In December 1893 the Conservative candidate for Flintshire addressed an audience at Mold Constitutional Club. After he had finished attacking Gladstone and the local Liberal incumbent, he ended his speech with a joke. He advised the Conservative party to adopt, with regard to the government, the sign of an American undertaker: ‘You kick the bucket; we do the rest’. How did a sign belonging to a Nevadan undertaker become the subject of a joke told at a political meeting in North Wales? This unlikely question forms the basis of this article. Using new digital archives, it tracks the journey of the gag from its origins in New York, its travels around America, its trip across the Atlantic, its circulation throughout Britain and its eventual leap into political discourse. The article uses the joke to illuminate the workings of a broader culture of transatlantic reprinting. During the final quarter of the nineteenth century miscellaneous ‘snippets’ cut from the pages of the American press became a staple feature of Britain's best selling newspapers and magazines. This article explores how these texts were imported, circulated and continually rewritten in dynamic partnership between authors, editors and their readers. It was awarded the Journal of Victorian Culture's Graduate Essay Prize in 2011.
Counting Culture; or, How to Read Victorian Newspapers from a Distance
Digital Humanities, Journal Articles, ResearchBob Nicholson
Cultural historians don’t like graphs. The linguistic turn and the advent of postmodernism have made us much more comfortable with the ambiguity, plurality and subjectivity of ‘texts’, but correspondingly suspicious about the rigidity of numbers. Rather than search for material or (dare one say it?) objective truths backed by hard data, we prefer to track the emergence of ideas, analyse representations, deconstruct discourse and develop nuanced interpretations of past cultures that can rarely be expressed in quantitative terms. This approach has served us well. Qualitative readings of Victorian culture have provided countless new insights into the ideas that shaped the period. It would be difficult to argue, for example, that Judith Walkowitz’s seminal study of sexuality in fin-de-siècle London would have been enriched by a pie chart. However, it is important to recognise that methodologies based on the close reading of Victorian culture have an important limitation. Put simply, there is too much of it to read. Google’s extensive (though by no means exhaustive) database currently lists at least 1.6 million books published in nineteenth-century Britain. To this we must add millions of pages of newspapers, magazines, periodicals, pamphlets, playbooks, advertisements, and other forms of printed ephemera. Even the most devoted scholars of the period will only read a fraction of this total. Faced with this mountain of print, we have two choices: to continue subjecting tiny fragments of Victorian culture to close reading, or to supplement this approach by exploring a much larger proportion of the archive through ‘distant reading’. This article offers a practical guide on how this kind of 'distant reading' might be accomplished.
Digital Detectives: Rediscovering the Scholar Adventurer
Digital Humanities, Journal Articles, TeachingBob Nicholson
These are exciting times. The emergence of digital newspaper archives is presently transforming the possibilities of our research. The vast, unexplored terrain of nineteenth-century periodicals is now opening up to us; every meeting of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals brings with it news of exciting new discoveries. This article argues that we need to extend this thrill of discovery into the classroom. It starts by discussing the pioneering online archives that first sparked my own (rather unexpected) love for history, before discussing how I have recently attempted to integrate these resources into my teaching.
The Digital Turn: Exploring the Methodological Possibilities of Digital Newspaper Archives
Digital Humanities, Journal ArticlesBob Nicholson
Advances in digital technology have made the recent past seem like a foreign country. Media historians did things very differently in 2002. In the last decade, hundreds of historical newspapers and periodicals have been digitised and made available to researchers via online archives. Whilst the emergence of these resources has generated contrasting responses from historians, an increasing number of researchers are now embracing the new methodological possibilities created by keyword-searchable digital archives. As the first examples of this scholarship begin to appear on the horizon, this paper considers whether media history is on the cusp of a ‘digital turn’. It outlines the existing responses to digital methodologies, deconstructs digital newspapers in order to explore how they differ from their paper originals and uses case studies drawn from my own research into the late-Victorian transatlantic press to demonstrate how new methodologies might be applied.
Jonathan’s Jokes: American Humour in the Late-Victorian Press
Journal Articles, ResearchBob Nicholson
During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, columns of American jokes became a regular feature of numerous British newspapers. The Newcastle Weekly Currant, for example, had a weekly column of ‘Yankee Snacks’; The North Wales Chronicle had ‘American Humour’; the Hampshire Telegraph its ‘Jonathan's Jokes’; and the Northern Weekly Gazette sported a ‘Stars and Stripes’ column. Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper introduced a regular column of ‘American Jokes’ in 1896, the same year it achieved an unprecedented circulation of one million readers. Almost half a century before Hollywood, here was a distinctively American form of popular culture which took Britain by storm. It has, however, received little academic attention. This article explores the development of the American humour column, considers the way in which it was consumed by British readers, and argues that these seemingly ephemeral jokes played a key role in shaping Victorian encounters with America.