When Our Ancestors Became Us


The common obsession of the nouveau riche with manners, decorum, and proper behavior generated a big market for books and magazines dealing with etiquette, fashion, and “household management.” The new preoccupation with proper behavior also ensured that the nineteenth century became the golden age of the euphemism. Thomas Bowdler gave his name to the language by carefully editing Shakespeare for a “family” audience, peopling the often bawdy plays with eunuchs and madonnas. Sexual matters and body parts—when their discussion was unavoidable—were wreathed in verbal cotton wool. Americans began referring to chicken as white meat and dark meat in order to avoid the all-too-suggestive breast and leg.

At the same time, the new technology profoundly affected decoration. High Victorian style has been traditionally ascribed to simple bad taste. In fact, it was largely determined by the wondrous capacities of gaslight, the easy availability of products of the Industrial Revolution, and the natural human tendency to go overboard with new possibilities.


In the mid-nineteenth century gilding and mirrors abounded to catch and multiply the twinkling glow of gaslight. Walls that had perforce been light-colored in all but the richest houses, to reflect what light there was, were now covered in the dark and often elaborately patterned wallpapers that newly invented presses were able to grind out by the acre. Floors were covered in equally elaborate wall-to-wall carpets, made possible by new looms developed in the 1840s. Bric-a-brac, china figurines, lithographs, and other ornaments once restricted to the rich now littered the tables, shelves, and walls of the middle class. Conspicuous consumption was the order of the day.

The Birth of Mass Culture

Until the nineteenth century the speed of communication was, for the most part, limited to the speed of human travel. Although it had been realized as early as the 1720s that electricity could be conducted along a wire for a considerable distance and used to convey messages, more than a hundred years passed before the telegraph was a practical system. As with the railroad, the telegraph had many fathers, and no one can claim to have invented it. Samuel F. B. Morse put the whole thing together. He developed a practical single-circuit instrument, invented the remarkably efficient Morse code, and built, with money voted by Congress, a thirty-seven-mile telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. On May 24, 1844, his partner, Alfred Vail, in Baltimore, transmitted the words “What hath God wrought.” The message arrived in Washington in about one-thousandth the time that any other means of communication would have required.

Once its practicality had been established, the telegraph spread quickly, often along railroad rights-of-way. By the 1850s all major American cities and many small towns were linked by telegraph, and in 1858 a telegraph cable between the United States and England was established. In 1861 a transcontinental line reached California.

Although the Atlantic cable failed in only four weeks and was not replaced until after the Civil War, America’s profound isolation from Europe was coming to an end. At the turn of the nineteenth century, news from England had taken six to eight weeks to reach the United States. After the passage of less than a human lifetime, it could cross the Atlantic in as many minutes. The latest news from Europe and California involved matters that were happening now, not something that had transpired weeks or months earlier. “What hath God wrought?” was a question the early Victorians had occasion to ask themselves over and over again.

The telegraph was too expensive at first for most Americans to make use of it directly; transatlantic cables cost a dollar a word with a fifteen-word minimum, nearly a week’s wages for a skilled worker. Nonetheless, the technology had an immediate impact through the proliferating newspapers.

As the number of people and the percentage of the population above the subsistence level increased, their need and desire for information about their civilization, its perils, and its opportunities increased also. Until the 1830s there were few means to obtain it. Newspapers were expensive and targeted at specific audiences for specific purposes. Papers aimed at merchants supplied only news of the marketplace, prices, the arrivals and departures of ships. Political papers were the organs of particular factions and were hardly more than editorial pages wrapped in a little tendentious news.

Then, in the 1830s, the steam engine and new types of printing presses were combined, greatly lowering the cost per copy of newspapers and greatly increasing the number of copies that could be printed quickly. Suddenly newspapers could be afforded and read by the masses as well as the elite, and many intellectuals and politicians, such as Horace Greeley, of the New York Tribune , and Henry J. Raymond, of the Times, moved to exploit the new possibilities. But it was people like James Gordon Bennett and Benjamin Day, neither intellectuals nor politicians, who edited the first truly modern newspapers.