IN HIS BOOK ABOUT THE living-off-the-grid stunt, which he wrote after moving back to town, Thoreau declared that he was choosing “not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century.” From his high ground, he looked down on all the American clamor and vulgarity. “What are men celebrating?”
He had a point. At that Walden moment, modern media and advertising and show business, all interdependent, were busy being born in America. The second quarter of the nineteenth century was when Americans began using the phrases show business, celebrities, ad, brand, and salesmanship. It suddenly seemed possible and irresistible to advertise and sell almost anything, to make fictions seem real, to spread entertainment into other parts of American life.
Consider the selling of the president 1840. William Henry Harrison was the first fully merchandised candidate. He had grown up rich and was the nominee of the elites’ Whig Party. But his spin doctors sold him to voters as the opposite—a common man, a rough regular guy, with on-message campaign songs and chants, one about his “homespun coat” and “no ruffled shirt.” They branded him with life-size and miniature log cabins, and they gave out whiskey in bottles shaped like log cabins and shaving soap called Log-Cabin Emollient. Harrison had fought Indians in the West forty years earlier, so his handlers had the candidate perform Indian war cries at campaign events. His opponent’s upbringing really had been humble, but he was the incumbent president and thus could be framed as an elitist. Harrison won by a landslide.
What was working for patent medicines also worked for a political candidate. And essential to both were the new, large-circulation newspapers and magazines that much faster, bigger, steam-powered presses had made possible. These cheap daily papers didn’t scruple about the advertising they published, and they had loose standards of accuracy and truth in their news reports as well. They were beacons of a new American audacity about blurring and erasing the lines between factual truth and entertaining make-believe.
The New York Sun was the great pioneer penny paper, and in 1835 it published an extraordinary six-part, sixteen-thousand-word series. Every day for a week, a battalion of newsboys—also an invention of the two-year-old Sun—shouted the extraordinary news on the streets of America’s largest city: famous astronomers at a new superpowerful telescope in South Africa had discovered life on the moon!
The moon had forests, oceans, lakes, rivers, birds, tiny bison and zebras, blue unicorns, giant shellfish, beavers walking upright and carrying young in their paws. It had a magnificent seventy-foot-high temple of polished blue stone with a golden roof. It was inhabited by winged, hairy humanoids, “man-bats,” evidently “rational beings,” happy vegetarians who “appeared impassioned and emphatic” and “capable of producing works of art.” There were dark man-bats and others “of larger stature…less dark in color, and in every respect an improved variety of the race.”
The Sun sold a hundred thousand copies that week in a city of three hundred thousand people. “The credulity was general,” the editor of another paper recalled. “All New York rang with the wonderful discoveries….There were, indeed, a few sceptics; but to venture to express a doubt of the genuineness of the great lunar discoveries, was considered almost as heinous a sin as to question the truth of revelation.” The news was believed not just by the rabble. “The promulgation of these discoveries,” wrote Horace Greeley, “creates a new era in astronomy and science generally.” Up at Yale, a writer noted, the campus “was alive with staunch supporters…Students and professors, doctors in divinity and law—and all the rest of the reading community, looked daily for the arrival of the New York mail with unexampled avidity and implicit faith….Nobody expressed or entertained a doubt as to the truth of the story.” Three years later, long after the story had been exposed as an entirely fictional hoax, a New York writer remarked that “very many in our city [still] regard those revelations with more of reverence and confidence than any of the established truths in physics.”
The story was believed not just because Americans were predisposed to believe exciting untruths, but because it contained shards of plausibility. The articles were intelligently written and filled with detail. A new Royal Observatory did exist on the Cape of Good Hope; there was an amazing forty-foot telescope in England; Mars had just been mapped.
Not long before, the editor of a Connecticut newspaper had received a letter from a local teenager warning about the larger, ongoing part of the Great Delirium—his “fears” of “the evils resulting from undue religious excitement” going on around him. After the newspaper declined to publish it, the boy started his own newspaper. As he recalled the fervor years later, “by means of systematized effort, large numbers of people of all ages, but especially the young, were converted” to born-again Christianity. “So great was the alarm awakened in the minds of some of these converts, that they became victims of religious frenzy….Many thousands of our citizens were influenced by the religious enthusiasm which was sweeping like a tornado through our land.”
That young man was Phineas Barnum, known as P.T., who by his early twenties was earning a living in Connecticut selling lottery tickets. Coming of age during this period of avid belief in the unbelievable, Barnum had had his career-making, world-changing epiphany: he realized “the perfect good-nature with which the American public submits to a clever humbug.”
As other states were doing at the time, Connecticut outlawed lotteries. Nearly broke, he wrote in his autobiography, young Barnum moved to New York City “to ‘seek my fortune.’ ” In the summer of 1835, just as the Sun was preparing its series on lunar bat-men and unicorns, he read in another paper about an enslaved African-American woman—blind, toothless, paraplegic, but “very sociable,” he soon discovered—who said she’d been George Washington’s “mammy” a century earlier. She also claimed she was 161 years old. “The story,” he decided, “seemed plausible.” He bought her for a thousand dollars, printed handbills and posters, notified the newspapers, and took his slave on the road until she died some months later, “carrying out my new vocation of showman.”
During the six years it took for his new vocation to achieve momentum, the first American advertising agency opened, and Barnum also worked as an ad copywriter. In 1841 he opened his American Museum, a big, multistory, multimedia entertainment complex in the center of Manhattan. Among its most notorious and popular early attractions was the corpse of what he called the Feejee Mermaid. It was a taxidermied construction combining a primate and a fish that Barnum had acquired. Before he put it on exhibit, he recalled in his autobiography, the naturalist he employed said he knew of no ape with such teeth or arms and no fish with such fins. “ ‘Then why do you suppose it is manufactured?’ I inquired. ‘Because I don’t believe in mermaids,’ replied the naturalist. ‘That is no reason at all,’ said I, ‘and therefore I’ll believe in the mermaid, and hire it.’ ”
But the American Museum’s combination of fake and real was more pernicious than if he’d exhibited sideshow humbug exclusively. For decades, it was at the respectable center of the new popular culture, reflecting and reinforcing Americans’ appetite for entertaining fibs and a disregard for clear distinctions between make-believe and authentic. And as Neal Gabler notes in Life: The Movie, “by the mid-nineteenth century the popular culture here was much vaster than in Europe and had permeated society much more deeply.” Barnum’s humbuggery was influential.
The pseudopharmaceutical industry, already booming, took his pop cultural big idea and made it both narrower and broader. Each traveling medicine show was devoted to selling a particular manufacturer’s patent medicines, but the shows appeared all over the country, especially in small towns. Whereas Barnum’s business model was straightforward and traditional—buy a ticket, be entertained—the innovation of the medicine show was closer to that of the advertising-dependent penny press: pay nothing to be entertained by musicians, magicians, comedians, and flea circuses in exchange for watching and listening to interstitial live advertisements for dubious medical products.
Entrepreneurialism had become the default American mode. What succeeded in business succeeded in religion and vice versa, charismatic visionaries persuading people to believe golden dreams. Medicine shows were revivalist camp meetings selling a different form of instant salvation. Both were conducted by itinerant showmen appealing to Americans’ hunger for magic and drama. In fact, when the Hamlin’s Wizard Oil medicine show arrived in a new town, it always offered donations to local churches.
Probably the grandest patent medicine shows were those staged by the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, a company in the Northeast that appropriated the name of an actual southwestern tribe. Why Indians? White Americans had just begun the last chapter of their three-hundred-year war against them. This time, instead of literally demonizing natives, the European-Americans turned to the noble savage idea. More and more popular books and paintings depicted the natives as the doomed but beautiful losers in the inevitable modern sprawl from sea to shining sea, the romantic collateral damage of American manifest destiny.
The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company’s marketing concept went way beyond brand names. As the final Indian wars took place—the Battle of Little Bighorn, Geronimo’s War, the Wounded Knee Massacre—corporate headquarters sent out traveling encampments of tents and teepees with as many as a dozen acts in each show—and medicine salesmen—appearing on a twenty-foot stage. They sold a fictional cure-all called Sagwa, as well as Kickapoo Indian Oil, Kickapoo Buffalo Salve, Kickapoo Indian Cough Cure, and Kickapoo Indian Worm Killer.* A whole genre of Indian-themed medicine shows emerged, impersonations of the original impersonation.
The Kickapoo company arranged to have its fictional Indian backstory for its Sagwa brand—a “blood, liver and kidney renovator” consisting mainly of water and alcohol—endorsed by someone who knew Indians, William F. Cody, stage name Buffalo Bill. “An Indian,” he agreed to be quoted in ads, “would as soon be without his horse, gun or blanket as without Sagwa.” Celebrities as we now know them were a new breed, and celebrity product endorsements even newer.
Barnum was America’s first great commercial blurrer of truth and make-believe, the founder of infotainment, but the second was Cody. (They were acquaintances.) The true story of Cody’s life is like a work of fiction. For a dozen years, from boyhood into young manhood, he was a scout, soldier, buffalo hunter, and Pony Express rider on the Plains and in the West. Then at twenty-three, he featured as the title character in a highly fictionalized “true” story, “Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men,” published in a New York newspaper. And starting at twenty-six, the year he won the Congressional Medal of Honor for leading a squad of cavalry against some Sioux, Cody became a theatrical performer: he played himself in a play called Scouts of the Prairie—written by the author of the earlier newspaper story, who also published dime novels about Cody. Buffalo Bill had become a star. In his late twenties, he started publishing his own dime novels starring himself, and he toured the East in more theatrical productions playing Buffalo Bill—even as he continued working off and on in the far West as an Indian fighter.
In the summer of 1876, three weeks after General George Custer’s catastrophic defeat, Cody was riding the Plains with the army a few hundred miles to the southeast of Little Bighorn. One day, wearing his Buffalo Bill stage outfit—black velvet, red and lace trim, silver buttons—he killed and scalped a Cheyenne warrior called Yellow Hair. Within a few months, Cody was back east, touring a new play based on that event, The Red Right Hand; or Buffalo Bill’s First Scalp for Custer. Yellow Hair’s weapons and scalp were exhibited in each town where the show played. According to Cody, the show provided “ample opportunity to give a noisy, rattling, gunpowder entertainment, and to present a succession of scenes in the late Indian war.” Buffalo Bill was thirty, and from then on, for forty more years, he devoted himself exclusively to live-action cartoon portrayals of the “settlement” of the West.
Cody’s own extraordinarily successful traveling pageant, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, featured Indians playing Indians and white performers playing soldiers and settlers. Each reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand was immediately followed by Buffalo Bill—the actual person—riding in to reenact his killing of a particular Indian, played by an Indian. The show started in Omaha, in eastern Nebraska, in 1883; in the western part of the state, the Indian Wars continued. Cody enlisted the Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull, who’d been one of the commanders of the forces at Little Bighorn, to be his co-star. Buffalo Bill became the most famous personality in America and probably the world. Barnum advised him to take the show to Europe, to “astonish the Old World,” and he did.
His Wild West was the prototype from which movie westerns evolved. But the shows were even more importantly peculiar and unprecedented, a key milestone in our national evolution. Practically in real time, Cody—no, Buffalo Bill!—turned news and history into entertainment, turned real-life figures of historic consequence (himself, his pal Wild Bill Hickok, his enemy Sitting Bull) into simulated versions of themselves, riding real horses and firing real guns outdoors.
Until the twentieth century, nostalgia still had a specific quasi-medical meaning—extreme personal homesickness, the melancholy of soldiers and exiles missing their towns and countries and old friends. But during the nineteenth century, a new form of nostalgia emerged as an important tic in Americans’ psychology, an imaginary homesickness for places and times the nostalgists had never experienced and that had in some cases never existed.
In politics, just when Americans started using the phrase olden times, Democrats were driven by nostalgia for the America of their youth, before large-scale capitalism. Then Southerners were driven by nostalgia for the time before slavery started becoming untenable. The overriding theme of the first great popular songwriter, Stephen Foster, was nostalgia for a South that he imagined from up north in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Fenimore Cooper, the first famous American novelist, specialized in nostalgia for the earlier American wilderness, and Twain wrote his greatest books about the bygone America of his antebellum youth.
So by the time Buffalo Bill became a professional fabulist in the 1870s, Americans were completely ready to accept the virtual reality of his Wild West tableaus. The nostalgia he stoked and served was new in several ways. It was jolly, giddy. It was instantaneous,the day before yesterday made heroic and larger than life. And it was also anticipatory, nostalgia for the end of a western frontier that hadn’t yet ended—like the nostalgia of Southerners years before the Old South passed away. Buffalo Bill distilled the previous half-century of the Old West into a montage using actual participants and artifacts, for audiences who had mostly never been west of the Mississippi. Forever and everywhere in the world, the popular imagination tends to blur reality and fantasy over time, but now the two were being immediately and systematically fused.
BUFFALO BILL SCALPED that last Indian and took to the stage in the year the United States turned one hundred, which was the pretext for the first great U.S. world’s fair. Like Cody’s show, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia mixed the real and the unreal—there was a reproduction “New England Farmer’s Home” as if from the 1600s, a leather bag containing George Washington’s actual field tent, an ersatz colonial windmill.
Seventeen years later in Chicago, at the Columbian Exposition, the fantastic quasi-reality was full tilt, practically the whole point of the fair. The center of the faux-European sector, the White City, was an urban dreamland—more than a dozen neoclassical buildings, but all temporary, disposable, full-size facsimiles covered in plaster of Paris, open for six months, then gone. The White City was a new thing, not obviously inauthentic like a stage set but not authentic either. It was a fantasy and it was real.
The rest of the fair was an almost-anything-goes collection of simulacra and a few bits of reality. There were reproductions of three different famous medieval Irish buildings mashed up into one, reproductions of particular foreign city blocks (Vienna, Constantinople), and generic foreign village streets (Java, Lapland). There was a full-scale reproduction of the New Jersey mansion that had served as Washington’s headquarters in the Revolution. There was a fake-old-fashioned log cabin, paid for by young Theodore Roosevelt as a commemoration of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. And there was the actual North Dakota cabin in which Sitting Bull, after quitting show business, had been arrested and shot dead three years earlier.
On the Midway, extending west from the fair proper, a Jewish teenager born in Hungary and raised in Wisconsin performed tricks as a magic Hindu yogi, calling himself Harry Houdini. A new milling company founded by a Missouri newspaper editor was marketing a new branded pancake mix called Aunt Jemima, its trademarked avatar a character plucked from a popular minstrel song. At the Chicago fair, the millers incarnated her for the first time, hiring an African-American woman, formerly enslaved, to be Aunt Jemima, which she continued doing for the rest of her life. Patent medicines were on sale, the most memorable a concoction by a former Texas cowboy who claimed that a Hopi shaman had taught him the recipe. In front of audiences, Clark Stanley eviscerated live rattlesnakes, boiled them, and sold his cure-all elixir as Stanley’s Snake Oil.
The fair’s organizers had turned down Buffalo Bill’s request to install his Wild West show on the fairgrounds, so he set up camp next door and made a fortune. Chicago was a world’s fair, so Cody used the opportunity to expand his narrative, renaming the show Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World. And five years later life imitated art: a U.S. Army cavalry regiment sent to wage the Spanish-American War in Cuba, commanded by the fair patron Teddy Roosevelt, named itself after Buffalo Bill’s fictional warriors, the Rough Riders.
The U.S. population was 65 million at the time. In six months, the Chicago fair was visited by more than 27 million people, for whom there must have been one big takeaway: fantasy seems superior to reality—and, by the way, is there any important difference between the two?
The gatekeepers of respectability and guardians of reality had given the fantasyland their imprimatur. They gathered at the fair in 1893 for a Congress of Mathematics and Astronomy, a Parliament of Religions—and the annual convention of the American Historical Association, where a thirty-one-year-old professor from Wisconsin named Frederick Jackson Turner delivered an hour-long talk a week after the Fourth of July called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” During the “four centuries from the discovery,” he said, Americans had invented and reinvented themselves on successive frontiers, in proximity to wild nature. “A steady movement away from the influence of Europe” had defined our new national character “on American lines,” making of us “a new product that is American.” The latest national census, he noted, showed there was no longer a clear western frontier line in America—that is, white people now lived at every U.S. longitude from the Atlantic to the Pacific. “The frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”
Around the corner from where he spoke were simulated artifacts of that disappearing frontier—the fake log cabin for Boone and Crockett, the former cowboy selling snake oil, Buffalo Bill himself simulating the Old West. Turner’s history paper, more important and widely known than any before or since, didn’t foresee the next period. But he certainly teed up the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, when simulations of our frontier past fully replaced the real thing, like a chronic phantom-limb syndrome, and continued shaping our national character.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, when masses of Americans began believing in miracle cures and a civilization of lunar batmen and George Washington’s 161-year-old nanny; when panics over Masons and Catholics erupted and revived; when millions suddenly subscribed to urgent end-of-the-world prophecies and believed God or Satan had taken control of their bodies and minds; when new churches were splitting off helter-skelter from almost-new ones, modern American Christianity and the modern American news media, advertising, entertainment, politics, and pharmaceutical industries all got their starts. Each was predicated on freewheeling blends of the fanciful and the real. Selling ourselves dreamy fabrications on a national scale became routine, part of the American way. What had been founded, in other words, was a synergistic and unstoppable fantasy-industrial complex.
* Worm Killer pills were large and embedded with string, so that after digesting and excreting them, people were convinced that they had indeed been cured of intestinal worms.