When Our Ancestors Became Us

PrintPrintEmailEmail

A newspaper, they thought, should not be an instrument of instruction or of political indoctrination; rather, it should be a window the people could use to look out onto the new industrial world—in all its splendor and misery—and form their own opinions. Their aim was to give the people what they wanted to read, not just what an editor thought was important or proper for them to know. It was Bennett, in the 1830s and ’40s, who first printed stock tables and a sports page and first used the railroads and the telegraph to speed timely news from distant points to his readers. And it was the new newspapers that first exploited the insatiable appetite of the nouveaux riches for information on the life-styles of the rich and famous by introducing gossip columns and articles on the houses and clothes of the fashionable.

Americans responded immediately to this revolutionary brand of journalism. Long before Bennett’s death his New York Herald had become the most successful paper in the world. He had made newspapers an essential part of daily life, and every day he printed nearly as many copies of the Herald as all the daily newspapers in the English-speaking world had printed at the turn of the century. The streets of every major city rang with the cries of newsboys hawking the latest issues. Weekly editions were taken by railroad to towns and villages throughout the country.

“The daily newspaper,” wrote the North American Review in 1866, only thirty years after the Herald ’s founding, “is one of those things which are rooted in the necessities of modern civilization. The steam engine is not more essential to us.

The newspaper is that which connects each individual with the general life of mankind.” The newspapers unified the Victorian age just as television unifies ours. They gave the people their sense of the world in which they lived, a world that had become in their lifetimes far wider and richer, far more interrelated and more complex than any known before. Ironically, it was the very richness and variety of the new world created by the proliferating technology that made so many yearn for the good old days.

More than anything else, the Industrial Revolution accelerated the rate of technological innovation. In 1790 the U.S. Patent Office issued 3 patents; in 1840 it gave out 458; and in 1860 there were 4,357. After 1867 no fewer than 12,000 were issued in any year.

At first the early Victorians had thought they were living in a singular age of transition from one period of order and regularity to another of equal predictability. It was only as the new miracles of technology continued to pile one on top of another and the social, political, and economic consequences of those miracles began to play themselves out that they came gradually to understand that the only thing now permanent was change itself.

By the Civil War the modern world had largely replaced the good old days in the developed areas of the country. While the pace of technological change would only continue to accelerate in future years, most later miracles, such as the electric light, the telephone, and the automobile, would only replace and improve upon the older ones, such as gas-light, the telegraph, and the railroad, that had come into being in the thirty years before the Civil War. And by that point, because of the Industrial Revolution, technological miracles had become a commonplace, and change a constant. The disconcerting sense of living through a discontinuity in the stream of time was lost.

To those who had lived through that discontinuity, however, it was the regularity and simplicity, certainly not the squalor, disease, and poverty, that they missed about the good old days. Through the softening haze of time—and with a good deal of help from the likes of Currier & Ives and Dickens—the good old days came to seem ever more appealing, compared with the “age of chaos . .. [this] heaving, tumbling age” (James Gordon Bennett’s words) in which they now lived.