Going viral—and aggregating popular content—isn’t an invention of the Internet Age. In the 19th century, newspaper and magazine journalists didn’t consider swiping a story or a poem from another publication a violation of intellectual property, so they were more than happy to borrow material from their peers in other regions. Editors would subscribe to other papers, and when their subscriptions arrived, they would clip out sections of other papers that might appeal to local readers and insert them into their own publications where they needed to fill space.
The Viral Texts Project, a Northeastern University initiative, is studying what made particular texts popular in the 19th century, attempting to create a model of why certain articles became imminently reprintable and draw connections between the themes and topics people were writing about at the time. The initiative has an annotated edition, for instance, of one of those viral texts: Called “A ‘Stunning’ Love Letter,” the humorous piece is an over-the-top avowal of passion that also happens to reveal a lot about 19th century media.
The piece was circulated in more than 60 newspapers across the U.S. The Viral Texts Project’s annotation of the article shows where the “sublimely ‘splendiferous’” text was edited in different newspapers (many changed the names of the lovers) and explains what certain passages are referring to in the context of 19th century writing. This particular edition was published in Clearfield, Pennsylvania’s The Raftsman’s Journal in November 1868. The annotations highlight jokes modern audiences might not catch (and whether they’re obscurely racist), what’s a reference to a certain poem or an obscure tariff on glass tumblers from Germany, why it was considered a compliment to liken your beloved to a speckled chicken, and more.
This kind of fluffy content borrows liberally from imagery and language published in other places, making it perfect for an analysis of the zeitgeist of American media at the time. Who knows if the same will be said about viral cat GIF articles 200 years from now?
Regardless, I will be trying out phrases like “If you cannot reciprocate my thrilling passion, I will pine away like a poisoned bedbug” on my next paramour, for sure. See also: "My love for you is stronger than the smell of Coffy’s patent butter." Except, for 21st century parlance, replace "Coffy's patent butter" with "McDonald's hash browns."