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  • Rebecca Onion

    Going Viral in the Nineteenth Century

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    The American reader of any nineteenth-century newspaper or magazine would be confronted at end of an article with short pieces of filler that contained odd and compelling little stories to distract from the serious news of the day. Known as “squibs,” this filler included humor columns which served up a couple of jokes, a gentle anecdote, or a tidbit of doggerel to round out a page. Newspaper editor Frederick Hudson despaired of the practice in his 1873 history of American journalism:

    Our four or five thousand daily and weekly publications have columns of “Nuts to Crack,” “Sunbeams,” “Sparks from the Telegraph,” “Freshest Gleanings,” “Odds and Ends,” “News Sprinklings,” “Flashes of Fun,” “Random Readings,” “Mere Mentions,” “Humor of the Day,” “Quaint Sayings,” “Current Notes,” “Things in General,” “Brevities,” “Witticisms,” “Notes of the Day,” “Jottings,” “All Sorts,” “Editor’s Drawer,” “Sparks,” “Fun and Folly,” “Fact and Fiction”…

    These odds and ends, often undignified with bylines, offered distinctive servings of that history-is-weird feeling so beloved by the Internet these days. The columns often included racist overtones, sexist underpinnings, and were blithe about topics we now perceive as sobering, or sober about topics we find hilarious. The context for the jokes are often now completely lost, leaving one to grope for meaning on Google, not even knowing which search terms to enter.

    How did American print media come to be marbled through with cryptic humor for future readers to puzzle over? Walter Blair, a historian of American humor, writes that the joke boom in newspapers began during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, as humor found a place in American popular culture through stage plays, monologues, and almanacs, like the ones that exploited Davy Crockett’s frontier image for laughs. The pump was primed for newspapers to step into the breach, and as Blair writes, “not long after 1830, every paper that could discover a comic writer on its staff was encouraging him to provide amusement for its readers.”

    The boom in antebellum newspaper humor also coincided with a unique era of content sharing. Copyright laws were so loose during this time that newspaper editors in small towns and big cities established symbiotic relationships by mailing content back and forth for publication. The reach of a particular text was determined by the tastes and sensibilities of the newspaper editors, who cut and pasted column inches based on their sense of what their readers might like to read. (“Who could edit a paper ten minutes without scissors!” said one editor.) Content that traveled well could bring fame to its original newspaper—so long as editors who cut and pasted retained the sourcing.

    The Viral Texts project, run by Northeastern University’s NULab for Texts, Maps and Networks, uses the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America newspaper database to identify pieces of text that drifted about from town to town through these exchanges. The Viral Texts project’s data isn’t yet publicly available, but Ryan Cordell, professor of English at Northeastern and member of the project team, picked out a few examples of newspaper squibs that got traction in the mid-nineteenth century.

    There are “true” domestic stories that are a play on the battle of the sexes, like the tale of Tom Snoops (sometimes Tim Stoops), an anecdote about a newlywed who tries to get out of churning the butter for his wife and receives his comeuppance when she substitutes skim milk for cream, leaving him to churn and churn to no avail. In “A Mixing of the Babies,” a group of mothers at a “dancing party” find themselves encumbered by their infants, “whose noisy perversity required too much attention to permit the mothers to enjoy the dance.” A contingent of “gallant young men” offer to watch the children, then strip them and dress them in each others’ clothes. The women take the children home, only to realize their mistake the next day. “Living miles apart,” the story explains, “it required two days to unmix the babies, and as many months to restore the women to their natural sweet dispositions.”

    A few of these bits of “viral” humor rely on the disjunct between religious idealism and prosaic everyday life. A story called “Waggery” features a pastor trying to get a donation from a “close-fisted parishioner” who pleads poverty. “You owe God a larger debt than you do anyone else,” the minister chides. “That’s true, parson,” the parishioner replies, “but then he ain’t pushing me like the balance of my creditors.”

    In one long story, “Brakeman at Church,” by Iowa writer Robert J. Burdett, a traveler encounters a brakeman who compares various religious denominations to types of railroads. Readers could recognize their own denomination in the characterizations, provoking an “It’s so true!” reaction, while offering cover for a mild poke at the church across the street. For example, of the Universalist Church, Burdett writes:

    Broad gauge, does too much complimentary business. Everyone travels on a pass. Conductor doesn’t get a fare once in fifty miles. Stops at all flag stations and won’t run into anything but a Union depot. No smoking car on the train. Train orders are rather vague though, and the train men don’t get along well with the passengers.

    Searches for this story in the Chronicling America database turn up evidence of reprintings, but also notices of meetings of clubs and debating societies where people recited or read the piece decades after its first publication in the immediate postwar years.

    Perhaps the most intriguing viral nineteenth-century humor that Cordell sent me was the adaptations of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s popular poem “A Psalm of Life,” first published in 1838. The poem exhorts the reader to ever-greater heights of achievement: “Lives of great men all remind us / We can make our lives sublime, / And, departing, leave behind us / Footprints on the sand of time.”

    Irreverent parodies of the poem, penned by writers using pseudonyms like Broadfellow and Stringfellow, transformed the serious, self-righteous theme into nonsense, or inverted it to serve political purposes. Take the poultry-themed version: “No enjoyment, and not sorrow / Is our destined end or way; / But to scratch, that each to-morrow, / Finds us fatter than to-day.” In a matrimonial parody, a young woman speaks to an old maid: “Tell me not in idle jingle, / ‘Marriage is but an empty dream!’ / For the girl is dead that’s single, / And girls are not what they seem.” Finally, an abolitionist take on the poem uses Longfellow’s original celebration of life’s possibilities and inverts it: “Not enjoyment, nought but sorrow / Is his destined end or way; / His to work, that each to-morrow / Finds Us richer than to-day.”

    The reaction that “serious” journalists had to the effects of the nineteenth-century brand of virality would be familiar to anyone who’s heard a writer bemoan the rise of BuzzFeed. Walter Blair cites a letter in which old-school journalist Edmund Clarence Stedman complained to a friend:

    The entire country, owing to the contagion of our American exchange system, is flooded, deluged, swamped, beneath a muddy tide of slang, vulgarity, inartistic bathos, impertinence and buffoonery that is not wit.
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Rebecca Onion is a historian and writer living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate's history blog, The Vault.
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