As historian of science Lorraine Daston recently remarked, COVID-19 has thrown us back into a state of “ground-zero empiricism.” The manifold manifestations of COVID-19 and the many unknowns involved are provoking scientific speculation that is often based on nothing more than chance observations and personal anecdotes. The radical uncertainty of the current situation, writes Daston, has catapulted us back to the seventeenth century, with almost everything up for grabs, “just as it was for the members of the earliest scientific societies—and everyone else—circa 1660.”1
When the writer Anne Brewster (1818–1892) and the sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908) met in Italy in 1876, their conversation circled mainly around the recently deceased actress Charlotte Cushman. That itself was hardly unusual—Cushman was the talk of the town. During most of her adult life, Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876) was among the most-well known public figures in the Anglophone world. As an American actress who could boast a phenomenal success in Britain with roles as varied as Meg Merrilies and Romeo, Cushman dominated the theatrical scene on both sides of the Atlantic for several decades. While she might be forgotten today,1 she was everywhere during the height of her success. You can’t miss her in databases like ProQuest’s American Periodicals Series and Historical Newspapers or the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Yet if you relied only on these public sources, you’d miss a lot.
By definition, experts play a vital role in creating, sustaining, and disseminating any particular body of knowledge. But what constitutes an expert? How is authority obtained? Does this change over time? There are no absolute answers, which is to say that the question of who is considered to be an authority is culturally and socially constructed, and therefore interesting to historians. Here, I will consider the construction of authority in British aviation in the early twentieth century, paying particular attention to its manifestations in the public sphere.1 Because aeronautics was the subject of intense media scrutiny, but as yet lacked formal criteria for demonstrating expertise, anyone who wanted to claim the mantle of authority at some point had to come to terms with popular expectations.
In August 1939, the newly formed Jamaica Birth Control League opened the island’s first birth control clinic in Kingston to distribute diaphragms at cost or free to working-class women. To advertise their services, the League published a small, discreet notice in the “Wanted” section of the Daily Gleaner, the island’s main newspaper. Within a year, some 500 women had written passionate letters to the League from across the island; thousands more would show up at the clinic’s doorstep, eager to seize on new methods for controlling reproduction.
In 1903, the Austrian journalist Emil Löbl observed that “many of today’s readers” see their newspaper as a “universal encyclopedia,” the study of which, they believed, satisfied their duty as “cultivated people” (Kulturmenschen) to stay informed. Whether or not this was a positive development, journalists needed to recognize that “modern readers expected of newspapers the greatest degree of universality, the widest variety, the most complete abundance of content.”