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.)
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.”