Life Advice for Young Men That Went Viral in the 1850s

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Dec. 4 2013 11:15 AM

Life Advice for Young Men That Went Viral in the 1850s

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This anonymous list of advice for young men was a mid-nineteenth-century viral sensation, appearing in at least 28 newspapers, Northern and Southern, with datelines between 1851 and 1860. The list even made it all the way to Hawaii, and was published twice in Honolulu’s The Polynesian.

A group of investigators at Northeastern University identified the list while working on a project called Infectious Texts, which uses data from the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America collection to track the path of “viral” stories, poems, and lists across nineteenth-century American newspapers. The project will go live later this month. (In the meantime, here are a few early maps that show the way some stories were shared.)

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Copyright law much laxer than today’s meant that nineteenth-century newspapers could reprint content wholesale. Often, the Infectious Texts project’s director Ryan Cordell points out, the kinds of stories that got traction in the nineteenth-century weren’t items that we typically associate with newspapers today. Papers printed fiction, poetry, speeches, and anecdotes, along with reported pieces. Editors looking for short, universally resonant bits of content gravitated toward homespun pieces like this list of “maxims.”

Here are the first and last versions of the list that the project found in the Chronicling America archive—the first printed in June 1851, in Louisiana, Mo.; the last in June 1860, in Clarksville, Tenn. As is typical for the viral texts that the project uncovered, the list has no attributed author, and is altered slightly from printing to printing.

The later Tennessee version omits some advice (including the injunction “Never speak lightly of religion”). There’s an added narrative frame that places the list of maxims in the pocket of a man killed in the notorious 1852 fire on the steamboat Henry Clay. This frame began to appear around some versions of the text beginning in that year. 

Thanks to Ryan Cordell for his help.

MaximsFinal
L: June 4, 1851, Louisiana, Mo. Democratic Banner. R: June 22, 1860, Clarksville, Tenn. Clarksville Chronicle.

Library of Congress' Chronicling America archive.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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