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August 25, 2002

Lost fandoms
Posted by Teresa at 11:47 AM *

The article I discuss here is “An ‘Online Community’ of the Nineteenth Century” by Pat Pflieger, published at’s excellent site, Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read. You can have it unframed or framed; the latter version lets you see the interesting and substantial footnotes alongside the main text as you read. Here’s the intro:

Almost 150 years before the Internet, the letters column of Robert Merry’s Museum shaped its subscribers into a virtual community. Flame wars, gender-swapping — you name it, they did it. Illustrated; with links to pieces at this site.
“A virtual community” is one way to put it, though my home continuum would call it a fandom, and refer to its basic activity as letterhacking. She says MUD where we’d say confabulation. But we’re not so far removed; the underlying concepts are the same.

The basic story is that in 1848 a children’s magazine, Merry’s Museum, started making a regular feature of its letter column, “Merry’s Monthly Chat with His Friends”. What made it different was that readers weren’t just commenting on the previous month’s issue; they wrote little essays and descriptions of their own activities, and set puzzles for the other readers. The editor, and later the editorial staff, were given distinct personalities, and the readers were encouraged to think of themselves as a family, meeting in the parlor for an evening’s home-grown entertainment.

In retrospect, what happened was entirely predictable: The ongoing conversation mutated from talking politely about subjects of general interest, to talking informally to and about each other. They made puns (“Take everything for granted, and then grant everything taken, and may Grant take everything!”, said one youngster in 1864), developed idiosyncratic in-group language, and occasionally flamed each other. The participants started swapping portrait photos, and wearing membership badges in hopes of recognizing each other should they ever cross paths. Some of them finally got together in person in John N. Stearns’ parlor in 1865—a gathering which, by Ghu, they referred to as “the Convention”. (I hereby irresponsibly toss that date into the Leeds in 1937 vs. Philadelphia in 1936 (as opposed to New York in 1937) argument.)

Naturally, the volume of traffic swiftly outgrew the available bandwidth, at times filling up to 11 pages of a 32-page magazine. Is this not familiar?

Uncle Robert found as early as 1844 that not all the letters received would fit into the pages of the magazine: “… as to printing all your epistles, you must consider that I have Bill Keeler’s stories to put in, and the Old Man’s in the Corner, and a great many other things. I have, indeed, so many matters crowding into my columns, that I am this month obliged to leave out Dick Boldhero altogether! However, I find that our subscribers like Our Correspondence very well, and therefore I shall put in as much of it as my space will allow.” (1844.2.63)

The font size in the letters column decreased; leading grew lighter, to leave more space for words. The column expanded between months: “Last month [when the Chat was 3 pages long] we were compelled to break off in the middle, while several persons were watching their opportunity to speak,” Uncle Hiram wrote at the beginning of a 5-page column of letters. “Some, who had their speeches all ready, were obliged to hold in, for want of time and room. This time we have resolved to give every one a chance, and have therefore invited the company two hours earlier than usual.” (1854.2.252)

Sorting out those letters too difficult to read or written in such a way that the type setter would have difficulty didn’t filter out enough letters to keep the Chat manageable: “Last month we had ten pages of Chat, and this month—if we printed all that we want to—we should have twenty.” (1855.1.121)

The editor tried printing only extracts, but soon realized that “If I fill our space with extracts, I shall omit hundreds of letters as good as those that are noticed.” (1854.1.60) Instead, Hiram Hatchet wielded an imaginary ax to cut letters to a manageable size; and when this ax “burned up” in the fire that destroyed the Museum’s offices in 1861, a mechanical “double-back-action-high-pressure-condensatory-manipulator” went “Kerr-clickety-crunch-kerr-clickety-crunch” as it chopped the messages.

I have written and published editorials very like Uncle Robert’s. I’m only sorry I didn’t think up the double-back-action high-pressure condensatory manipulator that goes ker-clickety-crunch-ker-clickety-crunch.

So much is familiar: The slight paranoia of the perpetually WAHF‘d; the universally esteemed articles that get no comments because no one can think of anything to add; the cautious use of “The Problem” to refer to the great algebra flamewar of 1855 (and the use elsewhere of “algebra” to refer to something other than mathematics); the occasional assumed pen-name and persona that reeks of Mary Sue; and more besides. Do have a look. My descriptions aren’t enough.

The end was sad:

In 1868, with the Museum sold to publisher Horace B. Fuller, the party ended: the new editor, Louisa May Alcott, published only letters “of general interest,” usually with a little moral. …9The Chat (and the Museum) limped along until November 1872, when the Boston Fire apparently killed off both.

Through its 32-year history, the Chat moved in a circle: from Robert Merry talking to readers and readers talking back (1841-1856), to readers talking mostly to each other (1857-1867), back to “Uncle Robert” talking (sometimes crisply) to readers who occasionally got a word in edgewise (1868-1872).

And there, in a nutshell, is the drawback of fanac that consists of letterhacking the prozines.

Lost fandoms are one of my ongoing interests. My thesis is that whenever people have had the ability to disseminate their writing quickly, cheaply, and reliably (for variable values of all three), and the ability to reply to each other, communities have sprung up whose histories and characteristics have similarities those of our own beloved fandom.

Ray Nelson has said this of Blake and his wife and their circle. My own illumination—forgive me if you’ve heard me tell this story before—came when I was researching criticism on Colley Cibber in Columbia University’s great and compendious main library. I pulled a couple of works off the shelf, less than half an inch thick apiece, and discovered to my startled delight that they were original pamphlets from the Alexander Pope - Colley Cibber flamewars, rebound in boards for library use.

Hear now why primary-source documents are not satisfactorily replaced by even the most accurate collected reprints: Standing there holding these things in my hands, experiencing their weight and size and original typography and design, I knew in my bones what a few pages of reprinted text would never have told me: These were fanzines.

One could quibble with that. Yes, of course they weren’t fanzines in each and every particular. But they were written and produced relatively quickly, in editions of a few hundred copies, as part of an ongoing discourse, for an audience many of whose members were acquainted with each other; and, as I say, my bones knew them for what they were.

I’ve seen what looked like odd fugitive hints of such communities’ existence elsewhere: here a footnote about Mary Wortley Montague and “scribblers’ compacts” that dammit, I should have xeroxed; there an even more tenuous references to the strange slang used among the Union Army’s telegraphers. And in a magazine about American history—drat, I’ve mislaid the thing again, though Paul Kincaid and Maureen Kincaid Speller may remember its name and title, since they were looking at it last time they visited—I found an article about the late-19th-C. fannish universe of boy’s offset postcard presses.

Postcard-size offset presses using hand-set type were one of those beautifully-made educational toys aimed at the sons (and occasionally the daughters) of well-to-do American families. Can you guess the rest? The impulse to mail the postcards you’ve created. The various means by which these postcard publishers found each other and started exchanging messages printed on cards. The now-familiar yet always magical transmutation of these multiple exchanges into a self-conscious community. The gags, the slang, the flamewars. The urge to get together. The conventions! (The convention badges, lavish with ribbons.) And then … the discovery of Beer! And Girls! (Which is in fact the usual order.)

Comments on Lost fandoms:
#1 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2002, 07:36 PM:

Couldn't find anything either--but you might have more success if you spell her name Montagu, as it is generally spelled these days...

#2 ::: Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: August 26, 2002, 09:18 PM:

Two recent books look at parallels between the Internet and previous technologies -
"The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers," which discusses - among many other things - the online community, and occasional romances, that existed between telegraph operators.

"When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century," by Carolyn Marvin, compares the telegraph, telephone and electric lights with the Internet. (She makes a case why electric lights should be considered a communication technology.) The book is interesting in that she, unlike the author of "Victorian Internet," was published in 1990, before the Internet became mainstream, nonetheless she anticipates many of the issues that came up during the Internet boom: most notably, she writes about concerns that the telephone would break up the family order by placing suitors and daughters in touch with each other without parental supervision.

(I mentioned this last bit in a superior fashion in another online discussion, only to receive a response that the fathers were right to worry about those things in the 19th Century - they feared that the telephone would destroy the family order as they knew it, AND IT DID. We think those fathers were quaint and funny because we grew up in the world they feared.)

Another other bit I remember from the Marvin book is that there was a thriving culture of electrical engineering trade press. Those writers didn't just see themselves as writing engineering news, or business news - they saw themselves, together with the engineers they were writing for, as being CUSTODIANS, and even spiritual leaders, of the changes that were being wrought by the new technology. I've been working in the computer trade press 13 years now, and that sentiment is very familiar to me.

Of course, one of the last of the electrical engineering trades from the boom years was edited by a fella named Hugo Gernsback who decided to publish some "scientifiction" as a change of pace, which begat John Campbell, whose begats extend in linear fasion to William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, whose novels "Neuromancer" and "Snow Crash" were bibles to the pioneers of today's Internet and so everything turns out to be related after all.

#3 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 12:03 AM:

Montagu, yes; I didn't have the "proper names" default clicked at the point that the Spelling Fairy smacked me on the head with her magic fairy dinger.

It was an oldish book in the library at Columbia: quarto, with green boards. So far even Google can't do much with that.

#4 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 08:51 AM:

Does the Columbia library have its card catalog on-line?

#5 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 03:27 PM:

My mom might know something about the whole Cibber-Pope thing. She's a historian and her field is Restoration and 18th c. English theater.

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 04:45 PM:

Thing is, I wasn't researching Mary Wortley Montagu, nor Pope neither. That might hae been while I was researching Cibber, but my vague recollection is that I was researching some minor poet of the period. His name will come to me presently.

And no, it wasn't William Ashbless. Earlier than that.

#7 ::: Janet Lafler ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 04:48 PM:

Richard Savage, perhaps?

#8 ::: Sherwood Smith ::: (view all by) ::: August 27, 2002, 05:16 PM:

You can track Mary Wortley Montagu's activities through her published letters (and footnotes) plus copies of the Spectator; MWM and a couple of her aristocratic friends apparently wrote some of these numbers, under assumed names. But if you read Spectator from day to day you can find hidden and not-so-hidden pokes not only at one another, but some of their Parisian friends. This before Pope got pissed at MWW and turned on her--in print. (Flamewar!)

#9 ::: Kip ::: (view all by) ::: August 28, 2002, 08:45 AM:

At least once, I looked at Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read and saw "read" as being in the present tense. Next time you see one on the subway, try and see what their book is.

#10 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2002, 05:55 AM:

Somewhere in the middle of the Tate Modern, there's a fandom comprising small fanzines, mail art and other toys, produced by a group of artists. I think it was the mid-50s or early 60s; at any rate, it's all been lovingly presented as a Great Art by the Tate. I must have another look next time I'm there.

Dale Speirs has produced many interesting articles in his fanzine Opuntia, covering historical forerunners of fandom.

#11 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2002, 01:14 PM:

The pioneers and architects of today's Internet weren't just inspired by the likes of Bill Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

It is a True Fact, for example, that Usenet's Great Renaming (the creation of the rec.*, soc.*, sci.* etc. hierarchies) was postponed from its originally scheduled date of Sept. 1, 1986, because too many members of the Usenet Cabal would be away at Confederation, the Atlanta worldcon, at the time. (Many of them, as I recall, were even working ops at the con.)

#12 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: August 31, 2002, 12:33 PM:

The article speaks of an algebra puzzle that led to a somewhat jocular forum-wide flamewar and paradoxically cemented the sense of community:

x^2 + y^2 = 8
x + xy = 6

The answer is described as being x=2, y=2; the flames were over how one would "prove" that this is the answer.

But it's not the only answer. There's another real solution at approximately x=2.393955784, y=1.506311955. I think there are couple of complex solutions too, but that's cheating.

It's no wonder this was so hard to attack using the algebraic methods known to the young readership; it's equivalent to a quartic equation. These can be solved analytically but it's not pretty.

#13 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2002, 10:53 AM:

Giving the complex roots is a lot lot less cheating than citing an approximate solution to ten places. You scum-sucking finite-math maggot.

Pre-digital fart-faced jackass Bob

#14 ::: ::: (view all by) ::: September 01, 2002, 11:01 AM:

Speaking of people commenting on other's comments, and fandom, there's something afoot over at Fan Fiction Network (

"August 26th, Monday 2002 -- In order to prevent future abuse, FanFiction.Net's Upload Guideline has been modified to clearly bar any form of message board style entries: Any form of entry that would use the review system as a message board: "Ask...", interactive, and etc."

Yes, indeed. Review board abuse. They need to get a double-back-action high-pressure condensatory manipulator. (I saw one of those being auctioned off on Ebay just the other day. Maybe they got it?)

Further discussion at the Godawful Fan Fiction message board (

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2002, 02:42 PM:

Bob, do you and Matt already know each other?

#16 ::: Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2002, 10:47 AM:

No, I don't believe I've ever met Matt before.

Now that I know where he stands on solutions to quartic equations, of course, I wouldn't piss down his throat if his guts was afire.

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