Monday, December 6, 2010

Rare and Vintage Joke Books to Make the Season Jolly

Light up your Christmas party with  vintage knee-slappers, rib-ticklers, and side-splitters. Or, pass the corn during Christmas dinner.

by Stephen J. Gertz

Roaring Jokes. No. 42. Laugh and be happy. Sixty laughs a minute.
The latest and greatest original jokes. Compiled by A Star Performer. 

 Baltimore: I & M Ottenheimer, n.d. (c. 1915)
16mo., pict. wrappers, 58pp., 6pp ads.

Between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States a small handful of publishers dominated a rapidly growing genre of publication, the joke book. Meant for the masses, they possessed no pretensions to sophistication; the jokes were simple, sophomoric, and blunt. They were easy to "get." Going straight for the gut the jokes never went over anyone's head. To the contrary, they conked you right on the noggin. Crude, and by contemporary standards, vulgar, this was the humor of the man in the street and working class.

Choice Dialect and Vaudeville Stage Jokes.
Containing Side Splitting Stories, Jokes, Gags, Readings
and Recitations in German, Irish, Scotch, French,
Chinese, Negro and other Dialects.

Chicago: Frederick J. Drake & Co., (c. 1902).
Small 8vo., pict. wrappers, 181pp.

Ethnic jokes were all the rage. Stereotypes were milked for all they were worth.

Wehman Bros' Barber-Shop Jokes.  
New York: Wehman Bros., n.d. (c. 1908).
16mo., pict. wrappers, 58pp., 6pp ads.

The corner barber shop, a neighborhood hub where men would routinely congregate, was the source for news, gossip, and the latest jokes. Barbers often bore the brunt of the humor.

A man walks into a barber shop and sits in the chair. The barber asks "how do you want your haircut?" the man says "I want it short on one side, uneven on the other side, crooked in the front and a hacked up in the back." The barber said "I don't know if I can do that." The man replied "I don't know why not, that's exactly what you did last time.

The Great Lingard. Joker. Full of A. 1. Side-Splitters - Funny Stories -
Natty Anecdotes - Tip-Top Jests - And Heaps of "Bully" Conundrums.

New York: Frederic A. Brady, (c. 1870). Later edition (ca. 191-?).
12mo., pict. wrappers, 64pp.

OTT, Irv. New Italian Joke Book.
A Select Collection of the Latest and Best Italian Jokes,
Monologues, Stories, etc, Used by the Most Renowned
Celebrities of the American Stage. 

 Baltimore: I & M Ottenheimer, n.d. (c. 1909)
16mo., pict. wrappers, 63pp.

What's the difference between an Italian grandmother and an elephant?
       50 pounds and a black dress.
Who knew that Baltimore was once a major center for the publication of jokes? I. and M. Ottenheimer, founded in 1890, published childrens books, cookbooks, pop-ups, and joke books. Brother Irving was the jokemeister under the pseudonym, Irv Ott. It remained in business until 2002 when the laughs that never quit finally succumbed to senescence and/or political correctness.

The hobo-tramp was a ripe object for humor. Hold the rim-shot:

What's the name for a short-legged tramp?
       A low-down bum.

OTT, Irv. (edited by). New Tramp Joke Book.
Containing a Select Collection of Monologues Jokes,
Funny Stories, etc., as Told by Leading Footlight Artists. 

 Baltimore: I & M Ottenheimer, n.d. (ca. 191-?)
16mo., pict. wrappers, 62pp., 2pp ads.

Jewish jokes, were, in their infancy in the U.S., called Hebrew jokes. Perhaps the word "Hebrew" was more amusing than "Jewish;" it can be played with on the tongue, HE-brew, HEE-brew, who, what? which may have made for funnier oral delivery. Funnier to whom is another question.

A Hebrew took his boy Ikey to the theater and went up in the gallery. The play was so exciting Ikey leaned over the railing and fell downstairs. His father got excited and hollered:

"Ikey, for God's sake, come back. It costs a dollar down dere."

That joke, 103 years old, appeared in The New Hebrew Joke Book, issued by Irving and Moses Ottenheimer in 1907. According to their grandson, Allan T. Hirsh, their motivation was simply to satisfy the huge demand for ethnic humor, no matter what ethnic group.

Wehman Bros. Hebrew Jokes No. 1.
New York: Wehman Brothers, 1906.

"Woolworth's sold those books for 10 cents," he said. "They sold them by the carload."

Irv and Moe harvested humor wherever they could find it, and they usually found it in the theater, although the theaters they found it in could never be accused of purveying Culture.

"My grandfather's secretary told me he used to take her to the burlesque show to get jokes," Mr. Hirsh said. "She took her pad to write and she wrote so much she never looked up."

With its roots in early eighteenth century European theatrical and musical parody, Burlesque (not to be confused with Burl Ives) in the United States, with its addition of the strip-tease to the mix of jokes and songs (thus sinking it to the lowest, though nonetheless popular, form of theatrical entertainment), became the crucible in which modern American comedy was made.

OTT, Lester B. (compiled by). You Tell 'Em Funny Sayings...
The Latest in Novelty Jokes.

Baltimore: I & M Ottemnheimer, n.d. (ca. 191-?)
16mo., pict. wrappers, 64pp.
Each entry begins "You tell 'em...",
i.e. "You tell 'em, June. And don't July."

That ethnic humor was once so popular should come as no surprise. It followed the huge waves of immigration of the nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, and greeted immigrants to America as soon as they disembarked. Humor provided a non-violent release for the deep anxieties that the huge influx of immigrants inspired in the native-born.  Per usual, humor was the best, if often bitter-tasting medicine, and Burlesque provided the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Ethnic humor was as necessary to the immigrants as it was to the native-born. It provided them with ammunition for self-defense, one immigrant group could laugh at another; the fecal matter rolled downhill, from one group to another, until it landed on the latest.

Smiles. Side Splitting Jokes. No. 36.
Containing a Wonderful Selection of Jokes,
Witty-Sayings Etc. New and Original.

Baltimore: I & M Ottemnheimer, n.d. (c. 1915)
16mo., pict. wrappers, 58pp., 6pp ads.

The market for ethnic humor was not confined to immigrant groups. Defying gravity, often the ubu rolled uphill. The white elite was celebrated and sent up as  the Smart Set, a moniker widely established in popular American culture by the introduction, in 1900,  of Colonel William d'Alton Mann's new magazine of the same name, the self-proclaimed "Aristocrat Among Magazines,"  a slogan and  group begging for ridicule, aristos traditionally fair game to the masses.

The era was a free-for-all  of competitive, inter-ethnic humor, no group safe, no holds barred. It was war by punchline, and the war toughened you up, yet at the same time softened shoulders and elbows in the mix. In its heyday, ethnic humor made it a little easier for everyone to live together without going at each others' throat.

Up-To-Date Smart Set Jokes. No. 48.
A selection of original classical jokes,
laughable stories, witty sayings, etc.

Baltimore: I & M Ottenheimer, n.d. (c. 1915)
16mo., pict. wrappers, 58pp., 6pp ads.

In Répétition Générale, an article appearing in the July 21, 1921 issue of Smart Set, H.L. Mencken  and George Jean Nathan wrote, "I have always been of the opinion that the so-called comic weeklies exercise a far more profound influence on the life of a community than the so-called serious weeklies. It is the trick of life to conduct itself not after the serious criticisms of itself but after the humorous. The personal conduct of the average American community is affected more greatly by Lifes, Pucks, and Judges, than by the Nations, Freemans, and New Republics."

These joke books were the genesis of the comic weekly magazines that emerged 1910 - 1925, i.e. Captain Billy's Whiz Bang and those that Mencken and Nathan cite above.

IRISH, Marie. The Christmas Entertainer.
Recitations, Monologues, Drills with Songs,
Exercises and Dialogues for All Ages.

Chicago: T. S. Denison & Co., (c. 1919).
Sm. 8vo., pict. wrappers, 134pp. With illustrations.

Finally, for the budding Santa stand-up comic and all-'round entertainer, a couple of  vintage stocking-stuffers.

KELLOGG, Alice M. Christmas Entertainments.
Containing Fancy Drills, Acrostics, Motion Songs,
Tableaux, Short Plays, Recitation in Costume.
For Children of Five to Fifteen Years.

 Phil.: Penn Publ. Co., 1920. (c. 1907).
Sm. 8vo., pict. wrappers, 120pp.

D'ja hear the joke about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's Christmas dinner? 
       It was a real turkey.

And so are most of the jokes found within these books. They embarrass us. They're awful. We feel guilty.  Particularly when we can't help it and laugh, if only to ourselves. There is no getting around the fact that a great deal of humor is usually at someone else's expense.

While we've presented these books within the context of making Christmas a little bit merrier, the real  gift is that they provide one of the best historical sources of pre-Modern American humor that can be found. If you are a fan and student of comedy, there is no better way to become acquainted with its past. If you are a sociologist and historian there may be no better way to gauge the tenor of an era than by its humor; few things are as revealing as that which makes us laugh. 

And if you are considering getting into book collecting and seek a fun and fascinating entry point  and are on a budget, rare, vintage joke books are an ideal area to collect in. All the books displayed here are available for less than $100, often much less.


With the exception of Wehman Bros. Hebrew Jokes, all images are courtesy of David Mason Books, which is currently offering the books for sale.

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