Breathing Mildew at Everything Fresh: The Society Pages

I spend a lot of time reading old newspaper archives. I’ve been researching our family’s genealogy for about 20 years. I’ve recorded and organized the names and dates and locations of thousands of ancestors and relatives, so what interests me now is to find out what kinds of lives they led. One of the best places to find this information is on the society pages of old newspapers.

I’ve always found the society pages delightful, and quaint. I smile reading long descriptions of wedding dresses, and learning the arrival of Mrs. Gerald Carter’s great aunt Mildred, from Duluth. Here’s one from the Peoria Journal Star in September 1952 (the bottom right article references some people in my tree):


I’ve been grateful for a peek into the lives of some of the people in my family’s history, and for the gaps it has helped me fill in from time to time. But the societygossipy pages are so peculiar to me, too. Who writes them? How does the information get into the paper? I imagine gossipy old ladies at church socials sharing their muttered opinions about the goings-on in their towns, and one of them secretly typing up the articles for the paper – maybe even under a pseudonym, the way Pauline Phillips wrote the Dear Abby advice column under the name Abigail Van Buren. Some of it could be user-generated content, submitted by society women confident of the public’s interest in their charity events and tea parties, or by social climbers just happy to see their names mentioned among the rest.

I love imagining an imperious ‘journalist’ getting to play social god by way of ruthlessly deciding who is worth talking about and who isn’t. Did Mrs. Walter Groesbeck fail to invite the author to her last bridge game? SMITE! I guess no one will get to read about the mauve organza draped across Mrs. Groesbeck’s daughter’s bridesmaids’ shoulders at First Presbyterian last Saturday. Oops, so sorry. An oversight, I’m sure.

(I also like to think about what it would be like to live in a town where every social gathering – and faux pas – is printed in the local media. That seems slightly suffocating to me. What if Aunt Mildred is a raging alcoholic or a sleep-streaker and Mrs. Gerald Carter doesn’t want everyone to know she’s in town?)

So, which is it? Capricious old gossips trying to stir up trouble? High society (or would-be high society) women jockeying for position? The answer, amusingly, is both. Sort of.

JamesGordonBennettThis man, James Gordon Bennet, Senior, started the first society page in 1836 when he was the editor of the New York Herald. Mr. Bennet was himself a member of high society, but when his newspaper foundered and he needed to increase readership, he started the society pages as a semi-satirical way to get eyeballs on the page. It was pretty ballsy to make fun of the people in his own social circles, and of course, he caused a scandal doing so. People were as quick to condemn the sometimes mean gossip as they were to devour it each week. He also covered murder cases with increasingly ridiculous headlines to sell papers, and outraged people with his sensationalism. People hated this man. The editor of another New York newspaper at the time was a guy you might’ve heard of named Walt Whitman. Whitman skewered Bennet in this beautiful rant:

A reptile marking his path with slime wherever he goes, and breathing mildew at everything fresh or fragrant; a midnight ghoul, preying on rottenness and repulsive filth; a creature, hated by his nearest intimates, and bearing the consciousness thereof upon his distorted features, and upon his despicable soul; one whom good men avoid as a blot to his nature — whom all despise, and whom no one blesses — all this is James Gordon Bennett.

Good stuff. (Hilariously, eventually it was the Herald which published the bulk of Whitman’s poems, so I guess of Walt wasn’t that much of a journalistic purist.) And Bennet was apparently somewhat happy with the description, presumably because he considered any press to be good press, especially when it got people talking about his paper.

But eventually, predictably, even the people who were shocked by the gossip wanted their names to be mentioned – to be talked about was to matter! And thus the modern society page was born. People began submitting engagement announcements, upcoming and past charity or social events, and long-winded exaltations of recently deceased society women and their contributions. Eventually the pages included recipes and other things the editors thought would be important to women, but the gossip – er, important social news – was there to stay.

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