“I know no greater sign of Mirth than Laughing”
Laughter was always welcome in the 18th century, especially during times of adversity. As Benjamin Franklin purportedly said, “Trouble knocked at the door, but, hearing laughter, hurried away.” Colonial Virginians, like others in the British America, had lively senses of humor that valued quick wits and word play.
There seems to be a pattern to 18th-century jokes and humorous stories. As I spent the last few days reading them, I found they fell into four basic categories:
- “Dad Jokes.”
- Jokes that don’t translate to a modern audience.
- Cruel Jokes.
- Bawdy Jokes.
Dad jokes are named for the corny jokes that 21st-century dads love to tell. Fathers use them to mortify their children, their children’s friends, and their spouses. What we call dad jokes today were bountiful in Colonial America — although they didn’t go by that name in the 18th century. The puns and weak punchlines that make us groan today were a staple of 18th-century humor. An excellent example comes from John Mottley’s 1739’s Joe Miller’s Jests:
Joe Miller sitting one day in the Window at the Sun-Tavern in Clare-Street, a Fish Woman and her maid passing by, the Woman cry’d, Buy my Soals; buy my maid’s: Ah, you wicked old Creature, cry’d honest Joe, What are you not content to sell your own Soul, but you must sell your Maid’s too?
I roll my eyes every time I read this joke. Even though it’s cringe-worthy, this joke enjoyed serious longevity, showing up in the 1865 edition of Joe Miller’s Jests. Yes, that’s 1865 — over a hundred and twenty-five years later! That represents generations of dads - before 1865 and since — honing their dad joke skills.
The joke is terrible, but we can recognize that the joke is terrible. Some 18th-century jokes are lost on us, either because we don’t find them funny or we have no idea what they’re talking about. Sometimes it’s both, like this joke:
The late Mrs. Oldfield being asked if she thought Sir. W.Y. and Mrs. H—n,* who had both stinking Breaths, were marry’d I don’t know, said she, whether they are marry’d but I am sure there is a Wedding between them.
This joke only makes sense if you know that “wedding” was 18th-century slang for “emptying a necessary house.” That’s not very funny to us. The man and woman stink. Hilarious. Besides, if you must explain a joke, it’s lost its humor.
While the characters in the joke are not sympathetic to Sir W.Y. and Mrs. H’s plight, this joke is a gentle jest compared to the cruel jokes that were popular throughout the 18th-century. According to Scholar Simon Dickie, what we would think of as “low” humor was popular with the gentry in England and America. Jestbooks (joke books) that wealthy and well-connected men enjoyed were like those marketed to the lower sort as well. The only difference was that gentlemen’s books were more expensive.
These types of jokes were made at the expense of the most vulnerable members of society and took aim at poor, the mentally ill, the infirm, the elderly, and many others. In one such joke two gentlemen — including the Earl of Warwick — decide to play a “prank” on a poor old woman. After buying some boiled apples from her, the two men offered charity in the form of a bushel of coal, “at which the woman was very joyful.” Little did she know that the gentlemen had filled the charcoal with gunpowder and took delight with the explosion that ruined her livelihood. She wasn’t injured, but “their lordships were well pleased with the frolick.”
While there are pockets of society that still enjoy cruel jokes and pranks, most modern Americans find these kinds of jokes in poor taste.
There were also jokes that we would never tell in polite company that 18th-century Anglo-Americans would publish in books, newspapers, and almanacs. Bawdy jokes ran the gamut from mildly suggestive to downright explicit. Here is an example of a suggestive joke published in Williamsburg in The Virginia Almanack. . .for 1762:
“It seems as if Nature, who so wisely adapted the Organs of our Bodies to our Happiness, had with the same View given us Pride to spare us from the Grief of knowing our Imperfections.”
You may have smiled at the punchline, but it is certainly not the kind of joke you’d share with your work colleagues or your child’s teacher. An almanac was a very accessible book within a household and who knows how many wives and children also enjoyed the jokes published within it. In fact, there were children’s books that included poems and jokes bawdier than the above example. Providing children access to books that include sexual humor is considered wildly inappropriate today, but in the 18th century, they didn’t think twice about it.
Our sense of humor is both very similar and very different from that of 18th-century Virginians. Understanding what they found funny humanizes the people of the past and makes them a little more accessible.
If you’d like to read more 18th-century jokes, you can find them here:
* Names were sometimes written this way to protect the identity of the person discussed.
Dr. Kelly Brennan Arehart has been a CW historian since 2018. While working on her doctorate at William and Mary, she wore many hats at the Foundation -including giving tours in costume and working for Teacher Institute. She can also be found on the streets of Williamsburg as storyteller for Haunted Williamsburg.
“In praise of Laughter,” Jester’s Magazine, Vol 1., No. 1, 10,
John Mottley, Joe Miller’s Jests or, The Wits Vade-Mecum, (London: T. Read, 1739), 2, https://archive.org/details/joemillersjestso00mott/page/n3/mode/2up.
John Mottely, Frank Bellew, ed. Joe Millers Jests with Copious Additions, (New York: Northern Magazine, 1865), 1, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43326/43326-h/43326-h.htm
“Wedding,” Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, (London: S. Hooper, 1785), np.
Simon, Dickie, “Hilarity and Pitilessness in the Mid-Eighteenth Century: English Jestbook Humor,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 37, no.1, (2003), 4, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25098027.
Joaks upon Joaks (Worcester, n.d. [Huntington Library 150742]), 3 as published in Dickie, 3, https://www.jstor.org/stable/25098027. – This joke is very long, which is why I decided to summarize.
Theophilus Wreg, pseud., The Virginia Almanack for . . 1762, (Williamsburg: Royle, 1761), n.p.,
Delights for young men and maids, (London: J. Cluer, 1725),