This story originally appeared in “Malofiej 24,” published by the Spanish Chapter of the Society for News Design (SNDE).
“It is a singular truth that the mere shadowy image of a building is likely to have a longer term of existence than the piled brick and mortar of a building. Should posterity know where the proud structure stood, it will be indebted for its knowledge to the woodcut.”
—attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1836, quoted in “Low Life” by Luc Sante.
It’s a simple line chart, the kind you can make using Excel in about a minute, but for its time it might as well have been from another planet.
On Saturday, Sept. 29, 1849, The New York Tribune published on its front page a line chart tracking the deaths in New York City from the cholera epidemic that summer. It used techniques that would become common decades later, but were, for the time being, at the bleeding edge of visual data journalism. And, until now, it was forgotten.
The chart is a snapshot of the state of the art of data visualization in news at that moment, and is full of clues that help reveal parts of the hidden history of visual journalism.
Mid–19th century New York was a crowded and filthy place, with most of its half million residents packed like sardines into lower Manhattan. Sanitation was inadequate and street cleaning funds were controlled by corrupt city officials.
Medical understanding was also primitive, and disease outbreaks were widespread. Cholera hit big cities worldwide with terrifying regularity. In New York, an 1832 outbreak killed 3,515 of the city’s then 250,000 residents. Doctors only had a vague idea of what caused the disease. It would take five more years for John Snow to make his famous map of the London cholera outbreak around the Broad Street pump, and another 30 years before Robert Koch linked cholera with the Vibrio cholerae bacterium and medicine began to prevent and halt epidemics.