On May 18th, 2020, Mark Algee-Hewitt, Erik Fredner, Charlotte Lindemann, Laura McGrath and J.D. Porter presented the latest work on Celebrity, our ongoing, large-scale collaboration with the Smithsonian Museum of American History on the history of American celebrity.
Fame and Celebrity have been underappreciated concepts at the heart of U.S. culture. From the time of the Founding Fathers to the rise of mass entertainment (to say nothing of social media), questions of who deserves public recognition, how it is cultivated, and how it varies among different populations, have been at the forefront of conversations about democracy, social mobility, and meritocracy. With the advent of mass market entertainment, the normative effects of celebrity became a more pressing concern as local celebrities either became subjects of national interest or were effaced from the historical record. And yet the same forces have led, in the era of digital media, to a niche economy of fame where Warhol’s fifteen minutes has been transmuted into a long tail of YouTube and Instagram stars with followers numbering in the millions. Now, more than ever, as a reality TV star holds the nation’s highest office, there is a heightened discourse over what it means to become famous and the ways that celebrities leverage their status for other kinds of political and institutional power. In this presentation, we turn to one era in one city (interwar Chicago), as chronicled in two different newspapers written by and for two different communities (The Chicago Daily Tribune and The Chicago Defender) to consider the network of celebrities represented in each.