Harmon’s Histories: Try out these old-fashioned jokes on your newfangled friends
I just can’t help it. As far back as I can remember, I’ve viewed life with a sense of humor.
That applies to my reading of old newspapers. There always seems to be something amusing, even in some of the serious journalistic accounts. As one paper put it, “Even the grave business of life may be helped on by a joke.”
Today, I thought I’d share some of the Montana newspaper humor from the 1800s.
The Choteau Calumet newspaper of March 19, 1886 delightedly reported, “A French shopkeeper of Paris ended his will by this: I desire my body to be placed in the hands of men of science, and that it may be carefully dissected, for I am determined to know the cause of my death.”
While we’re on the subject of death, the Anaconda Standard newspaper of Jan. 19, 1894 quoted advice from the New Orleans Picayune: “Until a man is finally dead, he should try to look alive.”
The Butte InterMountain newspaper in August 1903 also dealt with the subject of death: “The prospective heirs of the dying miser came silently into his sickroom. The physician was seated by the side of the patient, a finger on his pulse.”
“How is our dear uncle today, doctor?" asked the prospective heirs. "There is small change in his condition," whispered the doctor. The dying miser roused himself by a supreme effort. "Small change?" he gasped. "Put it in my pocket.”
The history of jokes and the art of telling jokes occupied many newspaper columns back in the day. The Rocky Mountain Husbandman (Diamond City, Montana) of Aug. 28, 1879 quoted a Dr. Hall as saying the word joke “is not slang, but a respectable word honestly descended from the Latin jocus, and reproduced in the French jeu.”
Furthermore, “a joke is not a vulgar or coarse thing, nor a thing inherently bad, but has its place in the economy of human life, and only becomes a bore or a nuisance when out of place.”
The paper, on the same page, quoted its “old friend Pickering” as saying he had “known ladies in which the instinct of decoration was so strong that if they were told they must be hanged in the presence of twenty thousand persons tomorrow, their first thought would be, ‘Oh, dear! I haven't a dress fit to be hung in.’ ”
The Helena Weekly Herald of June 28, 1877 also took a turn at explaining the art of joke-telling: “Always let your jokes be well-timed. Any time will do for a good joke, but no time will do for a bad one.
“A joke from a gentleman is an act of charity; an uncharitable joke is an ungentlemanly act. The retort courteous is the touchstone of good feeling; the reply churlish is the proof of cold-headed stupidity.”
Missoulians loved humor. The Bennett opera house was filled to overflowing the night of January 2, 1895 to watch local celebrities entertain with humorous skits. Fire Chief Bob Mentrum and others were said to have given one of the best “amateur entertainments in the city during the past several years."
Of course one snobbish newspaper correspondent had to point out that every seat was filled “by members of Missoula’s ‘smart set,’ and an occasional delegate from the ordinary, everyday run of people,” serving as an example of the aforementioned “uncharitable joke.”
Anyway – back to the humor.
From The Anaconda Standard in 1894: “Whom do you consider the greatest inventor of the times?” asked one woman of another. “My husband,” replied the other woman proudly. “You should hear the excuses he invents for coming home at 2 o’clock in the morning!”
Then there was the joke about a vagrant appearing before a Chicago police judge: “Your face seems familiar. Don’t I know you?, said the judge. The “Greasy Old Bum” replied, “I don’t think you do, your honor. I’m a little pertick’ler about the company I keep.”
Finally, on the subject of love and marriage, the Dupuyer Acantha offered a few thoughts in 1900.
He: “To be sure there are some pleasant things about a bachelor’s life, but then there are times when one longs to possess a being who he can care for, and whom he can call his own.” She: “Say, if you feel that way, why don’t you buy a dog?”
“And is Youngster still in the blissful intoxication of love?” “No, I think he has reached the headache now.”
There, I’ve had my chuckle. I hope you did too!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.