Entertaining America: Small Towns and Mass Culture in the United States, 1870–1920

Sunday, January 5, 2020
3rd Floor West Promenade (New York Hilton)
Samuel Backer, Johns Hopkins University

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. saw a massive expansion of popular entertainment. Produced by highly capitalized firms working out of cultural centers like New York and Los Angeles, forms like Vaudeville and Cinema moved through a continent increasingly connected by rail, road, and telegraph, exploiting new forms of media and advertising in order to attract audiences to their popularly-priced commercial leisure. The audiences for these amusements were drawn from the rapidly growing cities that flourished around the nation, pulling together crowds that included everyone from white-collar workers and middle-class businessmen to recent European immigrants or African Americans newly arrived from the deep south. Buoyed by a society increasingly organized around consumption, these entertainment forms helped unify the nation, fusing together vastly disparate populations through a shared market of commercial pleasure.

While this narrative, developed by generations of influential scholarship, holds true for the urban experience during these years, it has struggled to incorporate the more geographically disparate inhabitants of rural and semi-rural areas. The relationship of mass entertainment to these populations, who made up a significant majority of the nation in the 1880s, and only slipped from that position in 1920, remains, to a great extent, unstudied.

Developed in conjunction with a course taught at Johns Hopkins University, and created with the support of a University Technology Fellowship, Entertaining America uses ArcGIS mapping to recreate the true geographic diversity of popular entertainment in the late 19th century. Examining a set of 15 small towns throughout the United States over the period between 1870 and 1920, the project uses digitized, key-word searchable newspapers to create a database of performances, venues, and artists, which are then mapped against the historical layout of the towns using ArcGIS. The research for the project was done with the help of a lab of undergraduates, simultaneously introducing them to the practice of historical inquiry while providing an opportunity to participate in a genuine research project.

The results of the project tell a remarkably nuanced story. Far from overwhelming local entertainment forms, the introduction of national commercial culture coexisted with its smaller-scale counterparts for decades, reshaping its references and conditions while providing it with new avenues to flourish. The results of Entertaining America also highlight the critical importance regional circuits and the entrepreneurs who developed them. Attuned to both local conditions and national forces, such figures serve as crucial mediators for the introduction of mass culture, preserving certain forms of autonomy while gradually integrating the towns into the mainstream of American entertainment.

Combining spatial history with close social analysis, the Entertaining America project demonstrates the potential of digital pedagogy to bring together a wide array of researchers of various skill levels to produce new arrays of historical knowledge.

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