Founded on 7 July 1860 by John Fairfax & Sons as a weekly news summary aimed at both rural and lower income city readers, and issued on a Friday in time for the weekly country mail coaches, the Sydney Mail established a circulation of 10,000 within four years. It evolved to become Australia’s highest circulation weekly newspaper during World War I.
In 1870, its plain, imageless, eight-page format, selling for threepence, was strongly challenged by the launch of the Australian Town and Country Journal, which had 32 pages and carried illustrations, for double the price. The following year, in 1871, the Sydney Mail responded by adopting the same format. It became known for the quality of its wood engravings and, along with its competitor, challenged the Illustrated Sydney News at the graphic journalism level. In the late 1880s, the Sydney Mail was at the forefront of the introduction of the photomechanical half-tone process for reproducing photographs in print. It has been claimed have been the first paper to produce a press photograph, ‘The recent railway accident at Young’ (15 September 1888); however, this is incorrect, with the honour going to the Illustrated Sydney News with two portrait photographs, published seven weeks earlier (26 July 1888).
In the 1880s, the Sydney Mail began moving towards a magazine format, with a greater emphasis on serialised novels, short stories and essays. In 1882–83, it serialised Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms.
In 1912, due to the introduction of a new printing press, the Sydney Mail assumed a new 50-page format, printing on fine art paper and with a coloured cover. The timing was fortuitous, as two years later this format was adapted to it becoming a largely pictorial magazine covering World War I. Circulation peaked in the second half of 1915 at well over 100,000 copies, although this fell to the 50,000s by the end of the war.
Circulation was around 30,000 in the 1920s. From around 1921, a Sydney Mail Annual was also published. Then the Great Depression, the need for cost-cutting by the company, planning for the introduction of new presses for the Sydney Morning Herald, a faster distribution network that resulted in daily papers now reaching distant rural centres and the introduction of photographs in the Herald all contributed to the demise of the Sydney Mail. Its last edition appeared on 28 December 1938.
REF: G. Souter, Company of Heralds (1981).