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The Birth of American Popular Culture Previous
Digital History ID 3555


One important aspect of popular culture was the penny press. Before the American Revolution, newspapers were few in number, expensive, short, small in circulation, infrequently printed, and aimed at a narrow audience. As late as 1765, there were only 23 weekly newspapers in the American colonies and no daily papers at all. At six cents a copy, these papers were out of reach of a popular audience; the contents of their four-page issues--announcements of ship arrivals, piracies, court actions, and maritime news--were of interest only to merchants. It was not until 1783 that the first daily newspaper, the Pennsylvania Evening Post, began to be published.

After the Revolution, political newspapers expressing the viewpoint of a particular political faction began to flourish. In the 1830s, when the development of the steam printing press dramatically cut printing costs and speeded production, the first mass-circulation newspapers began to appear. The first penny newspapers, Horatio David Sheppard’s New York Morning Post and Benjamin H. Day’s New York Sun, began publication in 1833.

The Sun, the first American paper to use newsboys to hawk papers on the street, soon discovered other ways of increasing its circulation. In the summer of 1835, the Sun announced that British astronomer Sir John Herschel had made “astronomical discoveries of the most wonderful description.” With a new and powerful telescope, he had discovered “planets in other solar systems” and, most remarkably, the winged inhabitants of the moon. As a result of the “Great Moon Hoax,” the Sun’s circulation soared from 10,000 to 19,000. The Sun’s success inspired other publishers to use hoaxes and stories of murders, railroad accidents, cannibalism, and freaks of nature--horror, gore, and perversity--to build circulation. English novelist Charles Dickens thought that appropriate names for newspapers would be the New York Sewer and the New York Stabber.

During the 1830s and 1840s, the modern mass-circulation newspaper emerged. Journalistic pioneers, such as James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, introduced features that we still associate with the daily newspaper, including crime stories, gossip columns, editorials, stock tables, and sports pages.

Along with the modern newspaper came magazines. From just five American magazines in 1794, the number rose to nearly 100 in 1825 and 600 in 1850. By 1850, there were magazines for almost every imaginable audience, with the proliferation of children’s magazines, scientific journals, literary reviews, women’s magazines, religious periodicals, and comics.

The Dime Novel

In 1860 an Oswego, New York, printer named Erastus Beadle, issued his first dime novel, Malaeska, The Indian Wife. Critics attacked this book and others about heroes such as Daniel Boone as “devil-traps for the young,” but within three years, Beadle had sold more than 2.5 million copies. Well before Erastus Beadle introduced the dime novel (which usually sold for a nickel), opportunistic publishers had already produced murder trial transcripts, criminals’ biographies, pirate tales, and westerns targeted at working-class and frontier readers.

The respectable middle-class tended to read sentimental domestic tales, such as Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, one of the most popular mid-19th century novels; sentimental love poetry by authors such as Lydia Sigourney, “the sweet singer of Hartford”; or morally high-minded adventure tales, such as Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) or historian Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1847). Less educated Americans, however, favored adventure novels and urban crime novels.

Popular southern writers such as William Gilmore Simms and Robert Montgomery Bird produced tales of pirates and sea monsters for working-class and younger readers, and popular northern writers such as George Lippard, author of New York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million, and Ned Buntline, author of The Mysteries and Miseries of New York, created tales of urban poverty and criminality. Although not great works of literature, the urban crime novels, in particular, offered valuable social commentary, providing graphic details of aspects of pre–Civil War American life, such as teenage prostitution, urban poverty, class division, and social inequity, that were absent from the works of more respectable writers such as Washington Irving.

Much of the most popular American fiction produced before the Civil War was written by women. Although Nathaniel Hawthorne dismissed female novelists as “mere scribbling women,” their works offered psychologically and sociologically insightful descriptions of drunken husbands brutalizing their wives, amoral men seducing and abandoning trusting young women, and callous employers exploiting ill-paid seamstresses and maids.

The earliest woman-authored novel--Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple (1791), a story of a trusting heroine lured from her English home by a British officer and abandoned into poverty and premature death in New York--dealt with seduction and betrayal. At a time when the rate of illegitimate births was sharply rising (approaching 10 percent in New England), such stories offered a stark warning to young women.

By the 1820s, the form of women’s literature most in demand was the “domestic novel,” which typically described the “trials and triumphs” of a young woman who encounters hardships in a hostile society and discovers the resources within herself to surmount these difficulties. Authors such as Maria Cummins, Catharine Sedgwick, and Susan Warner gave expression to an early feminist vision. Their books upheld “feminine” values--of duty, tenderness, and self-sacrifice--as an alternative to the acquisitive, pecuniary values of the dominant society and called on women to attain a sense of self-respect and self-worth.

Popular Entertainment

A freewheeling, irreverent spirit pervaded American popular culture before the Civil War--a spirit typified by P. T. Barnum, 19th century America’s most famous purveyor of popular entertainment. A Connecticut Yankee born in Bridgeport in 1810, Barnum is reputed to have said that “there is a sucker born every minute.” A staunch advocate of temperance, antislavery, and women’s rights, Barnum made a fortune through pioneering campaigns of advertising and self-promotion. A critic said that an appropriate motto for Barnum would be: “Lie and swindle as much as you please...but be sure you read your Bible and drink no brandy!”

Throughout his life, the “prince of humbugs” never stopped believing that the public enjoyed having its wits tested. He got his start exhibiting a slave woman named Joice Heth, whom he claimed was 161 years old and had served as George Washington’s nursemaid (an autopsy later revealed that she was 80 at her death). Barnum achieved fame and fortune from his 25-cent American Museum in New York, which contained the “Feejee mermaid,” which had the head of a monkey and the body of a fish; a working model of Niagara Falls; the 25-inch-tall General Tom Thumb; and Jumbo, an immense white elephant. After the Civil War, Barnum closed his museum and opened “the greatest show on earth,” a spectacular three-ring circus. With his hoaxes, humbugs, and shameless self-promotion, Barnum epitomized the buoyant, irreverence of antebellum popular culture--which taught Americans to pay gladly for entertainment.

A rowdy, boisterous spirit was particularly evident in popular humor. The word “grotesque” sums up a defining characteristic of American humor before the Civil War. Employing crude language, wild exaggeration, pungent images, and incongruity, the writings of such early American humorists as James Kirke Paulding and George Washington Harris paved the way for the later success of Artemus Ward, Bret Harte, and Mark Twain.

No form of humor was more popular than the tall tale, an incredibly exaggerated account of improbable events. The most famous comic hero was Davy Crockett, loosely based on the life of the frontier hero and Whig politician who died at the Alamo. More than 50 wildly popular Crockett almanacs and humor pamphlets described him as a high-spirited resourceful braggart, “half-man, half-alligator.” He is depicted as an ardent opponent of corruption in business and politics, who spends his leisure time riding on streaks of lightning, and lighting his pipe with the sun.

American popular culture found one of its most well-received forms of expression on the stage. A typical night at the theater included not only a play, but various musical interludes and a comic opera, as well as demonstrations of magic tricks, tightrope walking, fireworks, acrobatics, or pantomime. Melodramas were an especially popular form of theatrical entertainment, often describing a villain’s efforts to strip a young maiden of her virtue and fortune. Emphasizing action over characterization, melodramas were filled with thrilling fights, daring escapes, and breathtaking rescues, and featured elaborate scenery, including working waterfalls and volcanoes.

Critics condemned the theater as a “Synagogue of Satan” that attracted “the most depraved and yet the most enticing companions the community affords.” Antebellum theaters were rowdy places where liquor dealers and prostitutes plied their wares, and audiences interacted directly with actors and musicians. Theatergoers were not passive spectators. They ate during performances and expressed their praise with boisterous clapping. When they were displeased, they yelled and hissed and pelted actors with rotten eggs, stones, and even chairs. Some performances actually ignited riots--usually when an English actor was accused of insulting the United States. The most famous, the Astor Place Riot of 1849, resulted in dozens of injuries.

Oratory was a particularly popular form of entertainment. Americans attended sermons, political speeches, poetry readings, and public lectures with an enthusiasm unmatched in American history. The lyceum movement, founded by Josiah Holbrook, a Connecticut farmer, in 1826, sponsored traveling lectures on the arts, literature, philosophy, religion, and science, including such prominent figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Whig politician Daniel Webster. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of pre–Civil War popular culture was the minstrel show. The first uniquely American entertainment form, the minstrel show provided comedy, music, dance, and novelty acts to audiences hungry for entertainment. Offering humor that ranged from comedy skits to slapstick and one-liners--often mocking pompous politicians and pretentious professionals--the minstrel shows also introduced many of America’s most enduring popular songs, including “Turkey in the Straw” and “Dixie.” Minstrel shows popularized the songs of Stephen Foster (1826–1864), the most acclaimed American composer of the mid-19th century. Foster wrote more than 200 songs during his lifetime, mainly sentimental ballads and love songs (such as “Old Folks at Home,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Beautiful Dreamer”) and uptempo, rhythmic comic songs (such as “Camptown Races” and “Oh! Susanna”). At a time when the country was undergoing rapid urbanization and industrialization, Foster’s music responded to a deep nostalgia for a simpler era. Although Foster died in utter poverty--at the age of 37 in the paupers’ wing of New York’s Bellevue Hospital, with just 37 cents in his pocket--he, more than any other composer, stimulated popular enthusiasm for American music.

The minstrel shows are difficult to interpret, in part because they relied on blackfaced humor that we find particularly abhorrent. Reflecting the racism of the broader society, minstrel shows presented a denigrating portrayal of African Americans. Racial stereotypes were the minstrel shows’ stock in trade. Actors wore grotesque makeup, spoke in ludicrous dialects, and presented plantation life in a highly romanticized manner. Yet if the minstrel shows expressed the virulent racism of many white Americans, the blackfaced minstrel had another side. His humor frequently mocked whites and challenged traditional values. Moreover, the shows often incorporated elements of African-American folklore and showed black men and women outwitting white masters.

Pseudoscience also captured the popular fancy during the decades before the Civil War. During the early 19th century, science was advancing so rapidly that it was difficult to distinguish authentic scientific discoveries from hoaxes.

Phrenology linked human character to the shape of and bumps on a person’s skull. Animal magnetism was the belief in a universal electrical fluid influencing physics and even human psychology. Audiences flocked to see demonstrations of mesmerism (the control of a hypnotized person by a medium) and spiritualism (the direct communication with spirits of the deceased through trance visions or séances).

Phrenology had particular appeal to pre–Civil War Americans. Discovered by a physician from Vienna named Franz Gall and imported into the United States in 1832, phrenology exerted an extraordinary impact on popular culture. One American phrenology journal claimed a circulation of 50,000, and many employers required prospective employees to have their heads read. One of the earliest examples of a “science” of human behavior, phrenology held that distinct portions of the brain were devoted to distinct impulses--such as combativeness, amativeness (sexual love), and adhesiveness (comradely affection)--and that peoples’ mental attributes could be read through their facial features. Phrenology claimed to offer young men and women a way to evaluate potential spouses and employers a tool for judging potential employees.



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