Chapter 1 of the History of Internal Communication (1878 to 2024): Nineteenth-Century Origins

As the Institute of Internal Communication marks its 75th anniversary, this blog post takes a step back in time to discover how internal communication has got to where it is today. Taking us from the first known dedicated company magazine in 1878 through to the launch of AI software, this story aims to be the most comprehensive and definitive history to date.

The roots of internal communication can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Society at this time was undergoing dramatic change, with technological advancements and more complex organisational structures. Out of this emerged the first forms of internal communication in the form of company magazines.

In 1878, the Ibis Magazine of the Prudential Assurance Company became the first known company magazine in the UK and one of the first dedicated company magazines in the world. The concept of company publications had earlier experiments, such as the suggestions made in 1834 by Friedrich List (a German nationalist economist) to a group of German factory owners for newspapers for employees.

The Lowell Offering has sometimes been referred to as the first company magazine. Whilst it received much of its content in the form of ballads, poems, essays, and fiction from the female textile workers of the industrial town of Lowell in Massachusetts, it was not a company magazine as such, but was a literary journal which was established by the Reverend Abel Charles Thomas of the Second Universalist Church in Lowell. It was later co-opted by female workers from the various textile mills to create a collective voice and communicate their grievances. While Charles Dickens idealised it as being ‘written, edited, and published by female operatives’, one former employee described it as ‘controlled by corporation influences’ which raised questions over its independence.

The tension between employee involvement and corporate control has been a recurring theme in the history of internal communication. Magazines such as Ibis Magazine, along with Lever Brothers’ Port Sunlight Monthly Journal (1895) and Progress magazine (1899), marked a significant shift in employee communication. The Port Sunlight Monthly Journal explicitly stated that it was ‘written for and by employees’. This approach set the magazines of the late nineteenth century apart from earlier forms of communication. With the spread of such magazines at this time, this era can be seen as the origins of internal communication.

The front cover of the first issue of Lever Brothers’ Progress magazine from October 1899

The historical context of the later nineteenth century explains the need for increased emphasis on communication. There was a transition from temporary and short-term employment to long-term and stable employment based on internal labour markets that created a need for effective communication to enhance retention. Combined with other measures like company sports and social clubs, the magazines created a sense of being part of a community through employment. Another driving force for better communication was the 1844 Joint Stock Company Act. This mandated annual reports, emphasising the duty to communicate with shareholders.

Technology has always been crucial in shaping communication channels, although not necessarily a driving force in its own right. This was just as true in the nineteenth century as today. As the century progressed, technological advancements in printing in lithography and the development of Linotype typesetting machines facilitated the mass production of newspapers and magazines incorporating images.

At the same time late-nineteenth century Britain saw the development of tabloid mass journalism and popular magazines with publication such as Titbits (est. 1881) and the Daily Mail (est. 1896). This adopted a lighter form of journalism which appealed to mass audiences and had features on human interest stories, fiction, and sport as well as news. This was adopted in the pioneering company magazines that began to appear in this period.

In tomorrow’s post, we look at the First World War and how it played a role in the spread of magazines in UK organisations.

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