In the 16th and 17th centuries news publishing sprang up all over Europe as a symptom of and factor in the modernizing process and at the same time as the centralized nation-states. The preconditions and main stages of the introduction of news in print for public use are defined including the diffusion pattern. In the Scandinavian countries this development followed the common model of the introduction first of newsbooks, then of regular, although primitive, newspapers. In this paper the development in the Scandinavian countries until around 1720 is described in analytical terms of newspaper typology, the emergence of the modern nation state of centralized authority and absolute monarchy, and social changes. Further, contents of newsbooks and newspapers at different stages of this process are analyzed. Similarities and differences between the two main models - the Danish and the Swedish - are discussed.
The modern newspaper is in principle universal, i.e. it describes all manners of events and affairs in the whole world. It comments on these matters. It prints letters to the editor, weather forecasts, advertisements, etc., etc. - and it appears every day or at least 5 days a week. In this sense, no newspapers appeared in Scandinavia before 1830 or so.
And these traits are not essential. To constitute a newspaper it suffices that a publication is periodical, reproduced technically (printed) in identical series, distributed to anyone willing to pay for it, and that the contents report recent events of general interest. In short: is a mass medium.
This means, however, that some preconditions have to be met if a newspaper press may be allowed to exist: Printing, paper, reading skills, and a mail system to secure the acquisition of news from home and abroad. These preconditions simply did not exist in Europe before the 1440'es, when Gutenberg invented a practicable method of technical printing. More or less simultaneously messenger services on a regular basis were instituted, in the first round only for the use of kings, armies, universities or such, but here often other letters could be delivered, too. Mail services for public use were instituted across Europe from the beginning of the 16th century and it is exactly at this point in time that the number of newspapers grew fast, spreading from the great centers of power or trade to the periphery.
The most important factor, however, was the interest in news, the need for news, if newspapers were to emerge. In a sense, this need has always existed, but the itinerant storytellers satisfied the interest of the commons as private letters satisfied the kings. The possibility of receiving news on a regular basis came into being with the invention of printing, but it lasted more than one and a half century before anyone started newspaper publishing. Candidates to the position as the oldest newspaper are a "Nieuwe Tijdinghe" in Antwerpen 1605, a "Relation" in Strassburg 1609, or an "Aviso Relation" in Wolfenbüttel in the same year.
Another important change was the substitution of absolute monarchy ruling modern nation-states for the old feudal order and the concomitant change from a legal system based on traditional, local practices to one characterized by impersonal law enforced through a centralized state and an independent judiciary. Also, the administration became professionalized and gradually lost the ties to traditional groupings, becoming dependent on the central power. Generally, social mobility increased as acquired skills became increasingly important compared to hereditary status.
Even more basically, the structure of society changed dramatically. This was a period of mass urbanization, the first instalment of change from a subsistence economy based on agriculture or fishing towards the modern system of division of labour as craftsmen diversified and multiplied, introducing new techniques such as printing; the appearance of trade in new, exotic merchandize fetched in hitherto unimagined quantities from the mythical Indies or Cathay. Or, in other words, the transition from a barter to a money economy.
In short, this was the initial period of modernization and the emergence of civil society. Relative prosperity grew and spread and the general levels of skills rose throughout the population combined with rising numbers of people able to read. Nation-states arose around centralized authority necessitating knowledge of the decision at the centers. At the same time wars racked the whole of Europe, fuelled by religious issues, competition for natural resources or dynastic considerations, the Thirty Years' War 1618-48 being the most universal and destructive until then. No wonder people craved news. And no wonder that the nation-state and the press arose at the same time in Europe.
The other element forming a starting-point was the booklet - newsbook - relating one extraordinary event in detail, in some cases combining a few related reports. These were printed when reports came in and usually dealt with battles, catastrophes (earthquakes, floods or conflagrations), royal events (crownings or marriages) or supernatural phenomena.
This latter group is of special interest as they usually represent the older world-view: The monsters, deformed births, comets or locusts with signs on their wings are almost always described in terms of awe and interpreted in terms of God's warning to sinful mankind. The vocabulary is often straight out of Revelations. But the point of these booklets was to inform the general public of some recent event - the current interest. The earliest printing job finished in Denmark was a 28-page report on the Turkish siege to Rhodes in 1480 - Descriptio Obsidionis Urbis Rhodiæ. It was printed in 1482, when the news was still hot by the standard of those times. This story had it all: War and the fell enemy of the Christian world. The use of Latin is not so curious as it may sound, as most people able to read at all at the time knew Latin, which was the language of the learned world. In this way the potential public was enlarged, not being confined to Denmark.
The newspaper resulted from amalgamating the mix of numerous recent news items, derived from the letters, with the public accessibility of newsbooks. They were small, of indifferent print quality and primitive in their journalism, if one may use a grand word in this connection. Like the newsbooks, but unlike the private written news, they were subject to censorship. Authorities were quick to grasp both the threat and possibility inherent to the newspapers. On the one hand they kept a firm grasp of the contents to avoid the actions of opponents or their own political secrets to become known. On the other hand newspaper reports properly edited became efficient instruments in their own interest or propaganda tools for the use of the new absolute monarchs.
As the languages of Denmark proper, Norway, and Sweden were quite similar - more so than today - but the language of Southern Schleswig and Holstein was German, only Denmark had linguistically mixed conditions that influenced the language distributions of the press. In Finland, the language of the Swedish colonizers dominated over the indigenous language, which is no kin to any other Scandinavian language.
In terms of religion, there was no difference: All were protestant of Lutheran persuasion. The Reformation in Sweden and Finland dates from 1527, in Denmark-Norway from 1536.
The states were ruled by a king in conjunction with the aristocracy, but the situations in this respect were different in Denmark and Sweden. In Denmark the king was elected by the aristocracy among the heirs of the former king, and each king had to sign a coronation charter of varying strictness as to the king's rights and duties. In 1660 Denmark was created an absolute, hereditary monarchy by king Frederik III, a system lasting until the free constitution of 1848/49. In Sweden, the kingship became hereditary already in 1544, and the monarchy was near-absolute until 1720, when the Assembly of the Estates became more influential, rather efficiently curbing the kings' power. This lasted until 1772, but the period of absolute monarchy lasted only from then until 1809.
The situation was not one of mutual friendship, however. Denmark and Sweden fought numerous wars during the period from 1500 to 1721. The most important bone of contention was Scania etc., which Sweden gained by conquest in 1660. This region had fertile soil on a par with that of Denmark, but more important was the geopolitical reality of being the eastern side of the Sound. Until 1660 Denmark controlled the Sound and thus the rich revenues filling the kings' coffers from duties on merchant ships passing through. Further, the herring fishing in the Sound brought in large export incomes.
To complicate matters further, both Denmark and Sweden - the latter with the better succes - interfered in the Thirty Years' War on the Lutheran side, but in different alliances and constantly suspicious of and vying with each other.
Economically, Denmark at the time was the only country with a relatively reliable and high-yielding agriculture and additionally had abundant fishing. Mountainous Norway was poor in agriculture, especially grain production, and before 1700 only partly made up the economic deficiency through fishing, whaling and some mining for silver, copper and iron. After around 1700 incomes from forestry and mining grew dramatically and Norway gained upon Denmark. The importance of fishing lay not only in the production of food for local consumption, but also in the exports of dried or salted cod and herring which sold well in catholic southern Europe for consumption on fast days. Sweden's agriculture was not very efficient either, being hampered by infertile soil, cold and short seasons of growth. But mining was quite lucrative, the chief products being the militarily important metals iron and copper.
The situation may be summed up as follows: Both Denmark and Sweden were developing into modern nation-states during the critical period with the advent of absolute monarchy (somewhat earlier on a stable basis in Denmark), while the rest of Scandinavia was dependent on these two centers and generally less developed. In terms of military power, i.e. horse and foot, Sweden was the stronger power in Scandinavia, but Denmark had the better of Sweden in terms of naval power, wealth and a stable economic structure. Another important difference originated in the size and landscape of the countries. Denmark had much shorter overland communication lines than Sweden and in addition much better possibilities of using maritime transport.
This meant that while the whole of Scandinavia was on the periphery of Europe, Denmark was somewhat less so than Sweden and much less so than the rest, especially the islands in the North Atlantic. This is reflected in the process of creating a press in the respective countries.
Most technical innovations were imported. The first printer active in Denmark arrived from Germany in 1482, and a year later he made his way to work in Stockholm. But in Denmark - in Copenhagen - a printing establishment was in operation permanently from about 1489. This was not the case in Sweden until a little later, and much later in Norway and Finland.
Similarly a mail service was instituted in Denmark 1634 in the shape of a single route from Hamburg to Copenhagen running once a week, soon supplemented by other routes and higher frequency. Such a route from southern Sweden to Stockholm was established in 1636, but was often hampered by the states of war with Denmark, who could easily impede or block the service.
The result was that a newspaper press developed earlier in Denmark than in Sweden. The first privilege for a newspaper was issued by the Danish king in 1634, and the paper was started soon after. From 1657 at least two newspapers at a time appeared on a permanent basis. In Sweden the first newspaper appeared in 1645, but not until 1720 did it become permanent. Moreover, Denmark soon had two cities with regular newspapers: The first papers appeared in Copenhagen, but from 1672 papers were published in Altona, situated near the trade center of Hamburg and then within the dominion of the Danish king.
And what of the rest of Scandinavia? Apart from an abortive attempt in 1721 Norway did not get a regular newspaper until 1763, and in Finland no newspaper was started before 1771. The North Atlantic was even further behind: Iceland got a sort of newspaper in the shape of a shortlived monthly in 1773, the Faroe Islands followed suit in 1852 and Greenland in 1861.
So to all intents and purposes, the history of the newspaper press in Scandinavia before the middle of the 18th century may be reduced to the history of the Danish and the Swedish press systems. Both travelled the traditional route from written newssheets and newsbooks over some intermediate stages to newspapers. As the Danish press was ahead throughout the period under consideration, this will be treated first.
During the next 40 years, 1600-1640, whence a similar number has been preserved, the penitential publications disappear. Two quite small new groups appear: News on catastrophes without overt apocalyptic overtones - although divine compassion may be invoked and a flood illustrated by a woodcut representing Moses leading Israel across the Red Sea - and some instances of anti-catholic propaganda. But otherwise the main picture is virtually unchanged. In the large "political" group a sub-type stands out: the "Extract of letter", documents issued for political reasons. With less mincing of words they were propaganda tools either to further the authorities' ends or to expose an opponent. When proper newspapers arrived, they soon ousted the booklets as a news medium, but these were still in use for some time, especially in the shape of "extracts".
These publications were in either Danish or German, with a slight majority in Danish. At that time most people able to read knew both languages, and the state favoured immigration of German craftsmen in order to raise the level of craft skills in the population. But especially the reports on Danish martial successses or diplomatic initiatives seem to be in German, which points to an important point: They were intended as propaganda on the international level, and in such a case German was to be preferred. Indirectly because German at that time was the lingua franca of the protestant parts of Europe, directly because the Danish king at the same time was duke of the northernmost part of Germany and in this capacity had explicit interests to cultivate.
As all other printed matter, these newsbooklets were subject to censorship. The legal provisions regulating the reformed church appeared in 1537. According to the relevant statute, no book might be printed before being controlled by the University and bishops. The purpose of this censorship was primarily to ensure that nothing heretical was published. Only later did the political aspect become really relevant, soon rising to first importance, and this arrangement lasted some years into the era of newspapers.
In 1634 the first royal privilege to publish newspapers was granted. It is obvious that the authorities knew the nature of newspapers as distinct from newsbooks: The privilege explicitly does not include "whole histories", i.e. the newspaper contains more than one report of diverse subjects or of different geographical origins. The first issues of this newspaper preserved date from 1644, and they don't as yet have a permanent masthead name. Neither is numbering of issues yet introduced. But the titles are telling: "Reports (Aviser) from several places, especially from Glückstadt, Jutland, Halland, Norway and Germany". Other issues are of the same order: The news are mostly from abroad, and a look at the reports shows that most are war news. The newspaper probably appeared once a week soon after the newspapers from abroad arrived by the weekly mail. Most of the contents were scissored from one or two newspapers published in Hamburg. Possibly there were two series featuring the same type of contents: One in Danish and one in German.
How long this newspaper existed is not known. It was probably started in 1634 or soon after and it is known in 1644 and cannot have existed longer than 1654 when the printer died. The next newspaper privilege was granted in 1657 and this is the year when continuous newspaper publishing was certainly started in Denmark. But now there were two publishers: The Royal and the University printer. This set the pattern for the next hundred years. Two privileges were valid at any time, both permitting publishing a periodical of "political" news, i.e. news on foreign affairs, wars, etc. These were published in German. And the only town in Denmark proper to have newspapers published on the spot was the capital, Copenhagen.
The contents were in principle the same. An average issue of the "Wochentliche Zeitung ausz Hamburg" (Weekly News from Hamburg) in 1657 has 4 octavo pages containing 4-12 items of varying length, all from abroad and most concerning wars, a few reporting on politically relevant events at some German court. In an issue from September 1657 one gets a glimpse of the news process of the time. After reporting on a rumour in Paris of naval operations in the Bay of Biscay, the correspondent remarks that "when closing the letter" he has been notified that French troops are invading Flanders but must "await the next post" to know and report more.
Soon advertising was added. The first known advertisement in a Danish newspaper dates from 8.1.1665 when a Dutch bookkeeper offered his services to the public.
In 1660 Denmark became an absolute monarchy and to the more efficient glorification of the king and his court an able poet - Anders Bording - was engaged to write a monthly versified newspaper in Danish. This he did from 1666 to his death in 1676. Every month "Den Danske Mercurius" (The Danish Mercury) appeared in four pages of elegantly turned alexandrine verse. The contents were a news review from home and abroad, where kings and courts - especially the Danish king - were given the homage due to absolute monarchy. The remarkable thing, however, is that Bordings witty versifying never became servile toadyism, but kept a note of bluff humour and a down-to-earth imagery. He had some successors without success. And a competitor wrote a similar review for one year - 1672 - in Latin (!) verse.
Censorship was delegated to the University, but the professors did not consider the matter of newspapers very pressing, and when in 1644 it was discovered that revision was being done by the schoolmaster in the University Chancellor's household, the arrangement was changed. From now on the professor of history was charged with the responsibility. After the transition to absolute monarchy in 1660 censorship regarding newspapers was probably made the direct responsibility of the government. The degree of strictness - or the level of arbitrariness - varied much. In 1701 a civil servant in the ministry was entrusted with the job. The instruction of 19.3.1701 was quite clear: Newspaper publishers must make an impartial selection of reliable news from material received (i.e.: foreign newspapers) by every mail, make up a proof and present this to censor who returned it with deletions and changes. Nothing might be changed after the censor's revision. It was prohibited to print anything detrimental to the state's interest or injurious to foreign relations, allied powers included. Comments or conjectures were not allowed either. Newspapers were required to print royal ordinances and exhorted to print lists of shipping and of quotations from the commodities' and currency exchanges. With minor changes this arrangement persisted until 1770, when censorship before publication was abolished. From then on censorship could only be exercised as to authors or editors after a verdict at the courts of law. And the authorities might (and did!) take proceedings against a number of illegal utterances in print, but only through the courts.
In 1672 a privilege was granted to Daniel Paulli, who started a biweekly (i.e. appearing two times a week) in German, which in the quality of its news coverage and general professionalism surpassed its predecessors by far as he (or an anonymous editor) drew on a wider spectrum of sources, broadened the range of subjects treated, and heightened the level of journalistic treatment. But he was also required to print a monthly in Danish. In this paper was published the news from court, appointments and royal ordinances together with a summary of the news in the biweekly paper. The monthly primarily served to inform the public of what the authorities deemed necessary for it to know and so functioned as a symptom of the need for common knowledge as a corner-stone in building a centralized nation-state.
In 1675 war broke out again with Sweden and public hunger for news was intensified. The news review in the monthly became inadequate for the part of the population unable to read German, and so Paulli started an additional weekly in Danish. This shows that newspaper reading was spreading from the cosmopolitan part of the population with an education on a level including German - or with a university education from home or abroad.
This set the pattern of newspapers until the middle of the 18th century. Any of the two publishers in Copenhagen issued three papers: A main news biweekly in German, a somewhat weaker copy of this in Danish, and a monthly review with the official matters added. From 1720 it gradually became the norm, that a fourth paper was added, a news weekly in French addressing a cosmopolitan elite and containing more literary and other cultural matters than the other products.
The existing paper types were then the biweekly newspaper reporting on especially foreign event of a political nature, wars and courts being favourites, sprinkled by some news on disasters or diverse curious matters plus an odd comet - and the monthly review printing the official releases plus a news review. Both carried advertising. None, however, printed comments or reflections. The motto in several mastheads was "Relata refero" - I report what I have been told.
As to contents, the volume was expanding fast. By 1676 the professionalism of Daniel Paulli ensured an extensive reporting, but mostly on war events. In a complete series of issues of "Extraordinary Relation" from 1676 a normal one in 8 octavo pages has 5-10 well-structured items of which 3-9 report on wars. Among these priority is given to the events with the Danish army or its allies involved. The competitor of those years - the paper issued by the widow Dorothea Gøde - has 4 somewhat larger pages containing 5-10 items, 3-5 of which are war or political court reports. The reports are much less well organized than those of Paulli and often each one contains several distinct pieces of news, jumbled together. For example, the hoped-for departure for Denmark of the Dutch auxiliary fleet commanded by admiral Cornelis Tromp, which marked a turning point of this part of the Danish-Swedish war, is delegated to two lines at the end of a half-page item.
A look at the biweekly newspapers of 1713 shows much the same picture. The same number and size of pages, the same mixture of modest numbers of items. The monthly reviews have slightly different content profiles, partly because of the statutory printing of ordinances, partly because of the inclusion of book notices. And whereas the style of writing in earlier newspapers was extremely laconic, a more narrative style is introduced in the pages of the monthlies.
By the end of the period considered a new type of periodical appeared: The "learned" journal. In 1720 the first of its kind appeared; it survived for 90 years, when it was ousted by the general newspapers cultivating this subject matter. The greater part of the contents was literary reviews, especially of scientific literature, some poems and cultural news. In the 1740'es Spectator-like papers were introduced, and a little later other and more specialized press types sprang up. The same process was repeated each time: A new field of public interest was exploited by a new type of specialized periodical, in its turn taken over by the ever-expanding general newspaper.
The very first and tender beginning of a provincial press was seen in Odense 1735 when a paper of poor quality appeared. It survived 15 years at the most. In 1767 a paper was started in Aalborg - it still survives. So does Odense's next paper from 1772. And from then on still more papers were started beginning with the large centers of administration, spreading to the administrative centers of the lower levels and from there to every town of any importance.
In 1721 the printer in the town of Bergen, P. Nørvig, started publishing a newspaper. When the Copenhagen publisher J. Wielandt discovered this, he sent a formal complaint to the authorities, claiming that it was a reprint of his own paper and so an infringement of his privilege. The paper in Bergen was then discontinued in 1722.
The next newspaper in Norway appeared in 1763 when economic growth and expanding trade made news an affordable necessity. Until then, people who wanted and were able to pay for newspapers got them through the post office in Copenhagen, from where they were sent to Norway. Apart from the Copenhagen newspapers some people bought subscriptions to Hamburg papers, famous for their trade and other economic reporting. It is known that no less than 88 subscriptions were taken for Hamburg newspapers in 1714.
As the preconditions of printing offices and an interested public able to pay for news were weak, the king's government took the initiative. In 1636 a mail service had been instituted. In 1645 the postmaster in Stockholm, who was head of the whole service, started publishing a weekly newspaper in accordance with instructions. A royal ordinance required this civil servant to order newspapers both printed and handwritten from the most important cities in Germany, the Netherlands, France, etc., to make extracts of the contents and print these for the public's use. This paper - the "Ordinari Post Tijdender" (Ordinary Post Tidings), the title of which varied over the times - was of a character much like to the first Danish papers described above. As a war was on at that time the interest in news must naturally been high. The initiative may also have had ulterior motives, partly to be able to present the Swedish view of events to a public getting German papers, partly to prevent rumours getting out of control. In addition to the war news a few other news and a modest number of advertisements were printed. In content profile and narrative style this paper constantly was similar to its Danish counterparts, although as constantly a little more restricted and centred on war news.
With cessation of hostilities the paper ceased, too, in 1652 but was restarted with war in 1655, army reports constituting the majority of the contents. This time around it was supplemented by a number of appendices printing "Extracts". It was probably discontinued once more 1660-62, but reappeared in 1663. In 1717 it moved with king and government to the town Lund in southern Sweden and was closed in 1718. In Stockholm a similar paper appeared 1717-18. In 1720 the paper was restarted once more in Stockholm, and this time for good.
During the short periods of peace after 1663, especially during the 1680'es, the paper was not discontinued as before but made do with reports of crime or supernatural phenomena and especially events at court, the king's person and activities having first priority. But there were no reports on home policies; the only information on government activities were the printed royal ordinances while most was hidden in "secretesse". The majority of the news was foreign news cut from the newspapers received from abroad by whoever was responsible for the paper. In 1685 6 different newspapers were subscribed to for this use, later on more, and these originated mostly from Hamburg or Altona (!) as these were the best-informed.
Censorship was as old as news - about the time of the first newssheet mentioned above, the king appointed an "inspector typographicae", but not until 1676 was a real censor appointed. This happened as a consequence of a report on Swedish losses getting into the pages. In 1682 censorship was tightened as the royal orders for return of earlier granted estates - in other words confiscation - intended to replenish the Treasury emptied by the war efforts were mentioned in the pages.
In 1686 the newspaper was transferred from the office of the chief postmaster to the chancellery that appointed an official as responsible for it. This gave the king and his government efficient control of the paper's contents. At the same time it was decided that the newspaper should partake in the contents of the king's correspondence when something of public interest might arrive. Also in 1686 a censor was appointed whose province was all printed products except academic treatises which were the responsibility of the university faculties. The "period of Freedom" 1720-72 made no difference except that the censor's allegiance was formally bound to another institution.
During these years the paper was supplemented by various other periodical series. In 1682 the "Relationes Curiosae" was delivered with the paper every week. This was a collection of anecdotes translated from German. In 1700-01 a similar periodical was published under the same title, this time by an indenpendent publisher. 1716-17 a literary or "learned" journal was published, followed by another of its kind 1720-29.
That was all before 1720. This means that in Sweden only one newspaper appeared, and only with some interruptions. Furthermore, this was under direct control by the monarchial government, if not published by the same. The first provincial newspaper appeared in 1754.
A short note on Finland: Here no newspaper or other periodical was published before 1771 when a newspaper was started in Åbo (Turku). This and other early periodicals were written in Swedish, then the language of the literate, the Finnish part of the population mostly being unable to read. It lasted more than half a century before a succesful periodical in Finnish emerged.
Further, the newspapers were controlled by the authorities of the absolute monarchies using them for their own ends of informing the public within limits set by the interests of the state, among these the transmission of central decisions to a populace required to obey the authority. So newspapers became a modernizing factor as civil society and nation-state developed together and became interdependent.
But an interesting difference is evident. In Denmark the production of newspapers was initiated through private initiative, although under tight control, whereas in Sweden the central authority had to take the lead. This is most likely due to the fact that Danish society and economy was ahead on the road to developing a civil society and an economy of private enterprise and division of skilled labour and so feeling a greater need of information of events at home and abroad of consequence in a future perspective. Or in other words, the populace in general was closer to being fully integrated in a wider European context of politics and trade. This accords well with the idea of the center-periperhy relationship and with the idea of modernization as a whole.
Sometimes, a felicitous find may illustrate the whole process: In September 1674 the monthly issued by the above-mentioned Daniel Paulli ran a story of a man exhibiting for money a stuffed beast he maintained was a basilisc, feared mythical beast of destruction. The paper also printed an engraved picture of the beast. But the text dismisses the creature as a forgery made from the skin of a ray and then goes on to relate the opinion of learned people that the basilisc doesn't exist at all. No detail of scientific experiments in the breeding of basiliscs or search for them all over the world is spared to convince the reader of the non-existence of basiliscs.
Thus modern thought and science is substituted for traditional myth and superstition through that wonderful invention, the press.
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Key, Emil: Försök till Svenska Tidningspressens historia. [Essay on the History of the Swedish Periodical Press] Stockholm 1883.
Kvaran, Böðvar, and Einar Sigurðsson: Íslensk tímarit í 200 ár. Skrá um íslensk blöð og tímarít frá upphafi til 1973./200 Years of Icelandic Periodicals. A Bibliography of Icelandic Periodicals, Newspapers, and Other Serial Publications 1773-1973. Reykjavík, rev. ed. 1991 (orig. 1970). [a title index, supplied with publishing years and name of publisher or editor]
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Sylwan, Otto: Svenska Pressens Historia till statshvälfningen 1772. [The History of the Swedish Press until the 1772 Restoration] Lund 1896.
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