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Did you hear?

Posted by: | September 18, 2009 | 1 Comment |

Before Twitter, Facebook and Myspace. Before newspapers, pamphlets and gazettes there was only one way to get the news.


For over 102,000 years word-of-mouth has been used to transfer the latest news from one person to the next across vast regions.  Stories of Pheidippides and Israel Bissell show us how far people went to spread the news.  Sometimes though, word-of-mouth produced unreliable news and was often delayed.  It was often the only method for getting the news early on though. 

Alistair Chisolm is Dorchester's Town Crier

Alistair Chisolm, the Town Crier of Dorchester in Boston, Massachusetts. BBC.

Town Criers were people who announced the news to all those who gathered and passed by.  Found on the streets of major cities throughout Europe and The New World.  They helped news by word-of-mouth dominate the middle ages in the 18th century as the best way to receive the news. 

Even after the printing press was invented in Europe, circa 1450, the high illiteracy rate and fact that only the rich elite could afford and read the printed word left the majority of citizens favoring word-of-mouth which was often free.


Engraving of a London Coffeehouse, ca. 1740. Harpers.

Citizens who wanted the latest news helped to popularize English coffeehouses, meeting places and salons.  People would gather and spread the day’s news.  Over 500 such places sprang up in London in the 17th century.

The fall of word-of-mouth as the favored platform to receive news began in the 18th century with the population boom of London. With so many people it took too long and stories changed to frequently to make the spread of news by word-of-mouth effective.

The penny press and steam engine in the 19th century did further damage as it made the news cheap and affordable.  These also gave news the ability to spread at higher rates helping everyone know the news at the same time. 

Technology has certainly advanced the speed, ease, reliability at which news travels in today’s world.  But news by word-of-mouth is far from dead.  It is our natural instinct, as humans, to listen and spread the news through word-of-mouth.

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