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Library of Congress

Top 10 Viral Hits of the Pre-Civil War Years

Original image
Library of Congress

For as long as there have been means to distribute information widely, there has been the potential for information to go viral. These days, we have easily measurable indexes of virality—pageviews, tweets, shares, and likes, to name a few, but scholars are discovering other ways to quantify virality for the pre-internet era. The Infectious Texts project at Northeastern University aims to foster a clearer understanding of the circulation of ideas in the 19th century by looking at the viral spread of newspaper and magazine texts.

In a recent paper, project leaders David Smith, Ryan Cordell, and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon describe a method for searching through digitized archives of old newspapers to find repeated chunks of text that reveal how the same stories got printed and re-printed. The task is not as easy as it might seem. The algorithms have to filter out ads and other uninteresting repetition, and deal with editorial changes to articles and messy character recognition issues.

An analysis of 1.6 billion words from 41,829 issues of 132 newspapers in the period covering 1830 to 1860 uncovered these top 10 viral hits of the pre-Civil War era.

1. The inaugural address of President James Buchanan

When Buchanan took office in 1857, the speech he delivered had high news value, being delivered at a moment when the country was on the verge of being torn apart over the question of slavery. It certainly didn’t make the rounds because it was eloquent or inspiring. He rather ridiculously asserted, “most happy will it be for the country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and practical importance.”

2. Washington’s Farewell Address

Though Washington’s Farewell Address was very old news in the period covered by the study, excerpts from it, especially ones highlighting the importance of national unity, were quoted in various articles with various agendas in the years leading up to the Civil War.

3. A recipe for making starch with gum Arabic

Lest you think the viral hits of the good old days only concerned themselves with politics and inspiring historical references, helpful how-to tips also got around. A popular recipe for making starch with gum Arabic explained how you too could “get that fine gloss” on your linen and muslin.

4. “A Beautiful Reflection”

There was also an appetite for treacly meditations on the meaning of it all. This essay by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (known as the coiner of “it was a dark and stormy night”) asks, “Why is it that the rainbow and clouds come over us with a beauty that is not of earth, and then pass off and leave us to muse on their faded loveliness?”

5. Queen Victoria’s telegraph message to President Buchanan, transmitted on completion of the Atlantic cable

The 1858 transmission of the first transcontinental telegram (seen at the top of this post) was a historical technological achievement. Reading the message that had zipped across the ocean was a way for the public to experience and feel part of a history-making moment. It was reprinted frequently, partly because an initial error had cut off half the message, so it was printed a second time in full in later editions, and partly because articles reporting on celebrations of the achievement printed the message yet again. The cable only worked for a few weeks.

6. President Buchanan's 1860 State of the union address

This speech had something in it to make everyone mad. In it, Buchanan criticized the North for stirring up trouble on the issue of slavery and proposed an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing the right to own slaves. He told the South that secession was unjustified, but presented no plan (besides the ultimately failed amendment) for heading off secession.

7. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

This 1848 treaty between Mexico and the U.S. ended the war between the two countries. The U.S. paid $15 million in damages to Mexico and gained a large chunk of the West, from Texas to California.

8. The “Soldier’s Bill”

This bill, passed by Congress in 1850, guaranteed pension rights to soldiers and their widows.

9. A report on the defeat of the Austrian army in the Battle of Montebello

It was a blow for the Austrian Empire in 1859 when France helped the Sardinians defeat the Austrian army during the Second Italian War for Independence. One report on it was used multiple times in U.S. newspapers.

10. “Household Economy”

Who doesn’t have an opinion on how kids should be raised and what they should be exposed to? Grand statements on these matters have always been popular with readers. If they promote the publication responsible for delivering the message, then all the better. According to the researchers this was “a story proclaiming the educational and moral value to children of reading newspapers in the home.”

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:


This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.


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