Social Media in the Restoration

That may be overstating the case somewhat.  But at the end of the 17th century, John Houghton, an apothecary, coffee and chocolate seller, and miscellaneous harebrained schemer, started a periodical publication meant to be a sort of communal encyclopedia of practical knowledge.  Each number of the publication contained listings for prices of farm products from more than 30 different market towns– presumably so that farmers who subscribed would know where to send their goods for the best price– as well as snippets of information from other papers, things like stock prices, and an extensive classified section.  What made this different from other newspapers was his distinct lack of news.  Where other papers would have, in the front section, reportage on news of the day, he had encyclopedia-like articles on practical subjects: types of clay, uses of hazel wood, the making of soap.  He solicited articles not just from idle Fellows of the Royal Society ( who might be hanging around his shop near the Ship Tavern in Bartholomew Lane, right up next to the Royal Exchange), but from his own subscribers who just happened to have the specialized knowledge he was looking for.  Presumably each issue would contain a kind of call-for-papers for the topics to be covered in the next issue–directed not at scholars, but at anyone who happened to read the thing.

As well as this proto-Wikipedia service, he ran a marriage brokerage: a proto-eharmony; a matching-up-buyers-with-sellers business that shaded over into advertising; and other similar information brokerage services; he was also  passionately pro-trade and seems to have argued in a completely non-mercantilist way that Britons buying luxuries from foreign countries was just fine, even though that meant that gold and silver were going out of the country.  Check out The Information Business, the fascinating lecture by Michael Harris about Houghton’s venture into the exhausting business of being a one-man Google in 1690s London.  Also appearing: John Dunton, bookseller and publisher of an ask.com-like question-and-answer periodical and Samuel Hartleb, a Polish immigrant who lived right near Pepys. Hartleb was a generation older and his information-broking was manuscript, not print-based: he wrote and received an absolutely phenomenal volume of letters from a huge number of people.  He also ran a labor exchange (this was 1646, just after the Civil War) to address the unemployment crisis of the time; he had a religious motivation for this, believing that to spread knowledge as he was trying to do would hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Well worth a listen.

Pic is Hogarth, Hudibras beats Sidrophel.  The beating is taking place in an apothecary shop.

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