Part I: Before the Internet
To start Fantasia off with a bang, we thought giving a little history lesson would be in order. Whether you’ve been a part of fandoms for decades or are only learning the word “fandom” now, the history of fandom and fan culture has had some interesting twists and turns.
Today, we’re looking specifically at fandoms and fan culture pre-Internet. As Fantasia aims to explore fully the world of fandom during the time of digital communications, it’s important to explain their history before these technologies to better understand how they have adapted over time.
(If you’re interested in the history of fandom after the emergence of the internet, check out Part 2 in our series!)
So here it is, a brief history of fandom before the Internet. We’ve placed all the key points in a handy infographic for you to check out, but underneath we will be explaining some of the points in more detail.
A Brief History of Fandom, Before the Internet
The Printing Press
So, in the mid 15th century there came the invention of the printing press, usually attributed to Johannes Gutenberg. This set the precedent for the sharing of written information for the rest of history and the ability to share knowledge and beliefs on a massive scale.
Then, in the mid 19th century (around 1841), ‘Lisztomania’ or ‘Liszt fever’ began – an intense “fan frenzy” directed at a Hungarian concert composer by the name of Franz Liszt. (Mostly female) fans of Liszt were so enamored that they were known to throw underwear on stage to him, and doctors at the time actually considered Lisztomania to be a mental illness. (Then again, most things women did that were out of the ordinary in the 1800s were classified as thus).
Sherlock Holmes and the Fandom Problem
In 1887 the first Sherlock Holmes stories were published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (or ‘ACD’ for short), and they quickly gathered the attention and adoration of the public.
As is now common knowledge, ACD grew to despise his own character and was resentful that Holmes was his most famous work. So, in 1893, ACD decided to kill off Holmes in ‘The Final Problem’. Fans were so incensed by this they revolted, with twenty-thousand of them canceling their subscriptions to The Strand (the magazine the Sherlock Holmes stories were being published in at the time).
Holmes fans also famously took to wearing black armbands in the street in mourning and obituaries for the fallen detective were in every newspaper. Fans even began writing their own stories of Holmes (perhaps the first instance of public-domain fanfiction in the sense we know it now). ACD even got letters of rage from fans over the subject of Holmes’ death.
In 1903, after years of fan mourning and pressure, ACD published ‘The Empty House’, and Holmes was brought back to life to the joy of Holmes fans.
Between the 1920s and the 1930s, The Saint book series by Leslie Charteris became incredibly popular (the first book being published in 1928). Fans of the series sent reams of fan mail to Charteris asking for info on the protagonist Simon Templar, perhaps because they were writing their own Saint stories and needed more canon information? The Saint series was incredibly popular of its time and is an interesting juxtaposition to most fandom-popular texts (due to it being in the crime genre rather than fantasy or sci-fi).
The Birth of Sci-Fi Fandom
Throughout the 1930s the science-fiction fandom as we know it started to gain popularity, and a group now known as First Fandom came into being. First Fandom is an association of science-fiction fanatics that hosts events and awards, and though many of their members are older than the “typical fan”, they have even described themselves as “not dead, only doddering”.
In 1939, The first WorldCon (World Science Fiction Convention) was held in Caravan Hall, New York City, with 200 people in attendance. This is an incredible difference from some of the “geek” conventions that occur today, some of which taking in hundreds of thousands of guests.
Then, in the 1950s and ’60s, music fandom was all the rage. From Elvis to Beatlemania, rock and roll made it almost cool to be a fan. Much like the days of Lisztomania, fans of the artists were sometimes prone to interesting acts to show their appreciation (like throwing underwear on stage!)
Sci-Fi Fandom in the Late 20th Century
Star Trek aired its first episode in 1966, and a new facet of science-fiction fandom was born. Star Trek was the start of an “independent, interactive, saturated fandom culture centered on one show, and set many precedents for how many modern fandoms act.” (ofhouseadama.tumblr.com, 2014). The fandom for Star Trek started to use mailing groups and fanzines to communicate and share their interests, bringing their fandom underground.
In 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope premiered, bringing sci-fi fandom into the mainstream, and creating an entirely new universe of content for fans to mull over. To be a Star Wars fan was to be in the majority, and because the universe of Star Wars was so vast, it made for brilliant fan material to be made.
Mailing lists, fanzines, and conventions remained to be the chosen methods for fans across the world to communicate for a long while after this. The methods were working well for them at the time, and many fandoms were perfectly happy to exist as they were.
However, as we now know, a change was coming. And it was one that would alter the way not just fans, but everyone, would connect.
And there you have it, a brief (sort of) history of fandom before the Internet. And you’re probably wondering what happened after, too. And don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Check out Fantasia again next week to see The History of Fandom Part II: After the Internet!
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Thanks for reading, ‘til next time,
Medkult., 2016. The beginning of the fan movement: a brief history of the first fandoms [online]. Unknown: Medkult. Available from: http://medkult.upmedia.cz/2016/08/03/the-beginning-of-the-fan-movement-brief-history-of-the-first-fandoms/ [Accessed 5th December 2018]
Duane, D., 2012. The Affair of the Black Armbands (Or, the Death of Sherlock Holmes and How the World Took It) [online]. Dublin: Out of Ambit Blog. Available from: http://dianeduane.com/outofambit/2012/01/17/the-affair-of-the-black-armbands/ [Accessed 5th December 2018]
Adama, E., 2014. A Brief History of Fandom, for those on here who somehow think Tumblr invented fandom [online]. Unknown: Of House Adama Blog. Available from: http://ofhouseadama.tumblr.com/post/86424015604 [Accessed 5th December 2018].