Historians Peter Onuf, Ed Ayers and Brian Balogh host BackStory with the American History Guys, a public radio program based at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities that brings historical perspective to topics from the headlines. Each hour-long show explores the roots of current events and social trends, revealing the connections—and disconnections—between past and present.

Elvis Presley craved peanut-butter-banana-and-bacon sandwiches; now the sandwich is often referred to as “the Elvis” and served commercially in restaurants. Elizabeth Taylor, known for her acting and her beauty, may be even more famous for her eight marriages to seven men. After Lincoln’s assassination, locks of his hair and pieces of his clothing worn on that fateful evening were in high demand. Marilyn Monroe’s bathrobe was recently sold at auction for $120,000; despite her death in 1962, Monroe’s estate continues to generate $8 million of income a year.

Why are we so interested in the minutia of the private lives of people we don’t know? Have we always been this way?

Today it seems like the American public’s appetite for celebrity is insatiable. People magazine has a weekly circulation of 3.6 million. ABC television’s megahit Dancing with the Stars, which featured such personalities as former astronaut Buzz Aldrin and reality television star Kate Gosselin this season, drew 23.9 million viewers to its premiere.

Have we always been a nation infatuated with fame? For answers, Virginia Magazine sat down with the American History Guys from the radio show BackStory, who shared a few of their reflections on the last three centuries.

18th-century Guy

Peter Onuf, aka 18th-century Guy, is a history professor at U.Va. and the author of 11 books, including most recently The Mind of Thomas Jefferson. Onuf is a leading authority on Thomas Jefferson and revolutionary America.
While I personally couldn’t give a buffalo nickel if Balloon Boy is the next Oprah, I will say that if you had a more-than-local reputation in the 18th century, it’s because you’d earned it. Printing was expensive and photography didn’t exist.

The 18th century’s celebrities generally fell into two categories: politicians and preachers—who, I might add, were early America’s entertainers. On the political side, you could say that in many ways this country’s obsession with celebrity started when we gave King George the boot. Without the “default” celebrities of the Old World—the always entertaining royal family—Americans with political aspirations had to stand out if they were going to be elected by popular vote, which was tough, because they’d written that “created equal” stuff into the Declaration.

So what was to distinguish one ruffian from another? His character—integrity, honesty, courage—traits that needed cultivation. And believe it or not, one of the marks of high character was restraint. In a time of relatively small government, without all the checks and balances, it was easy to seize and abuse power. Some of the popular people in the country were those who could have seized power but didn’t. People like George Washington.

George was famous for his farewell addresses, for not seeking a third term, for laying down his sword and returning to his farm at Mount Vernon—and sure, for winning a revolution. His humility struck people with wonder. Washington, as was true of almost all the Founders, cared about fame with posterity—leaving a lasting mark on our new nation—rather than creating a stir only to watch it fizzle.

Despite the fame of our early politicians, itinerant preachers were the true media darlings. To spread “The Word,” they used newspapers to reprint their sermons and publish detailed accounts of their travels. The famous British Reverend George Whitefield (1714-70) was one of the fathers of Evangelicalism and about as close to a superstar as it got. He once preached to a crowd of 30,000 in Boston during a tour of the Colonies. His message was popular—he preached that salvation was universally attainable. He also published hundreds of his more than 18,000 sermons, letters, journals and several biographies. You could say Whitefield “went viral” though he never once Twittered…tweeted? Twitted?

19th-century Guy

Ed Ayers, aka 19th-century Guy, is president of the University of Richmond. Previously, he served as a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at U.Va. He directed the online history project The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War. Ayers’ expertise includes the Civil War and the evolution of the post-war South.
That’s a very wholesome upstanding picture of early America painted by 18th-century Guy … but one suspiciously devoid of debauchery. Lest you get the impression that Americans used to be pure and good, I will tell you that lurking deep within the hearts of all citizens lay an unyielding interest in the lives of criminals, loose women and circus freaks. Isn’t Lizzie Borden still famous?

By the 1830s, urbanization—and English language learners—had created a large market for cheap newspapers. Looking to fill the pages of daily newspapers, reporters on the crime beat chronicled felons and quoted the funny things they said. The century abounds with famous outlaws, from Jesse James to Belle Star. The fame game changed in the 19th century and the media began making celebrities, instead of celebrities using the media to reach the public.

Take, for example, a cotton mill worker named Sam Patch (1807-29). Sam was a poor kid with no remarkable talents other than his penchant for jumping off bridges and mill dams and ships’ masts and, with one notable exception, surviving. In the news-hungry 19th century, he was propelled to national fame. In 1829, he bowed to a crowd of 10,000, kissed the American flag and jumped 120 feet into Niagara Falls.

Newspapers all over the country started calling him “The Yankee Leaper” and “The New Jersey Jumper.” It’s hard to exaggerate how much press this man got; He was a true spectacle. If Patch was scheduled to jump in a particular town, it was covered in handbills and ads; Newspapers were calling his stunts the greatest feats of their kind ever attempted by man. Sadly, he plummeted to his death attempting his second jump into the Genesee River when he was just 22 years old. Before that fateful jump, he’d compared himself to Napoleon and had decided that he, Patch, was more courageous. Rumor has it somebody put a wooden board over his grave that said: “Sam Patch—Such is Fame.”

After Patch’s death, a wave of worry and contrition swept through the Northeast—the public started wondering: Are we somehow responsible for this? People started blaming the media, with all its pressure and hype, for driving Patch to his death. To me, this sounds eerily like our reaction to the untimely deaths of other young celebrities—such as Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain.

20th-century Guy

Brian Balogh, aka 20th-century Guy, is a professor of history at U.Va. and director of the fellowship program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. His third book, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America, was published in 2009. Balogh’s scholarship spans subjects as diverse as America’s use of commercial nuclear power, the influence of the turbulent 1960s on public policy and the evolution of the U.S. Forest Service.
What you see in the 20th century is more of the same—a lot more—more media and more technology. Radio, movies, television and the Internet open up new opportunities for celebrity. Along with those new technologies comes a very important addition to celebrity: intimacy.

The introduction of radio meant you could actually hear a famous person’s voice—even if he was a thousand miles away. When FDR spoke to the nation during his fireside chats of the 1930s and ’40s, he seemed to speak to people individually in their own parlors and living rooms.

With the invention of movies, a thousand stars were born. Famous people—beautiful people—appeared on the screen of the local movie theater every week. You felt like you knew them, their small gestures and the subtleties of their faces in close-up.

Popular psychology changed our concept of the individual. If the 18th century was the century of character, the 20th was the century of personality. Freudian psychology explained that we couldn’t mold ourselves through hard work, nor had our personalities been ordained by God. Those ideas were so last century. Instead, people were driven by subconscious instincts—all of us, including you, me, Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne. Then we learned that John Wayne used Prell and smoked Marlboros, and though we might not ever be stars quite like him, with these great products, we could start to smell like him. Belief in celebrities’ intimate personalities made celebrity endorsements profitable.

In the 20th century, the kind of person who could become famous was more democratized. In the ’50s, the advent of television news again reinvented what was considered newsworthy—eventually cable news networks had 24 hours a day to fill with “news.” People became famous because they were … well, famous. Their big achievement was that they’d been on TV the most times. It’s like holding the world record for world records held. Previously, you had to be known for something; the trick in the 20th century was to get famous first, then do something while the country was watching—like running for office. Need evidence? Celebrities like Ronald Reagan, Bill Bradley, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura successfully parlayed fame into political power.

In the 21st century, there are more media outlets that cater to very specific demographics and create niche market celebrities—think Biz Stone and Evan Williams, who created Twitter and are stars of the Internet startup world. At the same time, culture is more global; Tupac is popular in Africa and Britney Spears sells tea in Japanese television commercials. Yet, just as in the last few centuries, the most famous people tend to be politicians, religious leaders, sports stars, entertainers and notorious bad guys. Time Magazine’s list of the most influential people of 2009 included all five: President Obama, Pope Benedict XVI, third baseman Alex Rodriguez, Korean pop star Rain and Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff. The jury is out, but I am betting that Tiger Woods has the best chance to embody all five categories in one lifetime—a true celebrity for all seasons.

Fame and InFamy

Le Grand Marquis … encore!
French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette fought bravely alongside George Washington during the Revolution, and Washington considered him an adopted son. Almost 50 years later, in 1824, Lafayette was greeted by 80,000 fans when he returned to the United States as the “nation’s guest” for a 13-month, 6,000-mile grand tour. The country treated him to lavish balls and dinners, and a host of Lafayette-themed memorabilia emerged to mark the occasion, including china, sheet music and ladies’ gloves.

Execution sermons
Ministers often gained fame through “scaffold orations”—speeches given before public hangings, which were always well attended. Respected American preachers such as Cotton Mather, Benjamin Colman and Charles Chauncy would stand before the condemned criminal, berate him for his wickedness and warn the audience against a similar fate.

You can’t spell “assassination-of-character” without …
Celebrities in the 18th century weren’t expected to have perfect teeth or expensive homes, but they did fight over who had the most integrity. During the infamous election of 1800, Alexander Hamilton wrote in a personal letter that John Adams had “great and intrinsic defects in his character.” Aaron Burr, who would eventually kill Hamilton in a duel, leaked the letter to the press. The same year, a Connecticut newspaper warned that if Jefferson became president, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced.”

What about the women?
Where are all the 18th-century female celebrities, you ask? In the early days, it was hard enough for a man to gain renown beyond his own community, but women were expected to stay put and raise families. Early pioneers of women’s education encouraged schools to teach rhetoric and debate. In 1892, abolitionist, suffragist and keeper-of-maiden-name Lucy Stone credited the literary societies of her youth as the basis for her fame and success, saying that’s where she “learned to stand and speak.”

The Swedish Nightingale
Swedish singer Jenny Lind made a fortune in 1849 when P.T. Barnum invited her to tour the U.S. She became an instant celebrity, thanks, in part, to her charitable spirit. Barnum begged lenders for money to fund her tour, telling them Lind’s influence would be good for American morals and publicizing her history of singing for orphanages and hospitals. When she arrived in the U.S., 40,000 people greeted her; Congress was adjourned; and the Supreme Court justices attended her performance. She gave 93 concerts in America, earning more than $250,000, most of which she gave away.

A warrior becomes an entertainer
Lakota warrior Sitting Bull is perhaps best known for uniting the Lakota Sioux tribes and defeating General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. But he became a national celebrity when he toured as a performer with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1885. He earned $50 a week for riding once around the ring, and charged handsomely—often giving his money to charity—for autographed pictures. Legend has it that when Sitting Bull was shot by police in 1890, a circus horse he’d been presented with responded to its cue, and offered him a hoof to “shake hands.”

Hit me with your best shot
Boxer Jack Johnson (1878-1946) was the first African American to become heavyweight champion of the world and one of the first celebrity athletes to appear in the press, act in movies and endorse products. In 1910’s “Fight of the Century,” Johnson earned $225,000 when he wiped the floor with former champ James Jeffries in front of an audience of 22,000 people. Despite his wealth and popularity, Johnson still had to contend with his toughest opponent: racism (Jeffries came out of retirement for the match against Johnson “for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro”).

Whoa, boy!
The golden age of television also helped launch the careers of many celebrities from the animal kingdom, including Lassie the dog, Flipper the dolphin and Trigger, Roy Rogers’ noble palomino, who starred in the Roy Rogers Show (1951-57). Known as “The Smartest Horse in the Movies,” Trigger reportedly knew more than 50 tricks. When he died in 1965, Rogers had him stuffed.