Law in the 1800s

In late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, university-based law schools were not nearly as populous, powerful and prestigious as they are today.

They were admittedly not new - law had been taught at Harvard as early as 1815, and the university had operated a separate law school since 1817.

Neither were university-based law schools all that rare any more; by the late 1880s, there were over 45 of them.

For all their age and their numbers, however, the schools were, by and large, marginal institutions. They were marginal professionally: universally into the 1890s, and in many regions of the country through the 1900s, most American lawyers still received their education by the more traditional means of apprenticeship.

In this context, formal legal education was seen (at best) as a supplement to office training, not a substitute for it.

University-based law schools were also marginal academically. Many (such as Harvard) existed on the intellectual and physical outskirts of university campuses. Most counted for little in their universities' overall academic reputations, and sometimes for less in their budgets.

In this context, ambitious law professors sought ways to advance their institutions, their students and themselves. They had several implicit (and sometimes explicit) goals. First, they wanted to provide their students with a superior form of legal training that would positively distinguish the latter from students trained only in law firms.

Second, they wanted to develop their ties with the practicing bar in a way that would increase the legitimacy of their schools and enhance their own reputations in the professional legal community which they served and in which most of them still worked part-time. Third, they wanted to strengthen their connection with alumni whose support promoted law school solvency, professional goodwill and the employment of law graduates.

Fourth, they wanted to improve their academic status in their respective university settings.

While legal academics were pursuing these goals, contemporary publishing technology was changing. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, new high-speed rotary printing presses came into general use.

At the same time, paper-making processes accelerated thanks to the widespread substitution of ground woodpulp for rags.

Together, these developments pushed printing and paper costs to unprecedentedly low levels.

Taking advantage of the savings, established and new publishers flooded a waiting American market with inexpensive books and magazines. In 1880, 2076 new books were published in the United States; in 1884, over 4000; in 1895, over 5400.

There were approximately 3300 American periodicals in publication in 1885; by 1890 that number had risen to more than 4400; by 1895, there were approximately 5100 being produced across the country.

The explosion in the available volume of printed matter became the subject of public comment, and even public concern. In 1895, the editor of The Nation observed that the "multiplication and cheapening of periodical literature within the past five years have been extraordinary."

In 1896, the editor of another journal concluded (somewhat ironically, perhaps), that "this is a book-enslaved generation. Too many books, too many newspapers, too many magazines - too little reflection, too little originality."

Please do not bring 21st Century law onto the game. Investigate and research.


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