blogs before the Internet

I love Pepys’ Diary, a website that reproduces an entry from Samuel Pepys’ seventeenth-century journal every day, in blog format, with lots of hyperlinks so that you can learn about everything from the buildings of London to the (supposed) medicinal qualities of Wormwood.

There are other interesting predecessors of blogs. For example, I have on my shelf two books edited by G.P.V. Akrigg, A Jacobean Journal for the Years 1603-6 and A Second Jacobean Journal. Akrigg reproduces one real London diary entry for each day of each year in the early 1600s. The entries comment on major events, sensational crimes, foreign and military news, and recent publications. I do not know to what degree the diarists expected their writing to be public, but there was certainly no right to privacy under King James, and these diaries were all deliberately preserved.

An example follows from June 19, 1609:

“The Prince’s great ship is now almost ready at Woolwich. Yesterday, the Prince came to see it, and again this afternoon with the King and great company. The King spent almost two hours surveying the ship within and without. Then he went into Pett’s house where Mrs. Pett had prepared a banquet of sweetmeats, whereof he tasted plentifully, and at his departure gave special commandment not to launch the ship until his progress ended. Shakespeare’s Sonnets (of which some long ago were long ago known among his private friends) have been imprinted by Thomas Thorpe, with an enigmatical dedication ‘To the only begetter of these ensuing Sonnets, Mr. W.H.’ …”

Doesn’t this read like a blog?

There are other genres that seem to belong to the prehistory of blogging. For instance, during the Enlightenment, erudite Europeans used to exchange letters describing the latest intellectual developments in their own countries. These letters were only semi-private, since the authors expected them to be forwarded, and collections were often published in book form. The international network of correspondents created what was called the “Republic of Letters.”

Then there were “feuilletons,” topical, opinionated, first-person essays published as removable inserts in Viennese newspapers around 1900. These are just a few examples of “pre-blogs”; I’m sure that more and better ones could be cited.

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