Many characteristics of these two papers—the fictitious nominal proprietor, the group of fictitious contributors who offer advice and observations from their special viewpoints, the miscellaneous and constantly changing fields of discourse, the use of exemplary character sketches, letters to the editor from fictitious correspondents, and various other typical features—existed before Addison and Steele set to work, but these two wrote with such effectiveness and cultivated such attention in their readers that the Tatler and Spectator served as the models for periodical writing in the next seven or eight decades.
Unlike their contemporary Defoe, whose Review of the Affairs of France (1704–13) moved to more general cultural topics from a central engagement with political issues, Addison and Steele devoted themselves to matters of style, fashion, behavior, opinion, and manners characteristic of middle-class life; it was this rapidly growing and prospering audience that established so solid a readership for periodical essays in several successive generations.
A listing of the most successful and influential 18th-century periodical essays would be a very long one.
When the popularity of the form was at its height in the middle and later years of the century, the leading series included: Henry Fielding’s Covent Garden Journal (1752); Samuel Johnson’s Rambler (1750–52) and Idler (1758–60); John Hawkesworth’s Adventurer (1752–54), to which Johnson also contributed; the World (1753–56), which Edward Moore conducted in collaboration with Horace Walpole, the Earl of Chesterfield, and Richard Owen Cambridge; the Connoisseur (1754–56) of Coleman and Thornton; Oliver Goldsmith’s “Chinese Letters” in the Public Ledger (1760), which he published separately as The Citizen of the World two years later; and Henry Mackenzie’s Mirror (1779–80) and Lounger (1785–87).
In a general sense, the term “periodical essays” may be applied to any grouping of essays that appear serially.