Nineteenth Century Humor II
Bill Long 2/20/06
Reflecting on Drummers Yarns
I am currently wrestling with a question that I am unable to answer, and so I need your help. I can phrase the question easily enough: was the humor of late 19th century America funny? That is, I recall studying Lincoln's life and reading about how he was a great raconteur and jokester, but for the life of me I never remember laughing at anything he said. Certainly some of Mark Twain's lines are memorable and amusing, but he is considered to be the foremost "tall-teller" and comic of the late 19th century, and it would not be fair to expect every other jokester of that time to be equally as amusing. I think, however, that the concept of a funny person may not really have been much developed in America by that time--and I rarely hear of anyone talking about the humor of people in the middle or early part of the 19th century. Perhaps more admired than a person able to "bring down the house" with uproariously funny lines was a person who could weave an engaging tale. But, on the other hand, it might just be that our concept of humor is so different from that of Americans 120 or more years ago that nothing we can do will bridge the gap.
Looking at Drummers Yarns
With these thoughts cascading through my mind, I decided to read portions of a book, published in 1886, containing tales told by traveling salesmen to amuse themselves and others. Drummers Yarns or Fun on the Road is a 73-page book, consisting of probably 150 or so "tales" or "short jokes" which would help these men pass the time as they went from place to place. I read from various places in the book, and found myself reacting to the stories with a "so what?" type of response, rather even than a "rolling of the eyes" or outright laughter. But my purpose was in deadly earnest--I wanted to try to figure out if there was such a thing as American humor in 1890. My thesis is that just as American literature, poetry and artistic representation was then in its infancy, so American humor was still "incunabled" in 1890. Let me quickly tell some of the drummers tales, drawn at random, to see if you concur.
1. A father tells his son that women are a "delusion and a snare." "It is queer," the son responded, "that people would hug a delusion." And, while the old many was looking queerly at him, the young man hunted up his roller skates and went out to be snared.
That's it. Drum roll? Applause? My response was "huh?" Let's go on.
2. An Irishman named Mike, who lived in the country, decided to visit his brother Pat in New York City. Upon arrival, Pat met him and they decided to go to a restaurant for a meal. They ordered their food. Mike, obviously unused to city ways, took a jar of horseradish from the table and asked Pat what it was. Pat duly told him. When their steaks came, Mike decided that, instead of spreading a thin layer of horseradish over the steak, he would down a spoonful of the horseradish. As expected, his eyes watered, his mouth fell open and he was desperate for water. He said to his brother, again, "What do you call it?" Pat said, "Horseradish." Mike responded, "Are you sure there isn't a mule in it?"
A very rudimentary attempt at word play. But I didn't even chuckle.
3. A man from out of town is walking down Broadway in NYC and decides to go into a store with a soda fountain. He asks for a "lemon snoozer, well dashed." While he was ordering it, one of his eyelids winked incessantly. The clerk noticed this and said, "We have an embrocation (i.e., a liquid used for moistening a diseased part of the body) that can cure St. Vitus' dance." "What is that?" the man wanted to know. In reponse the clerk said it is when your eyelids are affected. The man answered that he was from Maine. The clerk then said that they kept the remedy in a bottle, but it would take half a dozen saloons to cure his eye of St. Vitus' dance. The man from Maine said, "Your k'rect." And then the Maine prohibitionist drunk down the bogus soda.
Can anyone help me with this one?
4. A young man goes to a female fortune teller to get advice about a love affair. "I am dead set on a gal," he says, "and I want to know if I got her." The fortune teller says that her advice would cost $2. "Moses in the bulrushes," the young man responded, "you will make me a penniless bridegroom." She responded that she was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, and he said that he was the seventh son of a gun from Powderville. Then he decided he would lay low near the the woman he liked and arm himself with a club which, I suppose, would be just as valuable as getting his fortune told.
Let's move on.
5. A man walked into a Jersey City, NJ hotel and asked the porter if Day was in. "What day?" he replied. To which the man said, "Do I look like a detective?" He then continued, "Well, if Day isn't here, how about Week?" To which the porter responded, "Oh last week or another week?" The man responded, "Do you take me for an almanac? Who in fact runs this establishment?" "The widow Flapjack," the porter responded. Then the man said, "Take down the sign, for it says 'Boarding by Day or by Week.' Now, both of these have been let out, and it isn't right that you deceive the public."
Could anyone find the slightest humor in that story?
6. A husband and wife are talking. Mr. McSwillisen asks his wife, "What makes trains go?" His wife, taking the bait, responds, "The engine." He responds, "No." "What is it, then?" she asked. The husband responded, "The freight makes the cargo."
I can recognize the slightest tickle of humor here. It is an attempted play on words, a method which will assume tremendous importance in 20th century humor.
7. Finally, and then I will spare you, we have this story, entitled "Unjust Suspicion." A man gets home from a fishing expedition in the dead of night and bangs on his house door for his wife to let him in. She awakens and notices the redness of his face. "Your face is as red as paint. I believe you have been drinking." "What do you mean?" the husband asked. His wife responded, "You would not have a face like that if you had not been drinking." "Am I to blame?" he says. Suppose a bass jumped up and bit me?" And then he sat down and cried over her unjust suspicion.
This book may never have been a best seller, but it does make you wonder what, if anything, American humor was about near the end of the nineteenth century. It is a question which still goes begging for an answer.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long