Read All About It! The News in the Eighteenth Century

In the eighth installment of Mr. B Speaks!, Mr. B dismisses newspapers as "scandal sheets."

This is a tad extreme. Although the celebrated Times would not make its appearance in London until the late 1700's, the eighteenth century was awash with newspapers of all sorts, including a stunning number of local/county newspapers.

These papers were read by people from a wide range of economic/social backgrounds for a wide range of purposes. As depicted in the below picture, even if only a few people in a community could read, others would supply the lack; as late as 1870, Dickens would go hoarse reciting his celebrated A Christmas Carol to spellbound audiences (as Dr. Who lovingly and chillingly depicts in the episode "The Unquiet Dead").

Despite the occasional die-hard academic who insists that reading has always been an aspect of upper-class/intelligentsia behavior (whilst carefully and condescendingly shunting verbal storytelling into the so-called pure bubble of "folk culture"), the printed word has always impacted all classes, and all classes--since the beginning of time--have willingly spent a disproportionate amount of money on the pursuit of "media-sponsored" entertainment. (Using economic standard-of-living models to determine out how much people in the past spent on theater or concert tickets is an exercise in futility.)

Mr. B is correct, however, in that many eighteenth century newspapers, or scandal sheets, printed scurrilous, salacious, scandalous news based on rumor, innuendo, and raunchy details.

Yes, People magazine and Internet news has always been with us.

Seriously, if you think political ads and editorials are bad now-a-days, take a look at the press, on both sides of the Atlantic, in the 1700s. Wow! Talk about libelous!!


A Calvinist Preacher said...

I very much appreciate your historical work on this series.

One of the things I try to remind my parishioners of is that for all the "young people have it so much worse today" talk, they don't. Human nature hasn't changed much, and the sins of today were rampant yesterday, too. No internet? How about the penny press? No TV? The theater could get just as bawdy - Shakespeare is not all sweetness and virtue.

People are people. Even the premise of your Mr. B Speaks - the idea that we can impose on another culture our own moral sensibilities and literary taste - is not new. That the cultural separation is temporal rather than geographic is interesting, but the phenomenon is common.

All this is by way of saying, "thanks."

Kate Woodbury said...

You're welcome! When I started these historical-context posts, I was surprised at how much I'd picked up--but left out--doing research for Mr. B Speaks!, reading Jane Austen, and browsing through the occasional non-fiction book about topics related, however tangentially, to the eighteenth century.

I think some things--like knowledge of anatomy, genes, etc.--move in forward leaning lines (though in far less streamlined ways than usually taught) while other things are completely culturally specific, like swooning. And of course, as you say, throughout it all, people remain people.