How Memes Went Viral — In the 1800s

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

The Infectious Texts project studies how memes went viral — in the 1800s:

The project expects to launch by the end of the month. When it does, researchers and the public will be able to comb through widely reprinted texts identified by mining 41,829 issues of 132 newspapers from the Library of Congress. While this first stage focuses on texts from before the Civil War, the project eventually will include the later 19th century and expand to include magazines and other publications, says Ryan Cordell, an assistant professor of English at Northeastern University and a leader of the project.

Some of the stories were printed in 50 or more newspapers, each with thousands to tens of thousands of subscribers. The most popular of them most likely were read by hundreds of thousands of people, Cordell says. Most have been completely forgotten. “Almost none of those are texts that scholars have studied, or even knew existed,” he said.


Some of the texts that went viral in the 1800s aren’t all that different from the things people post on Facebook today, Cordell says. Political rants were popular, for example, as were recipes and travel stories.

Poems also turn up frequently, as well as another type of writing Cordell calls vignettes. These are sentimental stories that are presented as if they’re real, but aren’t attributable to an author and lack details that would make it possible to verify them. One example is a letter, supposedly tucked into a book by a dying woman and found by her husband after her death. She urges him to remember her fondly and live a good life after she’s gone. “These are fascinating to me because they blur the line between fact and fiction, which sort of exemplifies the 19th century newspaper,” Cordell said.

The vignettes often had a moral to them. On popular variety, temperance stories, were aimed at getting drunks to sober up. Cordell likens these cautionary tales to the email you’ve probably gotten from a concerned aunt or uncle that turns out to be based on a bogus urban legend when you look it up on Snopes.


  1. T. Greer says:

    It used to be part of my daily routine to head over to the digital library of congress Historic American newspaper collection or Cornell’s Making of America Journal collection and read an article or two to start my day.

    Even the stuff written for the proles in 1840 surpasses what you find on Upworthy today.

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