Looking for “Little Bit”

681px-Iserlohn-Druckpresse1-BuboAs I mentioned in an earlier post, these days I spent an extraordinary amount of time reading old newspapers – mostly online using the California Digital Newspaper collection but I certainly put in my time in front of a microfilm reader looking at the more exotic papers.

Newspapers from the middle 19th century (I’m currently reviewing the 1850’s to 1860’s) are quite entertaining to read albeit different than contemporary journalism.

Aside from the “news”, 19th century papers contained a hodgepodge of local activities, occurrences, travel accounts, poems, and amusing short pieces that I am inclined to describe as doggerels for lack of a better word. They also had, as one would expect, letters to the editor from readers and from “correspondents”.

Who are these “correspondents”? Sometimes they are named, sometimes they write under a pseudonym like “Truth”, or “An Observer”, “Lucky” or “Little Bit” . Those papers that were on the larger side may have paid these correspondents to go to newsworthy locations and report on the local activities such as the production of a new mine or the construction of a new bridge but most likely the authors were folks who were

a) friendly with the editor of the paper

b) liked to see their name in print

c) had a personal agenda such as an axe to grind or an accomplishment to highlight

or d) witnessed something extraordinary or knew something that the general population would want to know such as what the mining was like on the North Fork of the American River that month, or what the exposition in St. Louis was like.

I have made a careful study of these “correspondents” because I am convinced that my subject wrote several letters under various pseudonyms that lauded his construction projects. They are a very interesting aspect of old papers and I find myself eagerly looking for the next submission from “Little Bit”.

To understand why the papers printed what they did it is important to understand how information was spread in those days. Prior to the spread of the telegraph,  information spread the old fashioned way – through letters and by word-of-mouth. California wasn’t completely “wired” to the rest of the country until late 1861 – for more info see this article and this one for information specific to California. San Francisco was however connected to some of the larger towns within the interior by 1856. The local papers were one of the principle ways information about the larger world was disseminated to the general population. Most papers operated with a small staff and had no way of testing the veracity of the information they printed so what you read in them should always be used with caution and checked against other sources.


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