Many middle and upper class Americans of the 1850s were well read and accustomed to writing. So it's no surprise that Robert Furnas, editor of the Nebraska Advertiser, held a competent and productive pen. From time to time, however, he complained mildly about the onerous task of putting together a weekly. But if one reads the front page of his broadsheet, one suspects his energies must have been devoted to subsequent pages, because it was principally reserved for articles published previously and elsewhere. Indeed, except for the advertisements and header, there's not a letter, not a dotted i, in any of the articles that originates from the pen of anyone in Brownville's newspaper office, or of anyone in Nebraska for that matter: Two columns of advertisements, over two and a half columns of recent Acts of Congress, a column and a half of a "certainly very funny" story lifted from a page of Tennessee's Nashville Union, and the remainder of the page composed of a variety of borrowed and disparate items. Why all these sponged bits of information?
The latter items include a doubtful story about how the bear acquired a short tail. A fox, it claims, convinced a bear, I suppose the ancestor of all bears, to dig a hole in the ice and stick his long tail in it to catch fish. It was a trick, as we discover with the punch line, but then, we knew the punch line as soon as the bear was told what to do with his tail. Another item suggests preserving apples in a barrel with coarse salt. This from the Scientific American and I don't think it was meant to be humorous...but then one is never sure when it comes to 1850s humor. One of the last items, obviously intending to generate a guffaw, poses a question, though without a question mark at the end, and I'm not sure it needed one: "If a young man has black hair and a pimple on his nose, how long will it take him to win the heart of his lady fair, supposing him to be addicted to stuttering."
The principal "certainly very funny" story is a rather involved and convoluted tale about a drunk, George, who has a shirt made for him by his boarder's wife, Betts. They live in a cabin. A lawyer, Mr. Johnson, stops by wearing a neatly pressed shirt. Betts is in admiration so the lawyer tells her the secret: a flour paste. Betts proceeds to make the starch and apply it to George's shirt. George dons the shirt, sweats in it, then goes to sleep in the loft. When he awakes, the shirt is glued to him. To free himself, he nails the shirt to the loft, jumps down, and the shirt rips off, but not without claiming bits and pieces of George's hair and skin. George wanders off, berating Betts and taking a swig (a horn) from his flask.
The humor, I trust, comes from the telling rather than the story itself. The drunk's description of Betts, for example, is lively. George says that when he can't pay his rent, his landlord takes one-third of it out of George in cussing; "and she, that's his wife, Betts, takes out t'other two-thirds with the battlin stick, and the intrust with her tongan, and the intrust's mor'n the principal--heap more."
However, what I enjoy about this 1850s humor is the presentation. It reminds me of the way people often tell jokes in France, or at least in France some three decades ago when I lived there. The certainly very funny French story begins with a "vous allez rire," or "you're going to laugh." This got me to thinking about why we don't do this so much in America any more. I think it's from a long tradition of satire, beginning perhaps with Ben Franklin and perfected by Mark Twain. And on the other side of the ocean, the British perfected it as well, and perhaps we learned it from them, since our early 19th century literature was primarily of Anglo origin. Think of Dickens. The French did have Voltaire in the 18th century, but after the Revolution all they could think about were long woven tales that ended sadly. Once one starts reading Les Misérables, he has little time left for reading anything funny.
In any case, during the 19th century we somehow figured out that when we're surprised by a punch line it's much more powerful, much more "very certainly funny." If an editor today thought it worthwhile to put a funny story on the front page of his newspaper, I doubt he would lead off with a reference to the story's funniness. More than likely the title would be something like this: "How to Properly Take off a Shirt."
But then that brings me back to my first point: Why all the borrowed stories on the front page? And why the selection? Back then, there was still an interest in reporting what was new and of import, hence the Acts of Congress. Dry reading, but informative and without editorializing. An Act of Congress, we learn in the Nebraska Advertiser, results in the procuring by tax payer dollars of a marble bust of the late Chief Justice John Rutledge. It's not reported as good or bad. It just happened. It's truly up to the reader to form an opinion on it. Even if it's over one-hundred-sixty years old, I find it rather relaxing to read real news in the Nebraska Advertiser's front page, especially after perusing CNN and Fox news. That's my punch line.
Newspapers of 1857 carried some very serious stories as well as a column of jokes. Today, it's not always clear which variety amuses us more. In any case, this blog is dedicated to analyzing the pages of the Nebraska Advertiser newspaper of 1857. Chime in if you've run across some interesting stories from the time period.