On the 18th-Century Origins of Celebrity Worship
by Sharon Marcus – June 10, 2019
Modern celebrity culture began not with Hollywood, nor with the Internet, but in the 18th century, when the modern meanings of the words “celebrity” and “star” first became widespread. Famous people have existed for millennia, but the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome sought eternal renown, while medieval saints attained their canonical status only after death. Celebrities are people known during their lifetimes to more people than could possibly know one another. For many centuries, rulers and conquerors were the primary celebrities.
Only in the 18th century did publics begin to take a strong interest in a large number of living authors, artists, performers, scientists, and politicians. In 1782, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau published an autobiography in which he confessed to spanking fantasies, then complained that everyone was gossiping about him. After basing an 1812 poem on his own life, Lord Byron woke up to find himself famous. By the 18th century, a host of performers and authors had stalkers and groupies; by the 19th, many received hundreds of letters yearly requesting autographs. 19th-century celebrity chef Alexis Soyer, a French cook based in London, sold his own brand of bottled sauces and put pictures of himself wearing his trademark red beret on the labels. A century before the rise of radio and television commercials, celebrities endorsed wigs, face creams, powders, pianos, and bottled water. Well in advance of charity telethons and stadium concerts such as Live Aid, celebrities held benefits for victims of res, earthquakes, and yellow fever.
Why did modern celebrity culture emerge when it did? As literacy expanded dramatically among all classes in North America and Europe, so too did the number of those able to read about celebrities. As leisure time increased, more people had more time to visit the theaters, opera houses, and lecture halls where they saw celebrities in person. Even more fundamentally, democratic movements in England, France, and the United States gave rise to a new emphasis on individuality. The Romantic cult of genius that ushered in the 19th century led to the fin de siècle worship of personality exemplified by Oscar Wilde. In 1911, a theater producer explicitly speculated that the star system loomed so large in the United States because Americans were what he called “an individual-loving people.” New visual media catered to that affection. In the 1860s, affordable, compact photographs of celebrities became widely available in shops and via mail order. In the 1890s, heavily illustrated niche magazines devoted to stage stars began to flourish, anticipating the movie magazines that became popular in the 1910s.
Most importantly, democratization made people eager to track current events that they saw themselves as shaping. Celebrity culture would not have taken off without newspapers, but far from imposing curiosity about famous individuals on the public, newspapers used an already existing fascination with celebrities to attract more readers. Until the 1830s, newspapers in England, France, and the United States were costly publications, sponsored by wealthy patrons and read by a small, select group of subscribers who received their papers by mail. In the 1830s, the news became more commercial. To increase circulation, publishers began to charge readers only a penny instead of the traditional six cents, and began to rely on advertisements, subscriptions, and daily sales, including street sales, to turn a profit. Instead of targeting a select group of insiders willing to pay handsomely for exclusive, specialized information, the new penny press appealed to general interests in an effort to reach the largest number of readers possible.