19th Century Media Literacy

I am reading Dee Brown’s The American West.  It’s a compilation of short, illustrated pieces the Brown wrote in tandem with photo editor Martin F. Schmitt in the 1950s.  Despite being pretty familiar with the history of the West, I am still finding some great new tidbits of information as well as new ways of considering that history.

Last night, I read two different passages about how Easterners were lured into coming out West.  I thought both were excellent illustrations of media literacy.  The first dealt with a sketch created by in 1869 by artist Henry Worrall called “Drouthy Kansas.”  You can read the whole story at the Kansas Historical Society’s website. Media literacy figures in because of the comment made by several Kansas farmers, wiped out by the drought and grasshoppers that came in the mid-1870s.  As they headed back East through Topeka, they stopped to talk to Worrall and suggested that it was the “diabolical seductiveness of that picture” that convinced them to come to the state in the first place.  This illustrates the power of the visual to persuade.

Another similar story comes from Kansas.  Western speculators often used the power of media to attract Easterners to new towns that were really nothing more than some marks on the ground.  Brown writes:

John J. Ingalls, Massachusetts lawyer, was attracted in 1856 by a colorful lithograph of Sumner, Kansas Territory.  When Ingalls arrived, he found little but platted kansas prairie.  In later years, as senator from Kansas he recalled the attractive advertisement as a chromatic triumph of lithographed mendacity.”

I turn again to the Kansas Historical Society’s website for Ingall’s story.


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