It sounds like a formidable challenge. After all, we tend to imagine our ancestors as a rather serious bunch; a straight-laced society who, in the immortal words of their Queen, were famously ‘not amused.’ But this familiar old stereotype isn’t really true. In actual fact, millions of jokes were written and told during the 19th century. Jestbooks were a staple feature of railway station bookstalls, and humour columns were printed each week in the country’s most popular newspapers and magazines. Jokes were cracked in pubs, classrooms, and omnibuses. They were performed to friends around dinner tables and to packed crowds in music halls. The most popular Victorian jokes event ‘went viral’ and travelled around the world, just like modern-day memes on Facebook and Twitter. Professional joke-writers made a living from this market – the most prolific Victorian gag-smiths boasted that they could churn out as many as a hundred punchlines in a single day. Victorian dating profiles (or ‘matrimonial advertisements’) often stipulated that prospective partners must be ‘jolly’ and fond of fun. The Victorians, in short, were much more amused than we might think.
Humour and 19th-century culture
Humour was an important part of 19th-century culture, but it can be a tricky phenomenon for scholars to explore. Jokes are ephemeral things. Some spread through word-of-mouth without ever making the leap into print. These jests – like so many other forms of everyday oral culture – lie tantalisingly beyond the historian’s reach. This is particularly true of risqué jokes on taboo topics such as sex and religion. Printed humour was usually respectable enough to be shared with the whole family, so we only have a few fleeting glimpses of the ruder gags cracked by Victorian blokes behind closed doors. At one of Punch magazine’s weekly dinner parties, for example, the satirist Shirley Brooks interrupted a discussion about Disraeli’s reform bill by asking his friends, “If you put your head between your legs, what planet do you see? Uranus!” Thackeray was reportedly consumed with laughter and proceeded to crack a joke about his own problems with urethral stricture. This scatological table-talk went down well in private, but it wasn’t considered suitable for the public pages of Punch.
Even published jokes can be tricky for historians to trace. Some were collected in dedicated anthologies such as the Railway Book Of Fun, and these texts are relatively easy to find using library catalogues. But the vast majority of surviving Victorian jokes were printed in newspapers and magazines, where they often acted as handy column-fillers for the gaps between lengthier news stories. Millions of these jests have been preserved in libraries and archives around the world, but to unearth them we have to wade through all of the other content in Victorian periodicals in order pick-out the funny stuff. As a result, most of these jokes have yet to be uncovered by historians – we still know remarkably little about the subjects and situations that made Victorian people laugh.
The Old Joke Archive
'The Old Joke Archive' aims to solve this problem by creating a free-to-access digital archive of historical humour. The project is a collaboration between the British Library, historians from Edge Hill University, and Computer Scientists from the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. Together, we are building a website that will eventually allow users to search through millions of long-forgotten jokes from a wide range of historical periods and locations. A prototype of 'The Old Joke Archive', featuring a collection of Victorian humour, will launch in November 2019. We’re celebrating this milestone with an exhibition on Victorian comedy at The Atkinson gallery in Southport. On the 23 November, we are hosting a day of workshops and performances as part of the Being Human festival. During the day, visitors can take guided tours of the exhibition, attend family-friendly workshops on 19th-century joke writing, and receive training on how to become ‘Joke Detectives’. In the evening, I’ll be interviewing Greg Jenner (historical advisor to the Horrible Histories TV series) about the relationship between history and comedy, and researchers from Edge Hill will take part in a stand-up comedy challenge hosted by comedian Iszi Lawrence (presenter of Radio 4’s 'Making History'). In the meantime, why not try inflicting some choice samples of Victorian humour on your friends and family?
1. Many Victorian jokes featured women wittily rebuffing the unwanted advances of amorous male suitors.
Tit-Bits magazine (1892)
2. Victorian joke writers were particularly fond of mocking amateur poets.
- Tit-Bits magazine (1892)
3. Then – as now – lawyers were also the butt of many Victorian jokes.
- Answers magazine (1890)
4. Unscrupulous landlords and slippery estate agents also featured in Victorian jokes.
- Tit-Bits magazine (1892)
5. Comic words of wit and wisdom were a feature of Victorian joke columns.
- Rare Bits magazine (1881)
'We Are Not Amused' took place on Saturday 23 November 2019 at The Atkinson in Southport. For more 19th-century jokes follow @VictorianHumour on Twitter.