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19th Century British and American Humour

Updated on March 8, 2017
Nathanville profile image

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.

I Say, I Say, I Say

Having read the humorous British and American newspaper articles in my great-great grandfather’s Victorian scrapbook, as far as I can ascertain, humour at that time on both sides of the Atlantic was very similar. Generally it was rather simple, very basic, and invariably obvious, and by today’s standards often quite corny; albeit, some of the humour published at the time is timeless.

I would love to delve further back in time and see what humour was like in centuries past, and how it has evolved overtime. No doubt, my guess is, is that the further back in time you go the simpler, more basic, and more down to earth the humour becomes e.g. the Court Jester doing his best to please the king.

Although we had Shakespeare back in the 16th century, it was not until the mid-19th century that we saw the birth of the famous Music Halls, and the stand-up comedian earning a living keeping the audience amused.

Victorian Joke Detectives

Humour of a Bygone Age

Albeit, it’s Still Funny

There may have been a divergence of humour (humor) between America and Britain since the 19th century, but 150 years ago humour I think did translate across the Atlantic.

In today's world there is a distinct difference between British and American humour, which is very apparent when you comparing American and British TV comedy series. I find American humour tends to be up front for quick laughs whereas British humour tends to be more layered (like an onion), deeper, often dry, sometimes dark and usually quite subtle; sometimes so subtle that its easily missed.

‘A Fish Called Wanda’ is a prime example of successfully bridging the gap between modern American and British humour, by making it a joint Anglo-American production. Whereas when the Red Dwarf team were invited to make a show for the American market they were frustrated by the ‘Producers’ consistently trying to introduce ‘quick gags’ into the production; which isn’t the British way, and by doing so would have downgraded the show to slap-stick comedy rather than the more subtle humour so apparent in good quality British comedy Series that the BBC are so famous for.

However, in reading 19th century British and American newspapers I get the distinct feeling that perhaps the humour on both sides of the Atlantic wasn't perhaps that different in the Victorian era!

This article gives an insight into the humour (humor) in Britain and America during that period by looking at some of the large collection of British and American newspaper articles which my great-great grandfather, George Burgess (1829-1905), saved to his Victorian Scrapbook.

George Burgess, Born in Staple Hill, Bristol, spent his youth in America from the age of 15 until his third and final return to England in 1857.

In his Victorian scrapbook many of the newspaper articles whether they be about Victorian family life, politics, health, education or Temperance contain strong humour and some of the newspaper articles were written and published specifically for their humour.

So Happy Reading

Below are samples of some of these articles, and near the bottom a link to the complete Victorian scrapbook on my genealogy website, Nathantville, for free reading.

Lost Purse

Below is a short humorous article published in a 19th century newspaper of an ingenious way of finding the true owner of a lost purse.

Lost Purse
Lost Purse

Short on Words But Long on Laughs

A lot of humorous articles published in American and British 19th century newspapers were just one or two lines, or a few short sentences; some were slipped in at the bottom of articles and others were bundled together on one page.

Some of my favourite shorts, published in Victorian newspapers and saved by George Burgess who stuck them in his scrapbook included:-

1. Indignant Husband

"INDIGNANT HUSBAND: "Now, I think this is going too far. You promised me that you would countermand your order for that dress."

Meek and lovely wife: "I wrote to the firm that very day."

"But here is the dress and the bill for it; enough to bankrupt me almost. How do you explain that?"

"I gave you the letter to post, and I suppose that you forgot it, as usual."

2. French Doctor

A FRENCH doctor being asked by a man one day to go to a distance to see his sick child, replied that it was too far to walk, and that he had no carriage.

"Oh," said the man. "that doesn't matter, I am a livery stable keeper and will drive you."

Sometime afterwards the doctor's bill was asked for. It was five francs.

The livery stable keeper then presented his bill for hire of the carriage. It was six francs.

3. Lost

LOST, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty diamond minutes, No reward is offered, for they are lost forever.

Short and Sweet

Below are a few more examples of short but sweet and humorous articles published in 19th century newspapers.

19th century humour published in British and American newspapers
19th century humour published in British and American newspapers

More Short Articles on Victorian Humour

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A BacksliderA Border FarmerA Dutch WitnessA Hatter in Regent StreetA Lawyer’s DaughterAmerican Declaration of IndependenceRather Seedy Looking CustomerDoctor
A Backslider
A Backslider
A Border Farmer
A Border Farmer
A Dutch Witness
A Dutch Witness
A Hatter in Regent Street
A Hatter in Regent Street
A Lawyer’s Daughter
A Lawyer’s Daughter
American Declaration of Independence
American Declaration of Independence
Rather Seedy Looking Customer
Rather Seedy Looking Customer
Doctor
Doctor

Looking on the Bright Side

If it Can Go Wrong it Will Go Wrong

Below is one of my favourite humorous newspaper articles in the scrapbook, called 'LOOKING ON THE BRIGHT SIDE'. Published in an American newspaper in the 19th century, it's about a letter from a wife in Massachusetts to her husband in California. The letter explains in detail how two of their sons have smallpox, their daughters Typhus and measles and (to quote from the article):-

  • "Samuel got hooked by a cow the other day and little Peter has just chopped off three of his fingers with a hatchet. It is a mercy he didn't chop them all off. With these trifling exceptions we are all well and getting along nicely. You needn't be at all anxious about us."

Towards the end of the article she writes:-

  • "The cow took it into her head yesterday to run away, which was very fortunate, I'm sure, for the barn caught fire last night and was consumed. I was in hopes the house would go too, for it's very inconvenient; but the wind was the wrong way."

And she finishes with the words:-

  • "Hoping you enjoy yourself in California as well as we do at home; I remain your affectionate wife."

Looking on the Bright Side in America
Looking on the Bright Side in America

Modern Meaning to Old Words

Below is a list of modern meaning to old words published in a Victorian newspaper. Of course, with both the British English and American languages forever evolving, what was then modern meanings may now be dated, and superseded with what we would now call modern meanings.

So although this list may have been humorous more than a century ago, some of the items listed may be doubly funny simply because the meanings of words since its publication may have changed even further.

Modern Meaning to Old Words
Modern Meaning to Old Words

For Further Reading

Over 500 Victorian Newspaper to View Free Online, as saved in the Victorian Scrapbook by George Burgess (1829-1905).

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    • Nathanville profile image
      Author

      Arthur Russ 5 months ago from England

      Thanks Chazz.

    • chezchazz profile image

      Chazz 6 years ago from New York

      Loved the definitions!