scandal or party strokes. The Saturday papers were usually of a serious cast, suitable as a preparation for Sunday; it was this series of Saturday essays, some of which contained excellent hymns by Addison, that led to his being called "a parson in a tye-wig." Addison divided his readers into the mercurial and the saturnine, and his aim was to find entertainment for both classes, and also to cause the sprightly reader to find himself sometimes engaged unawares in serious thought; and the thoughtful man to be insensibly betrayed into mirth.
What prompted Addison and Steele to start The Spectator and how they did what they did, is a lesson for our times in India, with a people hungry for knowledge.