Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Audience Engineering

In the mid-19th century, the popularity of tours by European virtuoso performers (Fanny Elssler, Jenny Lind, Leopold de Meyer, Ole Bull, etc.) had promoters and city leaders scrambling to find venues large enough to accommodate the increasingly large audiences. Older cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans typically had standing theaters or churches that could hold large numbers of people, but many towns and smaller cities had to improvise. Jenny Lind, to the embarrassment of genteel Boston observers, for example, performed in the Fitchburg, Massachusetts, railway station.

Mass meetings of all kinds soon became in demand. Audiences marvelled at the emotions created by huge crowds, especially in urban communities, where residents could suspend their normal isolation and anonymity and see themselves literally gathered, as a single entity. Boston’s National Peace Jubilee, for instance, developed by band leader Patrick Gilmore in 1869, to celebrate the end of the Civil War, was the largest single concert gathering in the United States, including an orchestra of 1,000 (along with a total of 11,000 singers) and an audience of 50,000, all in a temporary coliseum, constructed entirely out of wood.

Interior of the Coliseum of the 1869 National Peace Jubilee

In 1872, Gilmore did it again in the World Peace Jubilee. Architect William G. Preston redesigned the since demolished 1869 coliseum on an even bigger scale, with a seating capacity of 100,000 (and a 2,000-pice orchestra and a chorus of 20,000). 

At events like this, the thunder of applause was as interesting as any performer; indeed, the physicality of the moment created excitement out of risk as much as pleasure. Flyers for the 1869 Jubilee advertised "AN IMMENSE COLISEUM, The largest structure in America, capable of accommodating FIFTY THOUSAND PERSONS, has been erected especially for this occasion." And, as one writer said about the Peace Jubilee in 1872: “Not the least moral feature of the Festival is the applause,--so overwhelming in its demonstration that timid souls have said their prayers and trusted blindly in the stability of wooden rafters.”

Gilmore tried to downplay this risky excitement in his own accounts of the festivals, but clearly it was part of the appeal: “The builders, contractors, architects, and building committee were all gentlemen of great experience, and fully appreciated the responsibility of their task. They knew that the safety and security of Fifty Thousand lives were in their hands, and they took every precaution to guard against accident by making the structure strong and solid enough to bear ten times the weight and pressure to which it would ever be subjected…From morning till night, for weeks and months, the Building Committee, one or all, were almost constantly on the ground, watching every inch of progress made. Fully satisfied that everything possible was being done which the knowledge and experience of the builders and their own foresight could suggest to make the structure safe beyond a doubt, they turned a deaf ear to the malicious rumors that would have swept away all confidence…” (From Patrick Gilmore, History of the National Peach Jubilee and Great Musical Festival, 1871: 277).

Big audiences didn’t disappear—you start to see the impact of mass meetings and concerts, especially, in sports, where stadium construction increases to accommodate audiences for baseball and football. As an article from a gymnasium construction company states, "It is announced in the newspaper column that the Yale football management is to make determined effort to accommodate all the spectators who may wish to attend the Yale-Harvard football game this fall, a condition of affairs which has not existed in previous years. Some 4,000 additional seats are to be erected, giving the gridiron stands a seating capacity of about 31,000. The new stands will be so erected as to close the corners and fill in the sides. Comparison with the Harvard stadium, used for the first time last year, still shows a greater capacity at Cambridge. The Harvard stadium proper seats about 25,000 persons, but by means of additional stands 35,000 can be accommodated. (American Gymnasia and Athletic Record, Vol 1, September 1904-August 1905. Boston: American Gymnasia Company: 11)

Temporary “stands” were one thing; it became clear by the 1890s that the lasting appeal of sports would require more scientific examination of how create solid, safe, and enduring audience structures. I’m only beginning the exploration of this particular science, but here’s a glimpse, from a paper on “live loads”—another term for audience!--delivered at the meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1904:

"It is freely admitted the writer’s results give figures greatly in excess of those given by the accepted authorities (outside of some municipal building laws), both in the United States and in Europe, but the experiment is one very easily tried by anyone who may feel unconvinced. Doubtless, mixed crowds of men and women, such as football spectators, may weigh less per square foot, with an equal degree of personal discomfort, than the body of students in the writer’s experiments. It should be remembered that a closely packed crowd is not likely to be in a mood to take calmly any undue deflection or appearance of weakness in the floor, and the result of such seeming insecurity is not pleasant to contemplate. In the writer’s opinion, such floors as those of passageways, corridors, standing-room in theaters, assembly rooms without fixed seats, ballrooms, etc., should be calculated for a weight closely approaching 150 lb. per sq. ft., or, in some cases even more, without exceeding the unit stresses of Mr. Schneider’s Paragraph 17. Possibly, a large standing assemblage, such as is common at political meetings, likely to applaud by stamping; or, a throng of dances; or a body of drilling soldier, might call for an additional impact provision."(C. C. Schneider, “The Structural Design of Buildings.” Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers, Paper No. 997: 443-444)

An image from C. C. Schneider's 1904 paper on "live loads."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Loving Lincoln

In honor of Lincoln's birthday, the American Antiquarian Society's Past is Present blog discusses sources on Lincoln and features a detail from an 1860 political cartoon, "The Republican Party Going to the Right House." The cartoon mocks depicting his supporters as social deviants, radicals, and crackpots, including pickpockets, free love advocates, Mormons, socialists, free blacks, and, yes, ardent followers. The woman closest to Lincoln (drawn with masculine features) treats him inappropriately like a celebrity, asserting her "passional attraction" to his "lovely face."

Over at the New York Times Opinionator online, Ted Widmer has published several linked articles that consider Lincoln's 1861 inauguration train tour in which he notes Lincoln's celebrity status and the frantic crowds that greeted him at stops:

Earlier inaugural journeys had also been public affairs. Washington’s trip from Mount Vernon to New York was a “prolonged coronation ceremony” – in Trenton, a chorus of “young virgins” threw flowers in his path, a custom we have wisely discontinued. Jackson’s journey from Tennessee was well-chronicled, as a westerner came in to clean the Augean stables of Washington. But nothing on the scale of Lincoln’s trip had ever happened. It had elements we recognize from our own time: the peculiar thrill of the traveling celebrity and his entourage, lurching from city to city, like a touring rock band (Tonight Only: Lincoln!); the frenzy of crowds, eager to catch a glimpse of this new American idol...

Finally, teacher and writer Jim Cullen, at his blog American History Now, has posted a tribute to Lincoln that brings the love of Lincoln into the present.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Erotic Economy of Fandom

Cultural studies scholars have long recognized the defiant nature of fandom; in early fan studies, fans are always somehow negotiating hegemony, or poaching texts, or resisting the mainstream. While writing Tramps Like Us, I reacted warily to these characterizations. While creative re-use of texts and resistance to producers' intentions were certainly elements of music fan culture, defining fans' experiences in that way did not quite fully characterize the appeal of fandom for fans themselves, who talked mostly about strong feelings of connection, knowing, and transformation.

There is a complex relationship between fan practices and the context of late capitalism in which those practices have been made most meaningful. I still believe, as I stated in Tramps Like Us, that fandom is inextricably linked to the commodification of culture since the late 1700s. And in my new work, Listening and Longing, I spend much time describing public, commercial, musical entertainment and its appeal to early consumer/listeners. But I remain convinced that we need to remain open to ways of thinking about what fandom is, and why it matters, beyond mere oppositional politics (however sympathetic one might be with the goal of that approach). I think it's the only way to accurately work out the entirety of fandom's history and significance.

Fans love stars, works, styles, culture. How do we think about that love more fully? I have, in the past, written about the passion of fans in terms of religious discourse. Another way to think about it, perhaps, is the "commerce of the creative spirit" as explained in Lewis Hyde's The Gift. First published in 1983, it was released in a 25th anniversary edition in 2007. It's essentially a series of essays that probe the idea of gifting in non- or pre-capitalist cultures, using the knowledge built from that exercise to better understand the value of creativity in Western industrial-capitalism.

Hyde's book begins by setting up a dichotomy of an “economy of eros” against an “economy of logos” (vaguely reminiscent of Ferdinand Tonnies's Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft), where “cash exchange is to gift exchange what reason is to enthusiasm.” Hyde then places artistic expression into this framework, arguing that artistic expression functions in the realm of eros and enthusiasm, having value not in the monetary power of contracted ownership but rather in the social bonds created by its ritual release and circulation. As he says,
The art that matters to us--which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience--that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with price...
Later, he explains:
It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection.
Hyde means to give courage to those who live and work at the margins of the market economy and outside of the framework of achievement (making money) that has characterized much of American capitalism. What I really like about the book in terms of fan studies is the way in which his articulation of the gift—as the establishment of a bond that powerfully endures by being passed on—touches on many of the ways that fans describe their love of cultural commodities. And, in the end, Hyde is open to thinking about gifting as multilateral. When he's thinking only about artists, he reductively opposes them (in ideology and condition) to capitalists; when he's thinking about consumers, he better recognizes how messy things can be and how, sometimes, despite one’s surroundings or the origins of the roles they inhabit, one’s emotions can imbue unexpected meaning to any action. As he says, “The conflict between freedom and the bonds that gifts establish is not absolute, of course. To begin with, gifts do not bring us attachment unless they move us.” Or: “Within certain limits, gift wealth may be rationalized and market wealth may be eroticized.” In other words, people in a capitalist culture--especially in a capitalist culture—must work out, in each moment, the extent to which their actions will be erotic or rational. It seems to me that, at the experiential level, this is a useful way to think about the history of audience enthusiasm.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Football's Continuous Ovation

Before the establishment of professional football (the American Professional Football Association was founded in 1920), there was college football. Many of the core practices of American football (or "new football") were worked out in this time period, from team cheers to rules of play to techniques for keeping crowds off the field. Interestingly, even a cursory reading of reports from before 1920 shows the extent to which the audience was very much a part of the experience. While today fans might cheer, in the 1890s cheering itself was seriously considered a “play,” contributing to the outcome of any game. For example, regarding the Yale-Princeton Game of 1892, one writer complained that the crowd was not involved enough; Yale won despite the spectators’ lackluster involvement. (“Yale and Princeton, -92.” The Illustrated American, Vol. 12, December 10, 1892, 579):
“The new football,” says a writer in the Nineteenth Century, “is a far more effectual arouser of the unregenerate passions of mankind than either a political gathering or a race meeting…At a modern football match…it is a distinct point that the players are human beings, with sensibilities much on a par with the sensibilities of the spectators. These latter are well aware of the fact. And it is by playing loudly upon their sensibilities that the spectators endeavor to incite their darlings to strain every nerve to win.” 
Not very loudly did the forty odd thousand persons present at the football match, played between the Yale and Princeton teams at the Manhattan Athletic Field, New York-city on Thanksgiving Day, play upon the susceptibilities of the young collegians, but sufficiently loudly to incite Yale to win by 12 to 0. 
It was not nearly as interesting a game as that played between Yale and Harvard at Springsfield, Mass., the Saturday before, for it was a metropolitan game. It was the right thing to see, and probably half the people present knew nothing about and cared less for the game. At the Springfield game, on the other hand, nearly every one who saw it knew something about football and everyone was enthusiastic. In New York it is not "good form" to express too loudly your ‘unregenerate passions….
There are many more descriptions and issues around audience for pre-professional football, some of which I will deal with in separate posts. For now, let me share a description of the emotions of the crowd during a college game, by Freeman Furbush. (“Football As We Find It.” National Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 2, November 1897: 161+). For him, football is all about the spectators. Humorous pieces like this, offered at a time when football was growing as popular entertainment, helped to educate na├»ve readers—including the literary-minded, middle-class subscribers to National Magazine--about how to think about their own potential participation in the game.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Baseball Fever in Song

I've been starting to think about early baseball fans. I can get at the secondary literature from Providence, but it's become clear that I'll also need to travel to some archives (and perhaps the Baseball Hall of Fame) for primary source research. I would like to study, for instance, an actual copy of Thomas W. Lawson's The Krank: His Language and What it Means (1889), one of the first, book-length, contemporary interpretations of baseball fandom in the U.S.

The Library of Congress appears to have some interesting holdings around baseball, as well. To my delight, I've noticed that they have lots of sheet music about the game, mostly from the early 20th century. Songs provide a glimpse into the enthusiasm for baseball or, to be more accurate, the perceptions of that enthusiasm among Tin Pan Alley songwriters. I'm aware of the pitfalls of interpreting song lyrics without reference to their articulation in musical performance (which can significantly alter their meaning), but for the purposes of offering examples of this musical evidence, I have reproduced some of the lyrics, here. Go learn the songs on piano and tell me what you think!

First, here is a very early one, "The Base Ball Fever," from 1867. Notice the reference to baseball fashion among women in the stands; gender is an issue in modern sports fandom, and it looks as if it was in 1867, as well.