Victorian Blogging

The Web makes it fantastically easy to share information, and there’s no end of websites and apps to help you do precisely that: WordPress, Blogger, Reddit, Stumbleupon, the list goes on. And although blogs can now be quite fancy and polished, even for absolute beginners who don’t want to spend a cent on design or web hosting, the basic premise remains the same: find interesting things online, make a comment about it if you wish, and pass it on.

The content doesn’t have to be particularly original, long, or thoughtful (though that helps to garner – or alienate! – an audience), the point is in the sharing. At the extreme of brevity are microblogging services like Twitter, with its 140 character limit. The concept of blogging also lends itself to a community spirit, whether rooted in similar interests (does anyone remember LiveJournal or web rings?) or because people tend to subscribe to blogs written by people they know; the border between blogging and social media is a porous one.

Steampunk enthusiasts will be happy to hear that the Victorians were already avid bloggers, except that they used pen, paper, and penny post. The idea of blogging, boiled down to its fundamentals, is really just the human urge to gather and distribute nuggets of information (the birdiness of it is aptly captured by the Twitter brand).

Victorian magazines and newspapers were not just one-way flows of news and opinion from writers to readers, but kept up lively correspondence pages. These days, the reader-contributed part of the average newspaper is likely to be limited to the forum page and obituaries, though if we venture online to the reader comments of news websites (and wade through the trolls and flames and cranks) we might gather some sense of interactivity.

In fact, there was even a whole magazine given over to publishing notes of interest and queries from readers, named appropriately Notes and Queries. To my surprise, this venerable title (first published in 1849) is still carrying on, though in the guise of a scholarly journal put out by a university press.

Title page of Notes and Queries, vol. 2 (1850), via Bodleian Library

The Bodleian Library has digitized a large part of the early run of Notes and Queries, and a random dip into its pages serves to illustrate the nature of a typical Victorian tweet. A George Lloyd thought it “worthy of a note in ‘N. & Q.'” that

being called to give private baptism last Sunday (third in Advent) to a child, I was struck with the names of child and mother; and on inquiry found, with some personal interesting family history, that the mother’s family consisted of six sons, named respectively Absalom, Barzillai, Eleazar, Azariah, Ezra, and Benjamin; and six daughters, named Tamar, Abigail, Naomi, Tirzah, Unice, and Zipporah.

Which shows at least two things: That N. & Q. subscribers were probably more bookish than the average Victorian, and that many of them were probably members of that uniquely privileged and positioned social class of Anglican clergymen.

Besides sharing notable observations and facts, readers also posed questions to the collective wisdom of the readership, what we would call today “crowd-sourcing”. Many of the queries were requests to locate the sources of quotations, or for biographical information; things which are trivial in the age of Google and Wikipedia, but whose practical difficulty should not be underestimated. Another page chosen at random gives responses to queries about a Latin translation of Alexander Pope’s poetry, the content of insurance contracts, the works of a German academic, the burial place and family arms of the Earls of Oxford, a detail in an epistle of Melancthon, and the origin of the name of a kind of horse-drawn carriage.

Imagine the labor that went into keeping up a journal like this: The subscriber receives his copy of N. & Q. and sees a query he thinks he can illuminate, and composes a letter which he hands, duly stamped, to the post office. It is conveyed by carriage and train through the Victorian postal system (reputedly better, both in reliability and timing, than the modern British equivalent) to the London offices of the magazine, where a clerk perhaps copies it out in a neater hand for the editor. The editor looks it over, looks up the original query, maybe cross-checks a reference, and puts it together with the other drafts to be brought to the printer’s. These hand-written papers are carefully bundled up and carried to the composing room, where script is transformed into type by so-called composers, skilled workmen who read the draft and pick out the individual pieces of metal that comprise movable type, the building blocks of Western printing, into the words that are to be printed. These are arranged into the page to be printed, which is then “proofed”. The proofs go back to the editor, who makes corrections, maybe some insertions of material that just came in (though this is very expensive and to be avoided if possible), and sends this back to the printer, where the little pieces of metal are shuffled around in accordance to those corrections. Then they are printed, folded, and sent off to the subscribers again by the postal system (carriages, trains, carriages, postman on a bicycle?) where they end up at the front door of the reader. The reader eagerly picks up the latest issue of N. & Q., and is gratified to see his name in print (or cross to see it misspelled, but he can only blame his bad handwriting). He has recently seen an unusual bird on his morning walks, and it does not seem to be native to this district, at least, it’s not in any book he has. Perhaps one of the fellow readers could help determine whether it is indeed a native species or an introduction from a foreign land….

Seattle Daily Times composing room 01 - 1900

Composing room at the Seattle Daily Times, ca. 1900. A different time and place, but shows men standing and picking out type from open cases before them. Every printed word had to be manually composed. (Wikimedia Commons)


Contrast this to what I’m doing now at my computer. I type this sitting in the library, but I could also be at home or in a cafe. Instantly when I press a button, it’s available for the whole world to see, without anyone having to suffer my handwriting. To share some interesting nugget which you’re certain I’ll be fascinated to hear, all you have to do is type into a little box below this post and I will see it as soon as I care to. No paper, no steam trains, no editor, no hot metal and sticky ink.

We’ve gained so much in speed and efficiency, but perhaps we’ve lost something too, namely the pleasure of leisurely consideration (and one might argue: the motivation to be concise!). There’s something to be said for having only one magazine arriving once a week, as opposed to an entire planet’s worth of blogs and websites and media to consume, parse, and react to. In this age we have to be our own curators, to learn to ignore what we could not have the time for. But this carries the danger of making us specialists, narrowly limited by customized menus and contextual prediction to only read and watch what we like, or think we would like. The bookish, unworldly eclecticism of Notes and Queries would be a welcome alternative to our balkanized consumerism.

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