The Expense Report

Children Reading Newspaper, Paris, Fred Stein, 1936. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York, copyright © the Estate of Fred Stein. Via Artsy.

Some Facts About the Listicle

The bread and butter of online journalism, epitomized by lists like “The 25 Most Kimye Things That Have Ever Happened,” got its start in a 19th-century column in the New York Times.

The Dec. 7, 1902, edition of the New York Times brought news of a mid-ocean ship rescue, a dramatic fire in the Bronx, and “bloody noses galore” in the French parliament.

Also, on page 51, there was a dispatch under the headline, “Some Facts About Glass Eyes.” The facts spoke for themselves. Here are a few.

In spite of the tremendous influx of dark-eyed races in recent years, and in spite of the fact that every fourth person in New York is a Jew, the call for blue eyes overbalances all the rest.

There are more shades of blue than any other color, and they melt into one another with more imperceptible gradations.

One dealer estimates that 20,000 artificial eyes are in use beyond the Mississippi.

Life in large cities, where restricted vision, bad light, and indoor life prevail, destroys many eyes.

“Children have to learn a great many more things now than they used to,” said a leading oculist… “This is especially true of the sons of the very rich.”

Nine persons out of ten believe that a glass eye is a solid ball, when it is really a hollow shell.

Artificial eyes… “explode,” to use a dealer’s term, break to pieces in the socket… dealers encounter many incidents in which the ludicrous and the pathetic mingle… children thrown almost into spasms of fright at seeing their mother’s glass eye removed for the first time.

Certainly, more pressing news was gathered that day. And, strictly speaking, a number of these “facts” should not be regarded as factual. But “Some Facts About Glass Eyes” was not just artificial eye trivia. Other stories might give you the news of the day, but here was a small insight into the mood of an age.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the Times regularly ran stories with facts on esoteric topics. There was “Some Facts About Birds,” “Some Facts About Fishes,” and “Some Facts About Applause.” They were essentially listicles handled by editors with better things to do than count.

Some were primers on contemporary literary luminaries—“Some Facts About Hugo” and “Some Facts About Wordsworth.” There is the pro forma census breakdown, “Some Facts About Ourselves” and the exquisitely mundane “Some Facts About Torpedoes.” The enthusiasm for titbits is infectious. “Salt and Pepper: Some Facts About The Use Of Condiments” tells us that in Europe pepper grinders are used at the dinner table, and that there is more than one type of salt. (“It may seem to recall Sancho Panza’s two uncles, who were famous wine-tasters, to insist that there is a difference between salt and salt, but such a difference does actually exist.”)

“Some Facts About Greenland,” published April 2, 1871, giddily relays findings from a recent exploration, advancing the theory (eventually borne out) that the country was made up of a series of islands rather than a single mass.

Some “Some Facts About” don’t lay out information, so much as bullishly hold forth on the ethics of derivatives trading, or issue unveiled attacks on rival municipalities.

“Some Facts About Wall Street” (1872)

What right have men… to dabble even on the edges of this pool of corruption and rascality?

“A Very Wicked Place: Some Facts About Jersey City, Her Saloons and Her ‘Toughs’” (1891)

“This is the worst town for toughs I ever saw in my life,’ said a conductor on one of the Grove Street horse cars… “I never saw such an unbroken line of toughs and hoodlums”.

The 1895 polemic “Some Facts About Milk” is so shot through with doubtful anecdotes and downright apocrypha it threatens to strip the word “fact” of all useful meaning.

The present activity in enforcing the law for milk inspection… emphasises anew… the prolific source of danger which is harboured in this fluid.

…Pure, microbeless cow’s milk is an ideal food for the human system, and, in the case of children more natural and life-sustaining oftentimes than the real nature’s food that is secreted in the mother’s breast.

In Naples… If the customer choose, he may order the milking done at his own door, in which case a freshly washed cow, with a tidy milker, appears, while he stands by and sees the fluid drawn and receives it unwatered and clean.

Women as housekeepers and mothers have a distinct duty to further the crusade against doubtful milk.

Through the late 1890s, New York City was the stage for the “newspaper wars” in which the magnates of “yellow journalism” Hearst and Pulitzer battled for supremacy with lurid murder tales, big photos, and confected gossip. Meanwhile Times publisher Adolph Ochs worked to define his paper as a journal of good repute. In 1896 the front page acquired the lordly slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

But, with these stories at least, the Times was having it both ways, disguising salty gossip and titillation with buttoned-down headlines. (I reached out to several people at the Times for comment on this article, without success.) There are precious few facts about the ballet of the 1912 article “Some Facts About the Ballet,” for example, but there are lots about John Tiller’s famous “Tiller Girls,” who were on a tour of American cities at the time.

Mr. Tiller has a fatherly interest in all of his girls, and keeps a close watch on their welfare wherever they may be engaged.

On the continent there is very little trouble with the “stage door Johnnie.”

The stage has no glamour for them. It is their workshop.

“You know, our London school has been investigated by Scotland Yard,” Mr. Tiller went on.… “The Chief Constable came and was so interested he is a frequent visitor now.”

Mr. Tiller told of some amusing experiences he had in eliminating foreign “mashers.”

The girls all call Mr. Tiller “Pop.”

In 1885, Charles Preller, a young British salesman, was discovered dead inside a packing trunk in a Louisville hotel room. “Some Facts About Preller” deals with the testimony of a James Taylor, a friend of Preller’s who had turned up at the hotel the previous night, apparently having recognized the man from newspaper descriptions. Like Britain’s recent, tragic Spy-In-The-Bag mystery, this story, the Salesman-In-The-Box, had it all: death, subterfuge, and sex, though for some of it the Times required you to read between the lines.

“I knew Mr. Preller as a warm friend,” said the gentleman.

“The news of his horrible death has entirely unnerved me.”

“Mr. Preller was a young Englishman about 27 or 28 years of age.”

“He was a wealthy and highly cultured young gentleman, of excellent character and exemplary habits.”

“He was certainly not a drinking man, and during my acquaintance with him I never saw him take any liquor.”

Mr. Taylor further says that while Preller was not such a “dude” as he is painted, he was luxurious in his habits and always dressed elegantly, thought not gaudily. It was his custom to carry about him a good deal more baggage than an American traveler would think of using.

Mr. Taylor left for St. Louis to-night to identify the remains. He refused to give his New-York address.

These articles are relics of an age before newspapers developed the language of mass communication. In his essay “The Birth of News Discourse: Changes in News Language in British Newspapers, 1880-1930,” New Zealand-based academic Donald Matheson describes how soon after the turn of the century the newspaper business, in both the United States and Britain, began to assert its identity as a gatekeeper to the news, and an interpreter of what was most significant, via changes in its language. Modern journalism advocated a uniform prose style and prioritized efficient communication. This meant telegraphic style reports and the “inverted pyramid,” which places the important news in the first paragraphs. An early proponent, the influential American-born British editor R.D. Blumenfeld perhaps said it best: “Simplicity, accuracy, conciseness, and purity of style are the surest signposts of success.”

At the turn of the century, though, people still took their information in bulk. Newspapers would “take you to congress,” Matheson says, faithfully transcribing proceedings and leaving the reader to sift through the findings.

You were expecting rich writing, imaginative language. Some color, some flavor. You got a novel, not a blurb.

“It was an age of curiosity. Tons of information—that was the mood of the age,” Matheson said when I reached him. “Information wasn’t graded by relevance, but a sense of what is interesting, before an age of news value.

“[Back then,] you were expecting rich writing, imaginative language. Some color, some flavor. Not the screwed-down, tight analysis that came later. You’d feel short-changed. You got a novel, not a blurb.”

Modern news triumphed over a style of reporting that was intended, as Matheson puts it, for a generation of readers who “wanted more for their money.” NYU journalism professor Mitchell Stephens points out that before the advent of the radio and TV, newspapers were also shouldering a lot of the entertainment burden. Humans will always have an appetite for whimsy; journalists have always been interested in the “odd if insignificant.”

“It is probably true,” he said, “that in the last half of the 20th century newspapers and newscasts became a little more formal.”

This formality is one of the reasons the internet has proven so ruinous to newspapers. Matheson agreed that there’s a circular connection between 1890s newspaper journalism and media in the internet age. Many of the changes that came in between, to do with packaging, editorial filters, and linguistic rules, have been reversed.

Online, empires have been built on our eagerness to consume and share titbits, and in the listicle we have settled on a flawless delivery system for endless enumerated trifles. (Literally, trifles.) ClickHole brilliantly skewers the inanity that our infatuation with trivia can throw up from time to time. But perhaps a story like BuzzFeed’s astutely observed “The 21 Absolute Worst Things in the World” is more informative, zeitgeist-wise, than the front page of any paper.

“History doesn’t move a straight line. And there are these echoes occasionally,” Matheson said.

Back in 1902 the Times’s look at the glass-eye game ended on what must have been a mildly unsettling moment. An “oculist” was picking through a new line of artificial eyes being made for sale to medical schools, observed by a reporter with an eye for the odd, if insignificant: “Look at that lovely rupture of the iris,” he said lovingly handling an uncanny thing with a great black band across it. “See that one all bloodshot? That’s follicular trachoma. That’s a pretty case of iritis. There’s a beautiful cataract—beautiful.”