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The University of Southampton

HIST2071 Celebrity, Media and Mass Culture, Britain 1888-1952

Module Overview

This module explores the development of celebrity in Britain 1888-1952, focusing particularly upon the influence of technologies and mass media. The years between the late 1880s and early 1950s saw a massive expansion in printed and visual media, and this module charts representations of celebrity from the pages of illustrated newspapers (from the late 1880s) to modern technicolour film (1952), via turn-of-the-century developments in silent film, the 1920s invention of radio and advances in photography. How should we understand the development of celebrity during this period? In examining this question, you will encounter a variety of men and women who became famous, from glamourous film and sports stars to political icons and seedy criminals. But as importantly, you will get to grips with the wider social, cultural, economic and technological contexts that underpinned celebrity in late-nineteenth and early/mid twentieth-century Britain, including the emergence of mass communications and the uses celebrity was put to in endorsing political and social causes and new consumer lifestyles. As part of this investigation you will examine the plausibility of historians’ arguments that, for example, link celebrity to supposedly increased opportunities for leisure and the ‘Americanisation’ of British popular culture. As you move through the module you will examine in depth the ways in which celebrities and their life stories were reported across a variety of different media. In each session you will be introduced to a different genre of primary source material, and will explore what light that genre of source sheds upon celebrity in our period. Sources to be studied include biographies; autobiographies; newspapers; magazines; photographs; paintings; letters; radio programmes and radio journalism; film; and material culture sources (for example, cigarette card collections and consumer goods). In examining these sources you will be pursuing two goals. Firstly, to gain an understanding of the chronology, personalities and key events in the history of celebrity in late-nineteenth and early/mid-twentieth-century Britain. Secondly, to consider how the primary source materials you study not only document these individuals and historical moments, but also take on a key role in shaping celebrity. This means you will also consider the impact of technological change, new styles of journalism, and changing consumer tastes between the late 1880s and early 1950s, and some of the leading journalists, photographers and agents who ‘made’ celebrities in these years.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • the chronology, personalities and key events in the history of celebrity in Britain between 1888 and 1952
  • the role played by media and mass communications technologies in shaping celebrity and audience responses to it in this period
  • the different ways in which scholars have interpreted the history of celebrity in modern Britain
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • identify historical patterns in the development of celebrity in Britain from the late 1880s to the early 1950s
  • analyse critically a variety of textual, visual, aural and material culture sources and comment upon their relevance to the historical study of celebrity
  • engage with seminal and recent historiographical texts on celebrity in our period
  • participate constructively in group discussion, presenting your case by drawing on your reading, knowledge and understanding
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • find information, assess its utility and explain ideas clearly in written exercises
  • communicate effectively in group discussions, including in the role of group leader
  • work both independently and as part of a team to identify and solve problems
  • develop your time management skills in planning and completing tasks set
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • identify and use primary and secondary materials using electronic bibliographical searches and historical databases


Topics to be studied might include the following: Men and Women of the Day: celebrity biography in the 1880s Taken unawares: early press photography Gossip columns and the private lives of celebrities Silent stars: celebrity in early film Stars of the air: radio celebrity Posing for the camera: celebrity portraits Celebrity sells: advertising, endorsement and fundraising Scandal and sensation: notoriety as celebrity Admirers and ‘fans’ Modern technicolour: Hollywood c. 1952

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include: • Short introductory lectures which may include some group work/participation • Seminars focusing on the detailed reading and analysis of primary sources – these could be texts, images or objects Learning activities include: • In depth analysis of primary sources • Preparatory reading and individual study • Individual participation in seminars, group work and short presentations on seminar themes Discussion in seminars will help you to develop your ideas on a topic, to analyse a range of source material and to articulate a critical argument. This module, like all of the 15 credit History modules offered to second year students, will be research led and it will focus heavily on primary sources. You will study an individual source in depth each week. As such, this module will provide you with a sound preparation for the source-based work undertaken in year 3 during the Special Subject and the dissertation.

Independent Study126
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

John Benson (1994). The Rise of Consumer Society in Britain, 1880-1980. 

Su Holmes and Sean Redmond (eds) (2007). A Reader in Stardom and Celebrity. 

Kevin Williams (1998). Get Me a Murder a Day! A History of Mass Communications in Britain. 

Fred Inglis (2010). A Short History of Celebrity. 

Charles Ponce de Leon (2002). Self-Exposure, Human Interest Journalism and the Emergence of Celebrity in America. 

Richard Dyer (2003). Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. 

Michael Bailey (2009). Narrating Media History. 

Jessica Evans and David Hesmondhalgh (eds) (2005). Understanding Media: Inside Celebrity, esp. ch. 1. 

Graeme Turner (2004). Understanding Celebrity. 

Leo Braudy (1986). The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History. 

Roger Wilkes (2002). Scandal: a Scurrilous History of Gossip. 


Assessment Strategy

Formative assessment includes: • Oral feedback in weekly seminars • Individual meetings concerning the Individual Research Project The weekly seminars will provide you with a forum to discuss the primary sources and relate them to the historical context and the historiography. The close focus in this module upon primary sources will also allow for the development of your skills in historical interpretation. The Individual Research Project, in particular, will test your skills in research, analysis and interpretation. The exam will test your knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, your capacity to deploy interdisciplinary approaches and to develop a coherent written argument.


MethodPercentage contribution
Examination  (2 hours) 50%
Individual project  (1500 words) 50%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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