‘Fake News’: Insights from the NPHFI’s Tenth Annual Conference, Newcastle University, 10-11 November 2017

The Tenth Annual Conference of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland, held at the University of Newcastle on November 10-11, 2017, addressed a topic that no doubt resonates with many contemporary discussions about journalism in the post-truth era: ‘Fake News! An Historical Perspective’. The conference featured a number of stimulating panels which engaged with the issue of ‘fake news’ in various historical and geographical settings—‘Defamation and sensationalism’, ‘News manipulation, propaganda and radicalism’, ‘“Fake news” and Ireland’ and ‘“Fake news” and Northern Ireland’—along with two keynote addresses by Prof James Curran, on ‘The moral decline of the British press’, and Prof Aled Gruffyd Jones, on ‘Is news fake? A long view’. Rather than a conference report, this post is a summary of the insights I gained from this two-day event (together with a long list of questions to ponder in my future research on media history!).

‘Fake news’, as many speakers pointed out, is by no means a new phenomenon: indeed, the question of the ‘integrity’ of news, as Aled Gruffyd Jones fittingly put it, is as old as news itself. The phrase ‘fake news’, however, is of a more recent pedigree and has exploded into public consciousness in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential elections, when the question of how fabricated news stories widely circulated on social media impacted on the actual outcome of the elections became the subject of much public and scholarly debate. As Tamara Hunt reminded us in her talk, there is a linguistic dimension to consider, since the adjective ‘fake’ was seldom used before the eighteenth century. At least until the end of the nineteenth century, if not even later, if we are to believe the newspaper and periodical files I examined in my own research, it was more common to speak about ‘false news’, ‘false reports’ or ‘false telegrams’. An example of how the term was used in the seventeenth century comes from James II of England’s ‘Proclamation to Restrain the Spreading of False News’, issued in Whitehall on 26 October 1688, which refers to ‘evil disposed persons … [who] make it their business, by writing, printing, or speaking, to defame our government with false and seditious news and reports’. As this and other examples from that period demonstrate, ‘false news’ was often described as a form of ‘evil’ talk. The nineteenth century also had its share of fabricated news, with the Great Moon Hoax of 1835, in which the New York-based newspaper The Sun published a series of articles claiming that life had been discovered on the Moon, being perhaps the most notorious.

Historically, the contexts in which ‘fake news’ cropped up were many: sometimes as part of political and military crises, commercial rivalries or advertising plots; other times in sensational reports about celebrities or murders; yet others in attempts to reconstruct Soviet cities in the aftermath of WWII—Robert Dale’s pertinent observation that analyses of ‘fake news’ should also account for its ‘silences’ is worth emphasizing here—or the colonial government’s plans to control the flow of official intelligence to the press in British India.

As is often the case with definitions, the task of establishing what counts as ‘fake news’ is a daunting one. Furthermore, there are indications that contemporary definitions of the term might be different from those employed in previous literature. In a recent survey of 34 academic articles, Tandoc, Lim and Ling identified six main ways in which the term has been employed, namely as news satire, news parody, fabrication, manipulation, advertising and propaganda. They also pointed out that these definitions were based on the ‘levels of facticity and deception’ of such news items and that the two main motivations that underpinned the fabrication of false news stories were financial and ideological. [1] Indeed, the papers presented at the conference tended to conceptualize the universe of ‘fake news’ as a broad entity: on one hand, there was news that was clearly and intentionally fabricated, with the falsification of commercial intelligence and war telegrams being two common examples in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On the other hand, there was news that was based on fact or at least a nugget of truth, but on which journalists, state authorities and other social actors tried to put a certain spin in order to promote a particular perception that would favour their interests. The intention to deceive was present, but the level of facticity was higher than in the former type of ‘fake news’. By contrast, scholars who have examined the recent proliferation of ‘fake news’, especially in the United States, have argued that reports that are ‘slanted or misleading but not outright false’ do not fit the bill, since they ‘filter’ rather than ‘distort’ reality. In this understanding, ‘fake news’ is that which is ‘intentionally and verifiably false’ and is related to two particular types of media bias: fact bias and framing bias (as opposed to issue bias and ideological stand bias which are regarded as filtering reality, not distorting it).[2]

There is, however, another dimension to consider, namely that it might be more productive to conceptualize ‘fake news’, as Aled Gruffyd Jones suggested in one of his interventions, as a ‘complex process’ rather than a particular event. This perspective has the benefit of bringing into focus not only the contexts in which ‘fake news’ is fabricated and disseminated, but also how the audiences themselves respond to and engage with it.  Put differently, what function does ‘fake news’ play in society and what does it teach us about it? For example, is ‘fake news’ used to undermine the credibility of rival newspapers, to defame the press as an entity or, like in the colonial context of India, to delegitimize local forms and practitioners of journalism? If ‘fake news’ is strategic, as James Curran pointed out in his keynote address, what role does it play in the current erosion of trust in communication media and what are the broader social and political consequences of this phenomenon? Is ‘fake news’ used to manufacture public opinion and if so, what role do emotions like anger play in such processes? Finally, is ‘fake news’ a revolt against Enlightenment rationality and a ‘discourse of chaos’? As some of the conference speakers pointed out, attempts to address these questions must also engage with the role of newspapers in society and how this has been conceptualized by journalists, political actors and other members of the public. Are newspapers simply vehicles of information or are they also organs of education? How might such understandings of a newspaper’s role in society collide with an understanding that emphasizes its entertaining value? Is the press a form of cultural performance, as it might be argued was the case in post-WWII Soviet Union, when newspapers routinely published false information about the state of urban reconstruction?

Understanding how audiences engage with ‘fake news’ is important because it draws attention to the broader political and cultural ramifications of this phenomenon. It can show, as Abigail Rieley discussed in her talk, that untruth can live and linger on long after it entered the public domain and draw attention to the role intertextuality and orality might play in the afterlives of ‘fake news’. The issue of agency, as some speakers emphasized, is essential when dealing with the question of audience response, because the realization that a piece of news is fake has the potential to effectively undermine its power. ‘Fake news’ that is recognized as such by its readers ceases to be ‘fake news’ and becomes fiction. Information and media literacy—in other words, training people to recognize ‘fake news’, for example by teaching them to think critically about the sources of news and the contexts in which it was created, the manner in which journalism has developed and changed historically, how to cope with a scenario in which many of the traditional gatekeepers who filtered information for the audiences have disappeared, etc.—is an important step in grappling with its proliferation. However, in and by itself, this might not be enough to cure the broader social pathology of which ‘fake news’ is only a symptom.

Amelia Bonea

[1] Edson C. Tandoc Jr., Zheng Wei Lim, and Richard Ling, “Defining ‘Fake News’”, Digital Journalism, (2017), DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2017.1360143.

[2] Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election”, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 31, No. 2 (2017): 211-235; M. Gentzkow, J. M. Shapiro and D. F. Stone, “Media Bias in the Marketplace: Theory”, in Handbook of Media Economics, vol. 1B, ed. by S. P. Anderson, J. Waldfogel and D. Stromberg (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 2016), pp. 623-645.

A full programme of the conference can be found below.

Fake news poster

Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland


Tenth Annual Conference

‘“FakeNews!”: An Historical Perspective’

 Friday 10 & Saturday 11 November 2017

Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Conference Schedule

Friday 10 November (Devonshire Building, room G21)

09:00 – 09:45              Registration and coffee.

09:45 – 10:00              Welcome address

10:00 – 11:30              Defamation and sensationalism

Chair: Richard Allen

Tamara Hunt               ‘“Fake News”, Commerce, and Seditious Libel in Early 18th Century England’.

Máire Cross                 ‘Sensationalism and satire: the role of the press in the making of Flora Tristan as a political activist’.

Gemma Horton           ‘Exploring the lack of protection defamation law offers celebrities from “fake news” in the United States’.

11:30 – 12:00              Coffee.

12:00 – 13:30              ‘Fake News’ and Ireland (I): perspective and presentation

Chair: Ray Burke

Abigail Rieley             ‘The Lingering Lie – how the London Evening Standard’s reporting of a Victorian Irish murder played politics with innocence and guilt’.

Patrick Maume            ‘Keeper of The Flame: Brian O’Higgins (1882-1963) and the Wolfe Tone Annual 1932-62’.

William Burton           ‘“Hypothetical bombing of a small town” – Fact and Fiction in Irish Newspapers’.

13:30 – 14:30              Lunch.

Friday 10 November cont.

14:30 – 16:00              News manipulation, propaganda, and radicalism

Chair: Joan Allen

Amelia Bonea             ‘Manipulating news? Official policy and personal networks in Sir Owen T. Burne’s vision of the press in colonial India’.

Robert Dale                 ‘Façadism: The Reconstruction of Soviet Cities, Fake News and Propaganda during and after the Great Patriotic War (1943¬–1953)’.

Christopher                 ‘The “Yellow’ Enemy”: The Early British Left and the Daily Popular Shoop-Worrall                      Press’.

16:00 – 16:30              Coffee.

16:30 – 17:30              Keynote: ‘The moral decline of the British press’, Prof. James Curran

Chair: Michael Foley

Evening                       Dinner (Blackfriars Restaurant, Friars Street)

Saturday 11 November (Armstrong Building, room 2.16)

10:00 – 12:00              ‘Fake News’ and Ireland (II): the nineteenth century

Chair: Felix Larkin

John North                  ‘Identifying Fake News in the Nineteenth-Century Irish Press’.

Robert Brazeau           ‘Fake News in the Nineteenth-Century: The Curious Career of Scandal Journalism’

Christopher Eaton       ‘Chaos and Influence: The Case of Watty Cox’

Karina Wendling         ‘“Irish Paupers and British Christians”: Mirror effects in Irish newspapers during the Great Irish Famine (1845-51)’.

12:00 – 12:30              Coffee.

12:30 – 13:30              Keynote: ‘Is news fake? A long view’, Prof. Aled Gruffyd Jones

Chair: Regina Ui Chollatáin

13:30 – 14:30              Lunch.

Saturday 11 November cont.

14:30 – 15:30              ‘Fake News’ and Northern Ireland

Chair: Joe Breen

Oliver O’Hanlon         ‘Fake news? Sorj Chalandon’s reporting from Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s for Libération’.

Roseanna Doughty     ‘“The door is still open for peace. But only just”: British Press Coverage of the Northern Ireland Peace Process’.

15:30 – 16:00              AGM

Electric Stair-Climbers and Mobility in the Nineteenth Century

In his book on machines and modernity in India, historian David Arnold rightly points out that ‘big technologies’ like the telegraph and the railways have received more attention from scholars than smaller, ‘everyday technologies’ like the typewriter, the bicycle, the sewing-machine and the rice mill. Following the trajectory of these four technological devices in India, Arnold makes some pertinent comments about the nature of colonial power and its ability to control the use of technology, the relationship between technology and well-being and the myriad ways in which these modern contrivances were incorporated into the daily routines of Indians of diverse social backgrounds.

I am always reminded of Arnold’s book when flipping through the pages of technical and more general periodicals from the nineteenth century, marvelling at the great variety of technological innovations put forward by the engineering minds of the day. One example I have recently stumbled upon is the ‘electric stair-climber’ or the monte-escalier, as it was known in French: a stairlift devised by the civil engineer J. Alain Amiot, which was among the many ‘novelties’ exhibited in the Gallery of Machines at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1889. Describing the invention, Le Génie Civil highlighted the relevance of this ‘small technology’ to everyday life:  ‘In addition to the great industrial inventions, there are numerous other, of a more modest type, which are no less important to our daily needs and which provide us with a host of services whose necessity we have come to appreciate more every day’.

Machinery Gallery, 1889

Interior view of the Gallery of Machines, Exposition Universelle, 1889, Paris (Source: Library of Congress)

Elevators were already familiar to Parisians at the time when the monte-escalier began to vie for the attention of the public. They were particularly useful in ‘modern’, multi-storied buildings, where residents and visitors who used them were spared the ‘fatigue of climbing of stairs’. Le Génie Civil even claimed that the use of elevators was connected to a rise in preference for upper-story apartments, where air was ‘healthier and the dust and noise of the street below could not reach so easily’.

The electric stair-climber resembled the elevator in many respects and press accounts of Amiot’s invention were careful to emphasize the fact that the new technology was by no means intended to compete with the former, but was much less ambitious in scope. The stair-climber was designed for use in buildings where the transport of persons was limited, such as private residences, or where it could complement the use of the elevator, for example in hotels. Unlike the elevator, which could transport people from the ground floor to the top of the building, the stair-climber was envisaged for use between floors, with each climber functioning independently from the ones on the other floors. Also unlike the elevator, a stair-climber could only be used to transport one person at a time, either standing or seated. Among its advantages were a lower price and the compact design: much like contemporary stairlifts, Amiot’s monte-escalier could be folded when not in use and it only occupied approximately 30 centimetres of the total width of the stairs, thus enabling people to pass by each other without exposing themselves to the danger of accidents.

Monte-esclaier electrique

Another advantage was the fact that stair-climbers could be easily installed in older buildings that did not have enough space to accommodate the bulky cage of elevators. Unlike this more elaborate contrivance, a stair-climber consisted of only three parts: a ‘guide’ made of two parallel flat iron rods which were supported on the balustrade, a movable platform and a motor. Although the motor could be either electric or hydraulic, like in the case of elevators, by this time there was a visible move towards the use of the former type of device. As one press report pointed out, in the case of elevators, this trend could be traced back to the International Exhibition of Electricity held in Paris in 1881, when proposals were made for the replacement of hydraulic engines with electric ones on elevators.

Monte-escalier de M J Alain Amiot

One intriguing aspect of these early French reports about the monte-escalier is that they make no mention of the potential use of this innovation to assist the mobility of elderly or disabled people. Indeed, it is unclear from the available evidence whether Amiot had envisaged such a field of use. But as news of his invention spread to other corners of the globe via the medium of newspapers and magazines, people began to speculate that the device could also be useful to those afflicted by mobility problems. Across the Atlantic, the editor of the Manufacturer and Builder of New York ended his description of the ‘electric stair-climber’ by anticipating that, ‘The increasing facilities for employing the electric current for power, should render a device of this kind practicable on the score of cost, and it will doubtless prove to be useful and popular in many situations. It would be particularly valuable for invalid members of a household.’ This prediction proved true, as the advertisement below, dating from 1933, also demonstrates. Unlike the earlier French models, the ‘electric passenger lift for the home’ designed by the Inclinator Company of America was aimed specifically at “all who are afflicted with ‘polio’, impaired heart action, arthritis, and the infirmities of age. Where physical disabilities make stair-climbing distressing or tiresome these modern conveniences are a necessity, permitting the invalid to avoid painful and fatiguing efforts.” The design of the American stairlift was similar to that of its predecessor and, indeed, to contemporary stairlifts that have become indispensable in the care of the elderly and the disabled.

Amelia Bonea

‘Koch’s Lymph’ – A story by I. T. Mera

Browsing through the pages of Foaia Ilustrată (Illustrated Sheet), a nineteenth-century periodical published in the town of Sibiu, in what is now Romania, I came across a serialized ‘novella’ carrying an intriguing title: ‘Limfa lui Koch’ (Koch’s Lymph). The author, Iuliu Traian Mera (1861-1909), was born into a clerical family in the picturesque village of Şiria in Arad County. He studied medicine in Vienna and went on to become a balneologist of some repute, establishing a practice in Carlsbad/Karlovy Vary, in the present Czech Republic, a place well known for its hot springs. He was also a writer and journalist and became involved in the Romanian national movement, most prominently through his association with the cultural and literary society Romania Jună (Young Romania), which was established in Vienna in 1871.

The story was published in five consecutive issues of Foaia Ilustrată in March-April 1891. It is a moving account of the devastation wrought by tuberculosis in the nineteenth century and the hopes invested in the possibility of a cure. The protagonist, a young lady called Aniţa, is the daughter of a well-to-do ‘proprietor’: Mr Ioan Zamfirescu, a man who has already lost his wife and two other children to pulmonary tuberculosis. Aniţa is engaged to be married to the young lawyer Dimitrescu, when the first signs of illness appear: a burning sensation in her chest, an unpleasant, ‘salty’ taste in her mouth, followed by a cough and the familiar spitting of ‘red, warm’ blood. Despite the fact that Dimitrescu cowardly abandons her—the news of Aniţa’s illness soon becomes the talk of the whole town, illustrating the stigma associated with this disease—she decides to fight for her life and for the happiness that seems to have eluded her all her life.

Aniţa’s story is a grim reminder that even the most economically privileged members of society were not immune to the dangers of tuberculosis. [1] Her father does not spare any effort in an attempt to save his last surviving child. He first takes her to Bad Gleichenberg in the southern part of what is now Austria, in the hope that its clean air and spring waters would provide a ‘complete cure’ for his daughter. Her condition improves temporarily, only to deteriorate again upon her return home in September 1890.

Robert Koch

Foaia Ilustrată, 13/25 January 1891

By the beginning of November, the ailing girl’s hopes are pinned on a new form of treatment, as the ‘political newspapers’ announce that Prof Koch, the ‘eminent bacteriologist of the Faculty of Medicine in Berlin’, has discovered a method that can ‘absolutely cure’ tuberculosis. The story of Koch’s 1890 announcement of the discovery of tuberculin—also known as lymph—and its subsequent failure as a therapeutic agent is well documented [2]. What is interesting about Mera’s story is that it beautifully captures the public expectations associated with the new treatment and illustrates the ways in which the public accessed scientific knowledge and research. The above reference to ‘political newspapers’ is not haphazard. On the contrary, it suggests that this type of publications were usually the first to disseminate new scientific ‘discoveries’ to a broad public. But the reliability of their reports was subject to questions. When Aniţa asks her doctor if he has read the latest newspapers and whether the ‘news about Koch’ might be true, his response reveals some of the concerns associated with daily journalism:

Let’s wait, my dear young lady; the political newspapers publish so much news. They have many columns and issues to fill. Let’s wait until the medical journals and Koch himself speak.

While her doctor continues to remain sceptical about the efficacy of the lymph, Aniţa’s hopes flourish with the increase in press coverage. Her life revolves around the reading of newspapers; she naively believes that ‘European’ newspapers are more deserving of trust than local publications, on account of their ‘reliable correspondents all over the world, who would not endanger the reputation of their newspapers by publishing a false piece of news’. She even begins to question the professional ability of her doctor, whose more advanced age appears to make him less inclined to accept ‘the newer progress of science’ than younger practitioners.

The much awaited confirmation finally arrives on the 13th of November, when a medical journal from Berlin publishes Koch’s testimony about the new treatment of tuberculosis. Among those afflicted with the disease, the euphoria is general:

How many sweet and great hopes awoke in the hearts of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of patients, who had believed themselves to be standing at the gates of death. And suddenly, as if by some mysterious miracle, they saw themselves saved, saved—returned to the world and to this worldly life.

The announcement of the new cure causes an exodus of patients and doctors to Berlin:

Only two days later, there was a great migration of people towards the capital of the German Empire. Doctors went to study the new method, patients to regain their lost health. Some of them, who could not endure the travails of the long winter journey died on the road or in one of Berlin’s hotels, far away from their country and their relatives. But they died with Koch’s name on their lips, with a smiling face, cheered by the hope of recovery.

Aniţa is among those who attempt the trip abroad, in search of the ‘miraculous lymph’. She is in a privileged position, since her father’s influence and money allow her to make the trip to Vienna, where injections of tuberculin were already available. The first injection triggered powerful side-effects: chills, fever, nausea, headaches, pangs of pain in her joints. The second and the third seemed to bring some amelioration in her symptoms, easing her cough and breathing. But the next three injections did not bring about the much desired relief: on the contrary, her symptoms worsened. Life finally leaves her body around the same time that ‘doubting voices began to be heard about the effect of Koch’s treatment and the poor patients began to understand from the doctors’ conversations, from the evolution of their disease, that the hopes that had animated them were nothing more than a treacherous dream, an illusion that they could no longer reach’. Aniţa breathes her last in the arms of her inconsolable parent, her final words, ‘Father, please don’t be upset’, a sad reminder of the many forgotten tragedies of tuberculosis in the nineteenth century.

It is a  tragedy that continues to unfold. Far from being consigned to the history books, tuberculosis remains a very real problem in Romania, which has the highest incidence of this disease among EU countries. Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, the outcome of an inefficient public health system, improper treatment and lack of public awareness is a particular problem, whose full extent and social impact is yet to be properly acknowledged and tackled.

[1] In Illness as Metaphor (1978), Susan Sontag writes about the romanticization of tuberculosis since the eighteenth century and how, despite the fact that it was ‘often imagined as a disease of poverty and deprivation—of thin garments, thin bodies, unheated rooms, poor hygiene, inadequate food’, it was also an ‘index of being genteel, delicate, sensitive’.

[2] See Christoph Gradmann’s work: ‘Robert Koch and the Pressures of Scientific Research: Tuberculosis and Tuberculin’, Medical History, 45 (2001): 1-32; ‘Robert Koch and the White Death: from Tuberculosis to Tuberculin’, Microbes and Infection, 8 (2006): 294-301.

Amelia Bonea

Report: Workshop on the History of Medicine, Society and the Body, Keio University, 17 September 2015

On 17 September 2015, in the course of a research trip to Japan, I had the pleasure of joining Prof Akihito Suzuki and a number of early career researchers at Keio University for what turned out to be a very stimulating ‘Workshop on the History of Medicine, Society and the Body’. The event has become an annual tradition, an opportunity for scholars of the history of medicine to exchange ideas in a congenial setting and, equally important, in a language other than their mother tongue, thus either English or Japanese. My own role in the workshop, as you can see from the illustration below, was to introduce the work of the ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ Project as well as my research on technologies of communication and health in the nineteenth century. In case anyone was wondering whether our nineteenth-century predecessors (also) suffered from repetitive strain injuries as a result of excessive writing, typewriting or telegraphing, the answer is ‘Yes, they did!’.

Keio programme

The first speaker was Dr Akiko Kawasaki (Komazawa), whose talk on “Charles Bonnet Syndrome in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Torching the Dusties’” examined the story of an elderly couple, Wilma and Tobias. The two are trapped in a luxurious nursing home, Ambrosia Manor, which becomes the target of a violent mob of young people known as ‘Our Turn’. Atwood’s story, as Kawasaki pointed out, is set against the background of contemporary debates about generational inequality in Canadian society and is a moving account of physical and mental degeneration in old age. The angry protesters that besiege Ambrosia Manor wave placards with disturbing slogans like ‘Hurry up please, it’s time’ and ‘Torch the Dusties’. Wilma’s experience of the attack is mediated by her physical disability: her memory is fading and she suffers from age-related macular degeneration and Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS). This leads to several bouts of visual hallucinations, in the course of which she sees colourfully dressed little people or ‘manikins’ dancing around her room and ‘putting on a grand show for her’. The use of CBS, Kawasaki argued, helps to blur the boundary between reality and imagination, leading to overlaps between Wilma’s reality and the reality of the outside world, and ‘creat[ing] a dramatic life-or-death moment’.

Sayaka Mihara’s (Keio) talk on ‘Vitalism and Neonatal Medicine in Japan, 1900-1940’ introduced us to the history of conception and clinical management of debilitas vitae (seiryoku hakujyaku 生力薄弱). Her analysis showed that although the European notion of ‘congenital debility’ (sentensei jyakushitsu 先天性弱質) was accepted in Japan in 1899 in the field of death registration, the concepts of debilitas vitae and ‘vital force’ (seiryoku 生力) resonated more with Japanese paediatricians due to the influence of Rangaku (Dutch) learning and of Chinese qi cosmology in nineteenth-century Japan. Furthermore, Mihara discussed how Japanese doctors attempted to treat debilitas vitae with the help of physical and chemical methods (incubators between 1900 and 1930, and hormone therapy and gavage feeding from 1930 until 1945, respectively), despite the fact that vitalism advocated a ‘distrust [of] the power of technique over life’.

Dr Keiko Daidoji (Keio) traced the history of autointoxication in early twentieth-century Japan and its transformation into a psychosomatic disorder of Japanese children. She discussed the influence of Nobel-prize winner Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov (1845-1916), whose research on the nexus between disease and the toxins produced by intestinal bacteria shaped understandings of autointoxication in Japan. This was reflected, for example, in the work of the Japanese doctor Yumoto Kyūshin on neurasthenia, which combined the emerging notion of ‘toxin’ of European medicine with that of poison or doku found in medical writings of the Edo period. In the same time, Daidoji also showed how, during a period marked by growing concern with ‘constitution’ in Japanese medicine, other doctors came to regard autointoxication as a ‘constitutional anomaly’, by positing a connection between the accumulation of poison in a person’s body and their ‘constitutional type’.

Autointoxication in early 20th century Japan

Loh Shi-Lin’s (Harvard) talk traced the development of radiology in modern Japan, from Bunryo Marumo’s first lecture and demonstration of Roentgen’s apparatus on 31 May 1896 to the introduction of an X-ray instrument in the Laboratory of Anatomy,  Department of Medicine, at the Tokyo Imperial University in the following year to the marketing of X-ray devices by the Yasunaka Denki Seisakujo (Yasunaka Electric Factory) a mere four years later. Loh’s talk reconstructed the multi-faceted life of X-rays in modern Japan, showing how advocates of this technology envisaged its application in a wide range of fields, including the army, the industry and for the general public. Print culture provides some fascinating examples of the latter. Here, Loh discussed the use of X-rays to screen potential marriage partners for tuberculosis, as the illustration below also shows.

TB screening of potential couples

Rie Yamada’s (Tokyo) talked focused on psychiatric health care in contemporary Japan, contrasting the Japanese system with that of other European and North American countries and pointing out, for example, that there are differences in the definition of psychiatric beds and that Japan has the highest number of days of hospitalization. Her ongoing doctoral research on this topic takes place in the context of a recent move by the Japanese Government to deinstitutionalize the care of people affected by mental illness by shifting responsibility from hospitals onto the community, as reflected in the 2004 plan to reform mental health and welfare services. The family is thus central to Yamada’s research; a good portion of the material she analyses comes from publications originating with associations of the patients’ families as well as interviews with family members, nurses and doctors. Her research into this topic is a welcome addition to a more substantial body of scholarship which has examined the care of elderly people in contemporary Japanese society.

A full programme of the workshop can be found here:


Amelia Bonea

Workshop Report: Working with 19th-Century Medical and Health Periodicals

The workshop ‘Working with 19th-Century Medical and Health Periodicals’ was held on 30 May 2015 and co-organized by the ERC-funded ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ Project and the AHRC-funded ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ Project, both based at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford. The aim of the event was to facilitate conversation about the use of medical and health periodicals in historical and literary research, a resource which has been central not only to the work of the aforementioned projects, but also to that of many other scholars interested in various aspects of nineteenth-century history and literature. The programme was interdisciplinary, trans-institutional, bringing together both librarians and researchers, and international in its approach, with papers covering an impressive array of topics and countries, including Britain, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Poland, Portugal, and Russia. Overall, approximately 60 participants based at institutions in the United Kingdom, Portugal, Norway, Austria and the United States attended the workshop and a total of 18 papers were presented. The workshop also featured two poster presentations by Ann Hale (University of Greenwich) and Bernhard Leitner (University of Vienna), on medical jurisprudence in legal periodicals and the role of neurological journals in the development of Japanese psychiatry, respectively.

Despite the wide diversity of approaches and perspectives, the workshop proved highly successful in identifying and addressing a coherent set of problems associated with research on medical periodicals. It was recognized that ongoing digitization of such material has created a critical juncture for scholars, who are forced to rethink their theoretical and methodological tools as they embrace the opportunities offered by digitization, but also grapple with its challenges. On one hand, digitization has made periodicals more easily accessible and available to a wider public, it has led to the creation of digital platforms which allow researchers to track changes in disease terminology or to use text-mining techniques to identify structures, co-references and relations. On the other hand, however, the number of digitized periodicals remains limited and there is a real danger of decontextualization when using digital resources. Researchers thus need to remember that the process of digitization is selective and that exclusions are not readily apparent. As many of the speakers have pointed out, researchers must exercise caution when using digitized periodicals as many of the sets are incomplete, there is a widespread bias towards the digitization of peer-reviewed periodicals and much of the wider publishing context, which can be gleaned from more ‘traditional’ resources like library catalogues and indexes, is missing. Participants have also pointed out that attitudes towards digitization may vary across national borders, while some countries lack the resources to digitize their materials. A more sustained collaboration between researchers, librarians and archivists as well as between scholars with varied linguistic and disciplinary expertise was advocated. Furthermore, researchers are encouraged to establish a proactive relationship with relevant institutions such as the Royal College of Surgeons and the Wellcome Library, whose recent digitization efforts include popular titles like the Chemist and Druggist, to publicize their work with periodicals via feature articles and blogs, to join discussion lists, etc.

Topham b Mold b Mold marlandtext mining

The papers presented have also demonstrated that medical and health periodicals lend themselves to a variety of theoretical and methodological uses. Apart from providing insights into a range of medical debates such as those connected with the health of adolescent girls, medical publishing on sexual knowledge and attempts to bring proprietary medicines like chlorodyne under the remit of the law, the periodicals can also illuminate how scientific discoveries circulate (as seen in a late nineteenth-century example from Germany which publicized a formula for making ‘meat’ from industrial waste) or how photography is used to document and construct illness. In addition, medical periodicals can also be helpful to document practices of tropical medicine, the history of women doctors, especially in the absence of other types of sources, as in the case of Russia, or to demonstrate how medicine and science more generally are employed in projects of nation-building and how the medical press can function as an instrument of propaganda (the case of Portugal). Many papers highlighted the dynamic, multivocal and often fragmented nature of medical periodicals as a genre. Speakers discussed both the content and the form of periodicals, with emphasis being placed on processes of production, circulation and consumption, the role of market forces in transforming periodicals into commodities as well as the use of technology and advertising techniques in the medical press. For example, the comparative examination of photographs in French medicine and theatre revealed how photographic technology was used to document the functioning of the brain and demonstrated the dialogical relationship between photographer on one hand and patients and actors on the other. In India, photography also provided a rare glimpse into the hospital and the zenana, but the dissemination of such material via periodicals disregarded local conventions of propriety and respectability.


The importance of medical periodicals in offering a platform for the voices of women doctors and nurses was also emphasized, especially in historical contexts such as that provided by Victorian Britain where women were excluded from universities and professional associations. By contrast, it was argued that in Russia women were not on the fringe of the medical profession but worked alongside men to improve their own condition and that of ordinary people. In this context, the significance of imperial connections also deserves emphasis: the empire was not only a laboratory which provided knowledge about tropical diseases, but also opportunities for British nurses to work in the field of sanitary reform and to further their career and negotiate more senior roles either at ‘Home’ or in other colonial locations. The imperial setting also illustrates the role of Christian missions in the publication of both specialized and general periodicals and the role played by medicine as a substitute for miracles. In India and China, the strong Christian symbolism associated with cataract surgeries transformed this medical procedure into an important way of healing both the body and the soul.

general general b

The quality and range of papers presented as well as the feedback received from participants and other interested researchers from across the world prove that medical and scientific periodicals represent a thriving field of research. The organizers wish to thank all the participants and in particular librarian Thalia Knight from the Royal College of Surgeons and Damian Nicolaou from the Wellcome Library for providing us with invaluable insights into the practical and conceptual aspects of digitizing medical periodicals. We also welcome further comment about the workshop and suggestions on how we could continue this conversation in the course of the following years. A full programme of the workshop is available here; a podcast of the event will be available shortly.

Amelia Bonea, June 2015

Introducing the India Office Medical Archives Project

We are very happy to be featuring a guest post from Alex Hailey, who has kindly agreed to introduce to our readers the India Office Medical Archives at the British Library. Apart from the records mentioned below, our project also works with medical periodicals published in colonial South Asia. Our colleague Sally Frampton from the Constructing Scientific Communities project is also conducting a study of vaccination debates in Britain and their transnational ramifications in the nineteenth century.


The India Office Medical Archives project is funded by the Wellcome Trust to identify and catalogue material relating to health and disease within the records of the East India Company and India Office, held at the British Library.


Disease was a major challenge to the imperial project in India. The records document the efforts to maintain the military and civil administration in good health, and later attempts to improve wider public health and sanitation. Statistical returns, correspondence, reports on drug trials and epidemics, patient case studies and educational materials all present a full picture of developing medical knowledge and its translation into public policy.

Ref: IOR/F/4/2398/129162 Regarding a Doolie of very ingenious construction invented by Surgeon J S Login, 25 Oct 1850

Ref: IOR/F/4/2398/129162 Regarding a Doolie of very ingenious construction invented by Surgeon J S Login, 25 Oct 1850

Benefits of cataloguing

The holdings consist of over 14km of records created by the East India Company, the British Government Board of Control, the India Office and the Burma Office. They are administratively complex, and tracing subjects across the different departments can be time-consuming and frustrating. Cataloguing increases visibility and enables access.

Project so far

So far entries for over 3,300 records have been published on the Library’s Search our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Authority files for key subjects, individuals and institutions are being created and linked to relevant descriptive entries for ease of access, potentially opening up the collections for researchers with a single search.

A selection from the records

The collections contain administrative reports and statistics across a range of topics, for example smallpox vaccination. The records document the introduction of vaccination, the challenge posed by older inoculation practices (variolation), and the debate over the regulation of vaccine practices through legislation. Also documented are the difficulties experienced in producing and transporting valid lymph matter throughout India.

IOR/F/4/169/2985 Measures taken to introduce smallpox vaccination to Bencoolen from the Bengal Presidency, 1803-04

IOR/F/4/169/2985 Measures taken to introduce smallpox vaccination to Bencoolen from the Bengal Presidency, 1803-04

Records document the establishment and development of medical institutions, from hospitals, asylums and sanatoria to medical schools and colleges. Detailed information on buildings, staffing and equipment requirements, treatments offered, and annual reports can be found in the collections.

Mss Eur D712/4 Volume of layout plans for typical hospitals and units thereof made for British Station Hospitals Committee (c1917-19)

Mss Eur D712/4 Volume of layout plans for typical hospitals and units thereof made for British Station Hospitals Committee (c1917-19)

The project has also identified a number of previously unpublished reports on epidemics and drug trials. The Government of India Medical Proceedings for 1873-1914 contain numerous reports on the treatment of snake-bite, leprosy and sleeping sickness, to name a few.

IOR/P/1005 Jul 1877 nos 43-108. Experiments in treating leprosy with Gurjun oil

IOR/P/1005 Jul 1877 nos 43-108. Experiments in treating leprosy with Gurjun oil

The records also document the development of bacteriology and tropical medicine, and the international exchange of medical knowledge. Officers in the Indian Medical Service regularly conducted research and contributed to international investigations, participating for example in Royal Society investigations into malaria and sleeping sickness. The period 1890-1920 saw the establishment of a network of laboratories throughout India and Burma, and the collections include material relating to the Bombay Bacteriological Laboratory (now Haffkine Institute) and numerous Pasteur Institutes, initially established to provide rabies treatment.

IOR/V/27/856/16 Preparation and use of anti-plague vaccine (Bombay: Times Press, 1907)

IOR/V/27/856/16 Preparation and use of anti-plague vaccine (Bombay: Times Press, 1907)

Other resources

These records complement other resources for the history of colonial medicine in India. The National Library of Scotland’s Medical History of British India portal provides free access to digitised India Office publications, including the Scientific Memoirs by Medical Officers of the Army of India from 1884 to 1901. Publications from 1902 onwards are held at the British Library.

As a Wellcome Trust Research Resources-supported collection, researchers from all disciplines are encouraged to apply for a Research Bursary to use our collections.

The project is ongoing until October 2015, and we are happy to answer any questions about the collections.

Alex Hailey
India Office Medical Archives project

An early episode in the history of electrotherapy in Japan

A recent visit to the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford saw me lingering a little more than usual in front of the electricity and galvanism section. I confess that until I began doing research for a doctoral dissertation on the history of telegraphy I didn’t care much about things electric. This is ironic, really, considering the fact that my father is an electrician. For as long as I can remember, he tried to initiate me into the mysteries of electric wires, conductors, insulators, static electricity and the like. It occurred to me that when I was really young he probably did it in a desperate attempt to keep me away from the sockets in the house, a source of constant fascination for my restless fingers. Later on, he tried to enlist my attention with the familiar refrain that, ‘You will need it one day’. I doubted it at the time, but life works in mysterious ways: as it turns out, my father was right.

Galvanism and electricity are familiar keywords for historians of science in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. The amount of interest in the topic is impressive, as illustrated by numerous scientific and popular publications. There was not much electricity could not cure. A 1826 publication by M. La Beaume, ‘Medical Galvanist, Surgeon-Electrician, Consulting Ditto to the London Electrical Dispensary, Gratuitous Electrician to the Bloomsbury and Northern Dispensary, etc.’ advertises the author’s ‘new galvanic batteries’ and provides a concise survey of the medical applications of galvanism. We learn that galvanism affords relief from a great variety of ailments, among which are disorders of the digestive organs, of the head and the nervous system, ‘cachectic diseases’, diseases of the skin, gout, rheumatism, blindness, deafness as well as diseases ‘peculiar’ to one of the sexes. Of particular interest is the fact that La Beaume promotes galvanism as a safer and more beneficial substitute for mercury-based treatments. As he puts it, ‘Galvanism, skilfully administered, seldom requires the aid of any secondary agent to supply its deficiency, and never to remove injurious effects; it is not at variance with any constitutional temperament, nor can it superinduce any disease: in its application it is perfectly safe, pleasant, direct, and often instantaneously effective; it gives the patient no personal inconvenience whatever; and may be exhibited at all times to both males and females, of all ages and at all seasons of the year’ (p. 199).

But Europe is not the only place where electrotherapy attracted a considerable degree of attention from both scientists and the general public. A similar example comes from Japan, where the first references to electrical devices and their efficacy in the treatment of various diseases date from the Edo period, in the eighteenth century. Unsurprisingly, early Japanese encounters with electricity were mediated by Dutch electrical devices and texts, the only European country which was allowed to trade with Japan at the time. The first electrical device reached Japan via a merchant ship which sailed into Nagasaki in 1753, and took the form of a gift for the Tokugawa shogun. The earliest description of an electrical appliance, known in Japanese as erekiteru, can be found in the 1765 work of Gotō Rishun, Oranda banashi or Stories of Holland, which also contains references to its use in the treatment of diseases.


Illustration of an erekiteru

But it was Hiraga Gennai (1728-1779), a rōnin or masterless samurai born in the present-day Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, who became famous for constructing the first electrotherapeutic device in Japan. Hiraga, a student of rangaku or ‘Dutch learning’, read Oranda banashi and, like many of his contemporaries, became fascinated with the ‘curious’ electrical appliances created in Europe. In 1776, after several years of trial and failure, he succeeded in repairing a discarded Dutch electrical apparatus which he had acquired during a visit to the port-city of Nagasaki.  In rather familiar fashion, if we consider the similar trajectory of such devices in Europe and even in India, Hiraga’s success was followed by public demonstrations of his apparatus; he also offered treatment to select clients and built other devices which were either sold or presented as gifts. Hiraga passed away in unfortunate circumstances only three years after constructing his electrostatic generator, but there are references to this device in his work Hōhiron Kōhen [On farting, Part 2], a biting satire of Confucian learning and high culture. Published in 1777, the work describes the erekiteru as a device which helps to ‘remove the heat (hi, lit. fire) from the body and cures diseases’.

Hiraga Gennai

Portrait of Hiraga Gennai (Keio University Library, Mita Media Center)

Incidentally, Hiraga’s wide-ranging interests did not stop at Western science and technology. He was also a prolific writer and painter, as the above reference to his satirical work suggests. In addition, he had an impressive knowledge of medical plants, having engaged in the study of materia medica under the renowned hōnzogaku scholar Tamura Gen’yū. His contribution to the study of natural history is demonstrated by the publication, in 1763, of a six-volume work entitled Butsurui hinshitsu [On the Distinction of Species]. Among his other activities were the construction of a thermometer, his surveys of mining and experiments with new mining techniques but also his attempts to find domestic sources for pottery and wool which would ameliorate Japan’s reliance on imported commodities. In 2003, the Edo Tokyo Museum organized a special exhibition to celebrate Hiraga’s multi-faceted life as an engineer, naturalist, men of letters and artist. A replica of his erekiteru is currently on display at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo.


Replica of Hiraga’s erekiteru at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo (Wikimedia Commons)


Akiko Ito, “How Electricity Energizes the Body: Electrotherapeutics and Its Analogy of Life in the Japanese Medical Context”, in Feza Günergun and Dhruv Raina (eds.), Science between Europe and Asia: Historical Studies on the Transmission, Adoption and Adaptation of Knowledge (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), pp. 245-58.

Lissa Roberts, “Orienting Natural Knowledge: The Complex Career of Hiraga Gennai”, Endeavour, 33 (2009), pp. 65-69.

Masahiro Maejima, Meiji jidai no denkichiryō ni kansuru kisoteki kenkyū [Basic Study on the Faradization Apparatuses in Meiji Era], Bulletin of the National Science Museum Tokyo, 28 (2005), pp. 13-20.

Ayao Kuwaki, Kagakushikō [Essays on the History of Science] (Kawade Shobō, 1944).

Telegraphs, Electromagnetic Polkas and the Vienna New Year’s Day Concert

When I was a teenager growing up in a tiny border town in Romania, we used to look forward to the first day of the year, when the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra would play its traditional New Year’s Day Concert. I remember being fascinated by the glittering chandeliers, the massive, colourful bouquets of flowers, the guests from all over the world sporting their traditional attires and, of course, the music. Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz The Blue Danube was a favourite with us, perhaps because the music had a tinge of familiarity: the Danube was the artery which connected us to the rest of Europe and, via the Black Sea, even with the rest of the world. Listening to the waltz was like a reminder of the myriad ways in which our lives and histories had been intertwined with the history of this beautiful and sometimes capricious river. The Vienna Concert often became a topic of discussion among classmates and friends; for our music teacher, in particular, admitting that you didn’t watch the concert was just as objectionable as saying that you hadn’t done your holiday homework.

After I moved away and began my peregrinations around the world, I forgot about Vienna and its glamorous New Year’s Day Concert. Every now and then a friend would ask whether I was still watching it—to which my answer was an almost invariable “no”. But this year was different. As I was browsing idly the TV channels on the first day of the year, I happened upon the BBC broadcast of the event. What’s more, this year’s concert took place under the baton of the celebrated Indian conductor Zubin Mehta and marked the 650th anniversary of the University of Vienna and the 200th anniversary of the Vienna University of Technology. Little wonder then that the repertoire included compositions with intriguing names such as “Electro-magnetische Polka” (Electromagnetic Polka), “Accelerationen” (Accelerations), “Mit Dampf” (At Full Steam). For me, this was a new perspective on the New Year’s Day Concert and the music of the Strauss family, one which is quite connected with my professional interest in steam engines, telegraphy and other things electric.

It turns out that the Viennese waltzes and polkas were well attuned to the technological innovations of the nineteenth century. A quick look at the musical heritage of Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) shows the extent to which his music documented the technological developments of his age (or celebrated the old ones). Here are some examples, on topics ranging from the pigeon post to the telegraph and the telephone:

  • “Electro-magnetische Polka” (Electromagnetic Polka, 1852)
  • “Motor-quadrille” (Motor Quadrille, 1853)
  • “Schnellpost-Polka” (Express Mail Polka, 1854)
  • “Taubenpost Polka” (Pigeon Post Polka, 1860)
  • “Telegrafische Depeschen Waltzer” (Telegraphic Despatches Waltz, 1857)
  • “Motoren Waltzer” (Motors Waltz, 1862)
  • “Elektrofor-Polka” (Electrophorus Polka, 1865)
  • “Telegramme” (Telegrams, 1867)
  • “Durch’s Telephon Polka” (Over the Telephone Polka, 1890)
  • “Telephonische Nachrichten Polka” (Telephonic Messages Polka, 1894)

Many of these compositions were performed for specific audiences. The “Electromagnetic Polka”, for instance, was dedicated, quite fittingly, to the Vienna engineering students on the occasion of their ball (which, by the way, is Vienna’s oldest ball). The telegraph and telephone-themed compositions, on the other hand, were presented at the Concordia Ball, an annual event organized by the Concordia Association of Viennese Authors and Journalists. The association between telegraphy and journalism was hardly surprising, especially since in my doctoral dissertation I had dealt exactly with this topic: how the telegraph was used to report news in nineteenth-century India. But it was nevertheless fascinating to hear how Strauss transformed the sounds associated with the working of a telegraph instrument into music, thus creating a different type of archive which documents the history of this technology from an alternative, more … aural angle. If you listen carefully to the “Telegraphic Despatches Waltz” you can hear the tapping sound of the telegraph key; in fact, you can almost hear how the messages are transmitted over the wires.

Clearly, Strauss used music to celebrate the technological achievements of his time, but perhaps there was also more music about the telegraph than we usually acknowledge (there was also more noise about it, as many telegraph operators would have readily testified). For Strauss, the telegraph was not simply a medium for sending impersonal, concise, lapidary messages, as it often happened with market quotations and political news; it was also a means of transmitting music. The illustration below shows him seated in a corner, composing his “Telegrams Waltz”. In the opposite corner, his wife Henrietta Treffz, herself an accomplished mezzo-soprano, reads his musical telegram as it is being despatched via the five telegraphic wires of the musical stave. In many ways, this illustration is emblematic of a common theme in much nineteenth-century discourse: the telegraph as a vehicle for establishing connections between people, businesses, nations. But Strauss himself would have been aware that the telegraph could break, as well as make, connections. Rumour has it that in 1856, when the Viennese press published reports of his alleged marriage in St Petersburg, Strauss lost no time in disavowing the news. And he did so by telegraph.

Telegramme, Strauss

Season’s Greetings


Punch, Returning from the Christmas Party, 1842Punch, 1842

On this cheerful note, the “Diseases of Modern Life” team wishes all its readers and colleagues a very happy Christmas and a healthy and successful New Year. We are looking forward to more exciting research and collaboration in 2015!

Reading the Victorian Press

Reading Victorian periodicals is one of the most important aspects of our work on the “Diseases of Modern Life” project. Each of the project members is responsible for researching two thematic strands as well as our own book projects. In my case the strands are “Diseases of the Professions” and “Diseases of Finance and Speculation”; Jennifer is looking at “Addiction” and “Climate and Health”, while Melissa covers “Education and Over-pressure” and “Nervous Diseases and Phobias”. The range of periodicals we examine is quite broad, from popular magazines such as Belgravia, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine and Leisure Hour to more specialized publications like the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, the Sanitary Record and the Medical Times and Gazette. My own list of periodicals-to-read also includes a good number of technical publications such as The Electrician, association journals like The Postal Clerk’s Herald as well as medical journals published in British India (the Madras Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, the Indian Annals of Medical Science, etc.) which so far have not received the scholarly attention they deserve.

Needless to say, nineteenth-century periodicals are a treasure trove of information for historians. My recent survey of Leisure Hour provided fascinating insight into various aspects of the working lives of Victorian clerks, from the manual skills and work ethics they were required to possess to the stress of promotion and overwork and even the hassle of commuting by omnibus. The drudgery and mental strain of clerical work are familiar themes of Victorian writing. Take the example of the General Post Office located in St Martin’s-le-Grand, where letters, newspapers and other postal matter were sorted and stamped by “active, earnest-looking, time-begrudging beings”, who laboured incessantly under the supervision of taskmasters and that ubiquitous marker of the modern temporal order, a “large, clear-faced clock”. The drive towards efficiency and speed was visible not only in the orderly design of the office, where men sat at “long rows of tables, desks and shelves”, but also in the rigid differentiation of tasks and the seemingly uninterrupted flow of work. Manual dexterity, rapidity, concentration, precision and endurance were only some of the many qualities demanded of a postal clerk:

This task [stamping the letters] is confided to a nimble-fingered gentleman, who seems inclined to back himself against any steam-engine under the roof, past, present, or to come. Placing a number of letters before him in an upright position, with the postage head in the upper right corner, he strokes them down gently but rapidly, one by one, under his right hand, which holds the stamping die, and comes down with unerring precision and bewildering rapidity full upon the label. A hundred heads are damaged in a minute by this skilful operator … and the only partial break that occurs in his labour is when a letter either wants a head, or contains it in the lower left hand, instead of the upper right-hand corner. Dipping the die on to the ink-brush or stamping a paper at intervals, that stands at his side, to keep a rough record in twenties or fifties of the letters passing through the office for that night’s mail, are eccentric diversions of the head-blotting duty, performed almost too quickly to strike the eye.

The Post Office, 1809 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Post Office, 1809 (Wikimedia Commons)

The amount of postal matter handled by the Post Office was enormous. Alone in 1858, an impressive 523 million letters, 71 million newspapers and 7.25 million book packets were delivered in the United Kingdom. That printed matter circulated extensively is amply demonstrated by such figures. But who were the readers of this vast empire of the printed word? (And empire it was, both literally and figuratively, if we consider the range of circulation of some of these publications: in 1872, the Madras Monthly Journal of Medical Science subscribed to The Lancet, the Dublin Journal, the Medical Press and Circular, the British Medical Journal, the Edinburgh Medical Journal and the Pharmaceutical Journal, not to mention a few other Indian and French publications).

While Victorian periodicals offer numerous insights into the production stage of newspapers and periodicals, familiarizing contemporary readers and eager historians with the nature of editorial duties, the adventures of war correspondents like William Howard Russell and the health hazards to which compositors were exposed, it is less often that we get to find out what happened to these publications in the stages of circulation and consumption. The readers are, more often than not, an elusive entity that reaches us through the paratext of a long-forgotten newspaper, the occasional correspondence and lists of subscribers published in the press or through the mediating power of the Victorian literary imagination. It is thus that we find out that a copy of the Asiatic Mirror and Commercial Advertiser published in Calcutta and dated 7 March 1798 was “[f?]or Ralph Luke Esq Longford Shropshire” or  that the daily routine of a counting-house clerk included “read[ing] his letters at breakfast … and look[ing] at the newspaper for a little while after dinner” (Mark Rutherford, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, 1889). Also, that Amy Reardon was attracted to “solid periodicals” which targeted the “educated, but not strictly studious, persons, and which form[ed] the reservoir of conversation for society above the sphere of turf and west-endism” (George Gissing, New Grub Street, 1891).

But visual evidence of readers and especially of their reading environments is hard to come by, which is why discoveries like the images below are particularly exciting for the 21st-century historian. More so because they testify to the ability of the Victorian printing press to forge communities of readers not only across territorial boundaries, but also across temporal ones. My office (and indeed, my home) is a far cry from the affluent-looking homes of some of the Leisure Hour readers and my access to periodicals is often mediated by technologies the Victorians could have only imagined, but it is intruiging to think that, a century and a half apart, we are actually sharing the experience of reading the same paper.

Portraits from a series of “Newspaper Reading Types” published in 1893 by the English Illustrated Magazine.

The Morning Advertiser

Reader of the Morning Advertiser (English Illustrated Magazine, 1893)

The Times

Reader of The Times (English Illustrated Magazine, 1893)

English Illustrated Magazine 1893Reader of Tit-Bits (English Illustrated Magazine, 1893)

By the turn of the century, photography takes the reader into the (rather affluent) homes of some of the Leisure Hour subscribers. These images seem to have been selected from among entries submitted to a photography competition.

Leisure Hour 1901

Leisure Hour 1901“Homes of Our Readers” (Leisure Hour, 1901)


Amelia Bonea