Social Media in 1857

Newspapers once featured telegraph items that bear a striking resemblance to tweets.

A view of the U.S. Capitol Building dome under construction in 1857, the year The Atlantic was launched.
A view of the U.S. Capitol Building dome under construction in 1857, the year The Atlantic was launched. (Architect of the Capitol )

Many Novembers ago, when The Atlantic was brand-new, a writer for The New York Times made a cautiously optimistic assessment of the fledgling magazine. The talent of The Atlantic’s writers was “indisputable,” the newspaper said, though “there is a lack of freshness in the topics discussed.”

No matter, the reviewer concluded. “A periodical, like a horse or steamer, must have sufficient time allowed it to show its strength.”

One hundred sixty years later, here we are. The Atlantic has thrived well beyond the lifespan of even the most durable steamers and wizened horses of the 19th century. Today, revisiting first impressions of The Atlantic isn’t just a reminder of its storied journalistic roots, but a throwback to a vastly different landscape—a time of steamers and horses, yes, and also printing presses and telegraphs.

The telegraph did for the 19th century what the smartphone has done for our time—it completely overhauled people’s expectations about information. On the day of that first review of The Atlantic, the front page of The New York Times was built around the telegraph news network. Smack-dab in the middle of the page is a feed of bite-size information—including incomplete descriptions of events. It was, as The Times described it, the “latest intelligence by telegraph.” But what it looks like today is a static, old-timey kind of Twitter—a disjointed report of events, of varied magnitude, from disperse geographic locations.

There is this short dispatch from Georgia: “The Montgomery mail announces killing frosts in that neighborhood.”

And from Virginia: “Gov. Wise has sent 3,000 muskets to Baltimore, in compliance with the request of Gov. Ligon.”

And from Canada: “A destructive fire occurred at Whitby, C.W., today, but as the telegraph office was destroyed we have been unable to learn the particulars.”

The New York Times on Nov. 2, 1857 (Screenshot from The New York Times)

Many of these short items relate to transportation news—confirmation of ships that arrived (“the steamship Philadelphia has arrived” at Havana) and those that didn’t (“the steamship Star of the West had not arrived at Havana”).

The Times would repeat some items on the same page—the way a person might use retweets or tweet threads to add context or to shore up initial accounts of a news event. (Printed farther down the page from the item about muskets loaned to Maryland is this: “Another dispatch from Richmond confirms the report of a loan of 3,000 muskets by Gov. Wise to Gov. Ligon, of Maryland. Six boxes containing 40 each, passed through this city yesterday.”)

I reviewed several weeks’ worth of these telegraph intelligence reports from the era—including the days before and after The Atlantic reached American readers and thinkers for the very first time, and was struck again and again by just how Twittery it all seemed. There was a passing report of an explosion at the rubber works in Providence, a terrible storm in Norfolk, a high-profile prison sentence in Chicago, the firing of a Navy official, excitement among shipbuilders over something or other, and so on.

Any item, taken by itself, is a fleeting snapshot, devoid of much necessary context. Reading any account of the news from an earlier era is like this. The past is, as they say, a foreign country. But there’s a reliable rhythm to even the most-ephemeral information streams over time. And it’s clear that, for a time—quite a long time, several decades—the telegraph was the thing that drove the news cycle; its contents were embedded prominently in the dominant platform of the day. The technologies may change over time, but many informational dynamics remain the same.

In the 19th century, the telegraph was at the center of a crisis over the future of fact-based reporting. A few years ago, I stumbled upon a Times article published in 1858 that lamented “all telegraphic intelligence” as “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth.”

“Does it not render the popular mind too fast for the truth?” the author of that article wrote. “Ten days bring us the mails from Europe. What need is there for the scraps of news in ten minutes? How trivial and paltry is the telegraphic column?”

How, journalists must have wondered at the time, could a new monthly magazine compete with a phenomenon like the telegraph? “The Atlantic certainly makes no pretensions to the character of an oracle of the Newness,” The Times wrote of The Atlantic’s debut. (I transcribed the complete review a couple of years ago. You can read it here.)

And what does “an oracle of the Newness” look like in 2017, anyway?

It’s certainly not Twitter, whose format is familiar in generations-old newsprint. Today, one of The Atlantic’s contemporary information streams is its list of most-popular stories. Visit that section of the site today and you’ll find several devoted to one of the biggest news stories of the 19th century: “Five Books to Make You Less Stupid About the Civil War,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Civil War Was Not a Mistake” and “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee,” by Adam Serwer, plus “The South Only Embraced States’ Rights as It Lost Control of the Federal Government” by Caleb McDaniel.

In plenty of ways, 160 years is a long, long time. In others, it wasn’t so long ago at all.