Charles Dana Gibson: Father of the Meme

1890s Charles Dana Gibson early 1900s Gibson Girl internet memes memes

Chances are, if you have an account on a social networking site such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you've probably seen more than your fair share of memes. Those silly, quirky, sometimes even outrageous images with crude black and white captions that take the internet by storm one year and are all but gone the next.

Here are a few examples of memes from our social media:

But what specifically is a meme? Couldn't we use that word to describe other types of viral imagery, even predating the internet? That depends. Wikipedia defines an Internet Meme specifically as "a type of meme that is spread via the Internet, often through social media platforms and especially for humorous purposes. Memes can spread from person to person via social networks, blogs, direct email, or news sources."

However, as it turns out, the term can be used more broadly, the broader definition being "an idea, behavior, or style that becomes a fad and spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme." (Source: Wikipedia)

This broader term was first coined by British ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, although he never claimed it to be a new idea.

This means we can explore earlier examples of what might constitute a meme.

Also according to Wikipedia, the overall concept of memes has been discussed and considered as early as the time of Charles Darwin, with notable publications on the topic dating as far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s. So we can see that people have been theorizing on memes as a broad, nebulous concept for a very long time, but what would be a plausible first example of a more concrete application of that theory?

I would argue that the first type of imagery that may today be defined specifically as a meme were the creations of Charles Dana Gibson.

Gibson's rise to fame began when he was a young artist trying to sell his work to various New York publishing houses in 1886, eventually selling his first drawing as a last resort to the then fledgling Life Magazine. This image (pictured below) is especially important to my argument, firstly because this image was Gibson's first notable success (until his Gibson Girl began to spread like wildfire, but I will talk more about that later...) and secondly, because it has all the ingredients of a successful meme.

According to Jonah Berger's bestselling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, there are six key elements that can make an idea spread:

  1. Social currency: We like to share what makes us look good. We'd rather appear savvy, smart, cool, or with-the-program than to appear dull, dumb, or awkward, so we are more likely to share something that gives the impression we want to make.
  2. Triggers: We are most likely to talk about something if we think of it first. This appears to be a no-brainer on the surface, but in this case, what makes us think of something is its connection to something else that is already at the top of our minds.
  3. Emotion: If we care enough about something at an emotional level, we are more likely to share it.
  4. Public: When we are easily seen engaging in a behavior, style, etc., others are more likely to imitate us.
  5. Practical value: if it's useful, we are more likely to share it.
  6. Stories: We don't just share information. We tell stories. So if something we want to share is wrapped up in a story, it's much easier to spread. Think of Aesop's Fables, for instance. There's always a moral to the story, but the story is the conduit that spreads the moral.

Looking back at "The Moon and I" for a moment, we see that it already meets four of Berger's six elements of virality. 1.) It has social currency because it's a reference to The Mikado, one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular operas, which was being shown at that time. 2.) It's a trigger because then, as now, dog ownership was a common practice, so if one's dog barked at the moon, it might remind them of that image, (or if one were in the unfortunate position of having a neighbor whose dog won't shut up.) 3.) Its cleverness evokes a chuckle, which is an expression of emotion. 4.) As with just about all pictures, this one tells a story. The story of a dog who, for reasons we can't help being curious about, is fixedly barking at the moon.

After The Moon and I, Gibson became famous for drawing The Gibson Girl, which meets just about all the criteria for being a true, bona fide meme!

As Woody Gelman put it in The Best of Charles Dana Gibson (Crown Publishers, Inc.; 1969): "With the sure, bold strokes of his pen, which did indeed become masterful, he invented a woman at once delicate and strong, and so lovely that she would become for all time the symbol of her age, and in her own time, the glorification of the American girl. And American girls, eager to be glorified, made her a flesh-and-blood reality in every boulevard, avenue, and Main Street in the country."

She gave American women something to aspire to, and for this reason she spread like wildfire. But to analyze her for a moment in terms of Berger's six elements: she had social currency because her then smart and up-to-date style inspired women all over the country to want to look like her; she had a constant and lasting presence in various publications and ephemera of the era, which over time made her image a trigger, and even before then, her image might have been triggered by something so simple as the act of brushing one's hair; women who embraced her style, good looks, and charm were doing so out of a feeling of deep admiration, which, in terms of establishing virality, is a strong emotion; the more women were seen emulating the stylish wardrobe of the Gibson Girl, the more other women would follow suit, hence the public element; every time her image appeared in a magazine, she was always acting out some type of story that was engaging to the reader.

That's five out of six! Is it any wonder, then, that she became so phenomenally popular? Can you possibly argue against her firmly established place in the hall of memes? I certainly can't. Although there may have been other images that approached the popularity of a meme, it was the Gibson Girl's unprecedented and overwhelmingly massive popularity, and her enduring legacy, that made her the first true meme.

Are there any other early memes from before the internet that you would like to share? Please let me know in the comments. I look forward to hearing your ideas.


By the way, we have a Gibson Girl print available for sale, if you'd like to have a look.

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