I’m reading Tom Perrotta’s new book Mrs. Fletcher, which is about a single mother navigating the modern world on her own once her brotastic son leaves for college. At one point she flashes back to a talk given to the local PTA addressing the then latest and greatest moral panic – Internet porn. It was delivered by a prosecutor, naturally, since history shows that the best reaction to any panic is to lock people in cages.
The panic over Internet porn is hardly the first situation where an emerging technology leads some people to think said tech is going to lead the world to hell in a hand basket. In fact, it’s a fairly predictable pattern that’s played out many times throughout history.
Slate has an article about the moral panic that surrounded the great technological breakthrough of . . . cheap paper.
Although the printing press had brought reading out of the monasteries and upper classes, the actual production of books didn’t ramp up all that much because of the lack of quality paper. People lower down the socio-economic ladder didn’t own books, they owned a book – usually a Bible.
That started to change in the 19th century:
The paper machine, invented in France in 1799 at the Didot family’s paper mill, could make 40 times as much paper per day as the traditional method, which involved pounding rags into pulp by hand using a mortar and pestle. By 1825, 50 percent of England’s paper supply was produced by machines. As the stock of rags for papermaking grew smaller and smaller, papermakers began experimenting with other materials such as grass, silk, asparagus, manure, stone, and even hornets’ nests. In 1800, the Marquess of Salisbury gifted to King George III a book printed on ‘the first useful Paper manufactured solely from Straw’ to demonstrate the viability of the material as an alternative for rags, which were already in ‘extraordinary scarcit’ in Europe.
Then, in the 1860s, came the real breakthrough – paper made from wood pulp. Upwards of 90% of modern paper is made from wood pulp or recycled pulp. This cheaper, more readily available paper led to the explosion of low-cost books for the masses. That’s why it’s called “pulp fiction.”
You know, things like this:
And it was of the Devil:
Detractors delighted in linking ‘the volatile matter’ of wood-pulp paper with the ‘volatile minds’ of pulp readers. Londoner W. Coldwell wrote a three-part diatribe, ‘On Reading,’ lamenting that ‘the noble art of printing’ should be ‘pressed into this ignoble service.’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge mourned how books, once revered as ‘religious oracles … degraded into culprits’ as they became more widely available.
By the end of the century there was growing concern—especially among middle class parents—that these cheap, plentiful books were seducing children into a life of crime and violence.
* * *
Moralizers painted the books as no better than ‘printed poison,’ with headlines warning readers that Pomeroy’s brutality was ‘what came of reading dime novels.’ Others hoped that by providing alternatives—penny delightfuls or ‘penny populars’—they could curb the demand for the sensational literature. A letter to the editor to the Worcester Talisman from the late 1820s tells young people to stop reading novels and read books of substance: ‘[F]ar better were it for a person to confine himself to the plain sober facts recorded in history and the lives of eminent individuals, than to wander through the flowery pages of fiction.’
It’s easy now to look back at such panics and roll your eyes and the naive concern about cheap books or television or whatever kind of music kids are listening to at the time. But history, as they say, repeats itself. Rather than being smug in our modern superiority, maybe think twice the next time some panic is sweeping the nation. Try not to give future generations something to roll their eyes about.