Kleefeld’s ‘Fanthropology’ #2: Where Do We Come From?

By Sean Kleefeld

Video game enthusiasts are a comparatively new fandom. The very first video game of any sort does date back to 1947, but as a whole they weren’t really commercially viable until the early 1970s. Pong was really the first video game hit of any sort, and that’s well within the timeframe of recent memory; there are gamers out there who remember seeing it in an arcade for the first time. So it’s fairly easy to understand the development of video game fandom, as it followed much the same path as comics before that, and science fiction before that.

But fandoms didn’t always exist. I suspect that most people, if they put any thought to it, would peg the idea of being fans no earlier than the 20th century. Which makes sense, given that nearly everything people are fans of today didn’t exist in the 19th century. There was no Star Wars, there was no Lord of the Rings, there was no Mickey Mouse. And you don’t see any literature talking about fans or fandom before then. But while the notion of suggesting fandom didn’t exist before 1900 isn’t wholly accurate, it’s not too far off on some levels.

The term “hobby” first appeared in relation to the “hobby horse”—an artificial horse used originally in a specific type of dance. By the 1500s, the term broadened a bit to include any sort of mock horse and it was frequently used to speak of a child’s toy (as children were the ones who had the most use of fake horses). It took about a century for the word “hobby” to stand on its own and carry the meaning we generally associate with it today, with the original tie being that, like a hobby horse, one’s hobbies don’t really go anywhere.

The reason, of course, that a term like hobby was needed was because people began to develop technology sufficiently advanced enough that they weren’t required to focus on their survival every waking moment. While there was certainly entertainment earlier than the sixteenth century, there was still a great deal of time spent in making it to the next day. What free time one might have had could be spent in hobby-like pursuits, but not in sufficient quantity to really need a name for it. One could hardly say they played cards as a hobby if they only played once in a while; it would have been considered a pastime at most.

Technology continued to improve, though, and provide people with more free time. People not only had enough time to pursue an outside interest, but they could afford to pursue it often enough and with enough intensity that something stronger than “hobby” was needed to express the greater enthusiasm one put towards a favored distraction.

Put a little more thought into the idea of early fandoms and you might realize that Sherlock Holmes had an ardent enough following that readers demanded more adventures even after, in 1893, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had killed the character in “The Final Problem.” Even earlier in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland proved so popular that Queen Victoria allegedly asked to have the next book dedicated to her. While that anecdote is likely apocryphal, it is suggestive of the enthusiasm with which readers enjoyed and emotionally identified with young Alice.

One more example from 1818: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly. Though the speed of communication was considerably slower two centuries ago, there were printed arguments about the merits of the book as heated as you can find today about Twilight. Letters and newspapers instead of online message boards, but the only other difference you might find in those discussions is that Adolf Hitler wasn’t around to use as a basis of comparison yet.

A “fan” is, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is “an ardent admirer or enthusiast.” There are differing accounts of how the word came into common usage, although the two most plausible origins stem from the words “fancy” (having a liking towards something) and/or “fanatic” (one who is excessively enthusiastic about a topic). As both possibilities result in similar connotations, and were in common usage around the same time, I won’t belabor the argument here. Regardless, the word “fan” came into common usage itself in the late 1800s, meaning essentially the same thing that it means today. People were seeing more and more works like Shelly’s, Carroll’s and Doyle’s and needed a way to define their relationship to them. A relationship they wouldn’t have had time to have with, say, Hamlet or the Ancient Mariner.

And, as more of these types of works gained wider followings, and as more people began to realize their appreciation of the works was not in isolation, they found need of a word to describe a group of fans. “Fandom” then begins cropping up as a term in the early 1900s; the simple “-dom” suffix signifying the realm of all fans. Since fans are not necessarily located in a single geographic location, though, this realm is more metaphoric in nature. The collection of all fans, wherever they might be.

So while the words “fan” and “fandom” have only been around a little over a hundred years, the idea goes back quite a bit further. What’s interesting, too, is that those older fandoms developed in much the same way as they do today, just at a slower pace. We’ll explore that in a future column!

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Kleefeld’s ’Fanthropology’ #1

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