One topic of our times is whether and to what effect we are being drowned by information – radio, television, email, web sites, blogs (like this one), twitter feeds, alerts on our cell phones, and more. Every event – an airplane disaster, a politician’s slip of the tongue, the breaking of a sports record – seems to be announced, debated, reinterpreted, overanalyzed, and old news between breakfast and morning coffee break. Too much, some people say; overload.
There was a time in our history when the information problem was the reverse: too little of it going around too slowly. It was a time when the nearest thing to a twitter feed or CNN Headline News was the local tavern – for those men who had access to one.
America in the late 18th century lacked telephones, electronic media, newspaper delivery, and effective mail delivery. The vast majority of Americans lived in scattered across the countryside and frontiers. In those times, the tavern or the pub (meaning the “public house”) – and the church less so – served as news central.
Colonial-era taverns existed, as the subtitle of one study put it, “For the Entertainment of Friends and Strangers.” Rural inns on local turnpikes or at trail intersections attracted both travelers and locals. Typically, authorities licensed the taverns to provide wayfarers with food, a bed (shared with another guest), boarding for horses, and, often, alcohol. In many communities, the tavern was the only place to gather people, so judges used them to hold trials, officials to hold town meetings, and merchants to negotiate deals. But taverns provided much more: food, entertainment such as games, gambling, and loose women, mail drops, and news. Customers got their news in the form of travelers’ reports from the outside world, a many-days-old old newspaper perhaps, and the occasional private letter read aloud to the assembled company. Then, the men would go on to argue about the news.
These taverns were, one historian wrote, “Americans’ most important centers of male sociability.” (Respectable women, for the most part, stayed away.) As such, many taverns became centers of political activism, too. In much of the colonial period, plots were hatched and mobs gathered in taverns. John Adams one complained about having to cultivate the “crowd in the tavern.” City taverns often had their individual political affiliations, and tavern keepers stepped up to become officeholders in colonial and state legislatures. (Generations later, John F. Kennedy’s grandfather, P. J. Kennedy, turned saloon-keeping into a successful political career in Boston.)
The classic, early-American tavern declined in the first half of the 1800s as rail and steamboat travel, better roads and canals, and other modern improvements provided competing services. New policies as well as new technologies vastly expanded the volume of communications: The government extended the highway system, multiplied rural post offices, and heavily subsidized the mailing of newspapers. Increasingly, Americans – mainly men in taverns or hanging around post offices – could read timely news reports. In 1800, 903 post offices served the nation; in 1860, over 28,000 did. In 1800, the nation had 92 newspapers; in 1860, it had 40 times as many. European visitors were astonished at the “newspaper reading animal[s]” Americans had become. Old woodcuts show men at a post office, pub, or store crowded together as one of them reads aloud from the newspaper.
The booming press alerted even remote settlers to matters publicly debated in the big cities and in Europe—and did so with increasing speed. In 1799, it took about 12 days for people in Boston to learn of George Washington’s death in Alexandria, Virginia, but in 1830, Bostonians learned in two days of the State of the Union report that Andrew Jackson had submitted in Washington. By 1851, readers of the New York Times could regularly learn of the “Latest Intelligence by Telegraphy,” including on September 20, 1851 that President Fillmore, in Boston, had the day before “suffered considerably during the night and morning from an attack of diarrhea and stomach derangement” and would miss that day’s Patriot Day parade.
More newspapers reporting more frequently, a rising tide of inexpensive books and pamphlets, new lending libraries, the extension of a lively lecture circuit, telegrams, and the like joined together to create by the mid-19th century what historian Richard Brown called an “information revolution.” In all likelihood, older Americans were befuddled by a sense of information overload — just as many are today.
(This column was cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on January 13, 2011.)