What Did They Know?
A Miniseries on Prospective Baden Migrants and Their Knowledge of America in the 1870s and 1880sWith contributions by Martin Bemmann, Marie Nella Hoffmann, Hannah Laubrock, and Luca Leitz-Schwoerer
In the last third of the nineteenth century, historian Thomas Nipperdey wrote, the Germans became a “paper-reading people.”1 Several thousand dailies, weeklies, and monthlies appeared at the end of the century, and reading them became a habit for the overwhelming majority of the population, with almost all adults and older children having become literate by that time. What contemporaries read in these periodicals significantly influenced their notions and their knowledge of the wider world. And, due to the so-called transport and communication revolutions, as well as the quickly increasing relevance of news agencies for global information flows (e.g., Havas, founded in 1835; Wolff’s Telegraphenbureau, 1849; Reuters, 1851), German newspapers by the 1870s and 1880s had taken to covering events in Europe, Asia, and the Americas on a daily basis.2
Turning the pages of newspapers, therefore, helps us to investigate what average Germans could read about America in their everyday life. Further, it helps us to understand what constituted background or even tacit knowledge emigrants already possessed when they began to consider leaving for the United States and were looking for specific information both on how to organize the journey and on their prospective destination. As this essay shows, the coverage of the US was quite extensive, including contributions on politics and economics, the environment and culture, but also weather and gossip. Typical readers did not read all of these articles, of course. Yet, the density of the information suggests that they very likely encountered them with great frequency. Consequently, newspapers were highly significant in enabling average citizens to gain a general sense about what America was like at that time. After a certain span of time, almost everyone reading them was at least basically aware of the general geographic outline of the US, its political system, major events, and important figures in American society. Alongside school education, word of mouth, and oral reports and letters from family members and acquaintances, newspaper articles were certainly a primary source of knowledge about America.
This was no different in the Grand Duchy of Baden in Germany’s southwest, especially in Freiburg, a small university town near today’s borders with France and Switzerland. In the late nineteenth century, inhabitants of Freiburg and the surrounding area could choose from several dailies and weeklies. In Freiburg alone, four newspapers were published regularly at the time, including the Freiburger Bote für Stadt und Land, the Breisgauer Zeitung, the Freiburger Pfennigblatt, and the Freiburger Zeitung. There certainly was no dearth of current printed news.
The Freiburger Zeitung developed into one of the region’s most important newspapers. Established as a municipal gazette in the 1780s, local publisher Eduard Daniel Poppen bought it in the mid-1860s and modernized it, turning the paper into a medium oriented politically toward the National Liberals with an anti-Catholic stance. At this time, Freiburg began to flourish, becoming a regional administrative and economic center with a steadily growing population. Consequently, the sales figures for the Freiburger Zeitung increased, too. By the 1890s, it printed and distributed more copies than any other Freiburg newspaper.3
Compared to other newspapers of the region, the Freiburger Zeitung was rather special. In the 1870s, it printed four pages every day, thus appearing relatively often with a comparatively high volume of news. Furthermore, it mainly addressed the relatively wealthy and well-educated population of the university town. Presumably, this target audience influenced what journalists chose to report in it. Despite these features, though, the Freiburger Zeitung was also typical of German local newspapers in terms of its structure and content. In the mid-1870s, it usually had a lead article followed by short news items about Baden and other German regions of not more than two to five lines each. Another section presented items of a political or economic nature from Europe, and still another provided news from other continents. Among these latter items, those from the United States were the most numerous; in 1876, more than 150 issues of the Freiburger Zeitung contained news from this country. Many such news items could also be read elsewhere, and most were published without a reference to their origin so that it is unclear whether they were sent by correspondents, bought from agencies, or simply taken wholesale from other papers. Therefore, one can assume that the information about the United States in the Freiburger Zeitung was typical of what German readers learned about that country in general.
In order to find out what such a typical German newspaper reported about the United States, the Freiburger Zeitung’s issues of 1876 were systematically analyzed. The majority of the articles on the US was comprised of short items on events of differing importance. Common, for example, were reports about debates or decisions in Congress. In mid-January 1876, readers were informed that a House legal committee had received a report supporting a constitutional amendment that was intended to restrict a president’s term to six years and to forbid more than one re-election. Additionally, in mid-June of that year the paper reported that the House had voted to allow the treasury to release 20 million dollars.4 Other political news was recorded as well. At the beginning of the year, for example, readers could follow Spanish-American tensions regarding Cuba.5 In March, one news item indicated that the Senate voted to take the then district of New Mexico into the Union, and a bit later the Freiburger Zeitung reported at great length about constant clashes between the US military and Mexican squatters and bandits along the Rio Grande.6 Other news items included a short note in late April 1876 reporting that Brazil’s emperor had reached San Francisco,7 as well as others about hurricanes and their consequences, as in early May and mid-July.8 More interesting for prospective emigrants were, perhaps, irregularly published new items providing information on the arrivals and departures of ships of the greater German shipping lines. In early February, for instance, readers could note that a ship with mail and passengers had left Hamburg for New York and that another one had arrived safely at the North American metropole after a journey of 11 days and 5 hours.9 Rather important for the readers of the Freiburger Zeitung who intended to emigrate, to establish business connections, or to maintain contacts with relatives in North America was an advertisement appearing in early May 1876 indicating that the United States had opened a consulate in Mannheim in the northern part of Baden.10
The year 1876, however, was also when the United States celebrated its centenary, when it invited “the world” to visit its international exhibition in Philadelphia, when its army witnessed a severe defeat in clashes with the Sioux, and when one of the country’s most contentious presidential elections took place. The readers of the Freiburger Zeitung were able to follow all of this closely. The news items related to these particular topics constituted a special kind of coverage in comparison to the others mentioned above. From the vantage point of southern Baden, the Centennial International Exhibition opening in Philadelphia in May 1876 seemed to be a major event. Reporting on it several times, the Freiburger Zeitung mirrored its National-Liberal orientation by highlighting German contributions (including cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest) and comparing their quality and quantity to the contributions of other countries.11 In the spring and summer of that year, the paper also published advertisements of a shipping line offering package tours to Philadelphia and back.12 Another special event for the Freiburger Zeitung’s reporting about America that year was Independence Day on July 4. On this very date, the newspaper published a poem on the front page celebrating the country as the land of freedom. A week later, an unusually long lead article elaborated on the role Germans had played in US history.13
One can see that the coverage of the United States in Freiburg’s main newspaper was very up to date when looking at events in the summer of 1876. In the context of a larger military campaign against Native Americans, a US Army regiment led by George A. Custer suffered a severe defeat at the Little Bighorn River in Montana on June 25.14 Usually, news items from the East Coast of the United States were no more than three or four days old when they appeared in the Freiburger Zeitung, according to the dates given in the articles. The first items on Custer’s Last Stand in the Midwest, however, were published two weeks after it had occurred, and a more extensive report did not appear until mid-July. What might at first seem to have been slow or late reporting in a provincial German town was, in fact, a consequence of bad information flows in North America. Even there, it took about a week for the first rumors of the military defeat to be published in US papers, for example, in the Chicago Daily Tribune on July 4.15 More detailed reports appeared two days later in East Coast newspapers, and as early as one day later, the news had reached Europe, as can be seen in news items published in the London Times and the Figaro of Paris.16 The Freiburger Zeitung—and presumably other German papers, too—followed soon thereafter with a report on July 8.
All of these news items and stories on the United States from the Freiburger Zeitung issues of 1876 make it clear that “ordinary” Germans of the time were able to gain a great deal of various kinds of knowledge about “America” even from their local newspapers. Those who wished to emigrate and those who had family already abroad could not only find out whether the mail had shipped out or when to find a transatlantic sailing but also learn about government debates and military campaigns. Likewise, they could keep up with the major events of the day that were shaping the lives of Americans and the nations’ new immigrants, from the centennial celebrations and the international exhibition in Philadelphia to the Battle of the Little Bighorn. And regardless of what drove them to read these items in the Freiburger Zeitung, they could be sure that the news arrived very rapidly for late nineteenth-century standards.
Martin Bemmann is a historian and a lecturer (Privatdozent) at the University of Freiburg. Interested in the history of knowledge as well as in economic and environmental history from a global perspective, he currently explores multilateral research collaboration within the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in the 1970s and 1980s, an international organization of socialist states.
Featured image: Excerpt of a painting of the expanded US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, as published in Die Gartenlaube, no. 49 (1865): 780–81, digitized by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.
- Thomas Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte 1866–1918, vol. 1 (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1994), 797. ↩︎
- See, e.g., Maria Wagner, Was die Deutschen aus Amerika berichteten, 1828–1865 (Stuttgart: Heinz, 1985). ↩︎
- Thomas Schnabel, Presse, Politik und Poppen: Die Freiburger Zeitung von 1784–1911 (Freiburg: Poppen & Ortmann, 2001); Heiko Haumann and Hans Schadek, eds., Geschichte der Stadt Freiburg im Breisgau, vol. 3, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Theiss), 165–254. ↩︎
- Freiburger Zeitung, 15 Jan and 14 June 1876 (all referenced copies of the Freiburger Zeitung are available in a digitized version here. ↩︎
- E.g., Freiburger Zeitung, 21 and 28 Jan 1876. ↩︎
- Freiburger Zeitung, 14 and 18 March as well as 26 July 1876. ↩︎
- Freiburger Zeitung, 30 April 1876. ↩︎
- Freiburger Zeitung, 2 May and 8 July 1876. ↩︎
- Freiburger Zeitung, 4 Feb 1876. ↩︎
- Freiburger Zeitung, 5 May 1876. ↩︎
- E.g., Freiburger Zeitung, 6 Jan and 16 Feb 1876; on the exhibition, see Winfried Kretschmer, Geschichte der Weltausstellungen (Frankfurt/Main: Campus, 1999), 99–109. ↩︎
- E.g., in Freiburger Zeitung, 30 April 1876. ↩︎
- Freiburger Zeitung, 4 and 13 July 1876. ↩︎
- Heike Bungert, Die Indianer: Geschichte der indigenen Nationen in den USA (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2020), 134–36; Aram Mattioli, Verlorene Welten: Eine Geschichte der Indianer Nordamerikas (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 2017), 284–87. ↩︎
- Chicago Daily Tribune, 4 July 1876. ↩︎
- Evening Star (Washington, DC), 6 July 1876; Wilmington Daily Commercial (Wilmington, DE), 6 July 1876; The Times (London), 7 July 1876; Le Figaro (Paris), 7 July 1876. ↩︎