Humor-mongering: Or, an 18th century joke book

The Indiana State Library is home to a number of fascinating items, including an excellent 19th century facsimile of the original “Joe Miller’s Jests.”

First published in London in 1739, the joke book offers 247 of the “most brilliant jests; the politest repartees; the most elegant bon mots, and most pleasant short stories in the English language,” according to the full title. The reprint duplicates the original typescript and title page down to listing the price of one shilling. The book’s compiler, John Mottley, under the nom de plume Elijah Jenkins, Esq., exploited the cachet of the recently deceased actor and comedian, Joe Miller, to sell copies.

“The Wits Vadecum,” as it was alternatively titled, proved quite popular. A vademecum is a handbook or guide, the sort you consult so often you keep it in your purse or on the bedside table. Joe Miller’s Jests grew so well-known that a worn-out or clichéd joke was often called “a Joe Miller.” An example of a Joe Miller today would be:

Q: How do you make a tissue dance?
A: Put a little boogie in it.

Cue eye roll.

Let’s look at a few types of witticisms found in “Joe Miller’s Jests” that still elicit the odd chuckle or guffaw even today.

Fart Jokes

“When the Duke of Ormond was young and came first to Court, he happen’d to stand next to my Lady Dorchester, one Evening in the Drawing-Room, who being but little upon the Reserve on most Occasions, let a Fart, upon which he look’d her full in the Face and laugh’d. What’s the Matter, my Lord, said she : Oh! I heard it, Madam, reply’d the Duke, you’ll make a fine Courtier indeed, said she, if you mind every Thing you hear in this Place.” (5)

Puns (a.k.a. plays on words)

“One of the foresaid Gentlemen, as was his Custom, preaching most exceedingly dull to a Congregation not used to him, many of them slunk out of the Church one after another, before the Sermon was near ended. Truly, said a Gentleman present, this learned Doctor has made a very moving Discourse.” (32)

“A Beggar asking Alms under the Name of a poor Scholar, a Gentleman to whom he apply’d himself, ask’d him a Question in Latin, the Fellow, shaking his Head, said he did not understand him: Why, said the Gentleman, did you not say you were a poor Scholar? Yes, reply’d the other, a poor one indeed, Sire, for I don’t understand one Word of Latin.” (54)

“A famous Teacher of Arithmetick, who had long been married without being able to get his Wife with Child : One said to her, Madam, your Husband is an excellent Arithmetician. Yes, replies she, only he can’t multiply.” (234)

Political Humor

“Sir B—ch—r W—y, in the Beginning of Queen Anne’s Reigh, and three or four more drunken Tories, reeling home from Fountain-Tavern in the Strand, on a Sunday Morning, cry’d out, we are the Pillars of the Church, no, by G–d, said a Whig, that happened to be in their Company, you can be but Buttresses, for you never come on the Inside of it.” (60)

“The Tories and the Whigs – Pulling for a Crown” cartoon, 1789. Source: Library of Congress.

Fat Jokes (on par with blonde jokes and their ilk)

“Dr. Tadloe, who was a very fat Man, happened to go thump, thump, with his great Legs, thro’ a Street, in Oxford, where some Paviers had been at Work, in the Midst of July, the Fellows immediately laid down their Rammers, Ah! God bless you, Master, cries one of ‘em, it was very kind of you to come this Way, it saves us a great deal of Trouble in this hot Weather.” (66)

Religious Humor

“Michael Angelo, in his Picture of the last Judgment, in the Pope’s Chappel, painted among the Figures in Hell, that of a certain Cardinal, who was his enemy, so like that every-body knew it at first Sight : Whereupon the Cardinal complaining to Pope Clement the Seventh, of the Affront, and desiring it might be defaced : You know very well, said the Pope, I have Power to deliver a Soul out of Purgatory but not out of Hell.” (74)

Dirty Jokes

“A Country Farmer going cross his Grounds in the Dusk of the Evening, spy’d a young Fellow and a Lady, very busy near a five Bar Gate, in one of his Fields, and calling to them to know what they were about, said the young Man no Harm, Farmer, we are only going to Prop-a-Gate.” (85)

Old Age Jokes

“A Lady’s Age happening to be questioned, she affirmed she was but Forty, and call’d upon a Gentleman that was in Company for his Opinion; Cousin, said she, do you believe I am in the Right, when I say I am but Forty? I ought not to dispute it, Madam, reply’d he, for I have heard you say so these ten Years.” (99)

And my personal favorite…

Library Jokes

“A Nobleman having chosen a very illiterate Person for his Library Keeper, one said it was like a Seraglio kept by an Eunuch.” (90)

(A seraglio is another word for harem.)

Engraving of a library by Richard Bernard Godfrey, ca. 1700s. Source: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Many “jests” referred to well-known personages and their foibles, much like modern comedians poke fun at prominent politicians and celebrities today. It was the common practice of 18th-century journalists and satirists referencing a real, living person to censor most of the name (e.g., Lord C—by) to sidestep pesky charges of libel. Contemporaries of daily newspapers and scandal sheets would have understood the allusion, while present-day readers are left to puzzle it out using historical research or just remain in the dark.

The Duke of A—ll could refer to the Duke of Argyll or the Duke of Atholl, but 18th-century readers would easily have identified the culprit.

Other jokes and anecdotes featured famous historical figures like Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, Oliver Cromwell, Caesar Augustus and Michelangelo.

Print of Sir Thomas More by Jacobus Houbraken, 1741. Source: Yale Center for British Art; Yale University Art Gallery Collection.

Though something is lost in translation without knowledge of historical society or slang, the roots of what makes people laugh remains the same. So, maybe it’s not too surprising that “Joe Miller’s Jests” has been reprinted and republished over and over in the 278 years since its original publication.

You can read more on the continuity of humor in this piece in the New York Post.

This blog post was written by Rare Books and Manuscripts Librarian Brittany Kropf. For more information, contact the Rare Books and Manuscripts Division at (317) 232-3671 or “Ask-A-Librarian.”

Fake news and how to fight it

Fake news feels like a modern scourge of intellect, but it’s nothing new. One of the earliest fake news examples on record dates to the first century, when Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, smeared the reputation of Mark Antony for control of the Roman Empire. Octavian, better known today as Emperor Augustus, read a will of dubious authenticity aloud to the Roman Senate. In that will, Mark Antony would give Roman lands to his children with Egyptian ruler Cleopatra and asked to be buried in an Egyptian tomb in the manner of a pharaoh. While the accuracy of this document can never be proven at this point, the fallout from Octavian’s act destroyed Mark Antony’s career and indirectly led to both his and Cleopatra’s deaths.

With over 2000 years of fake news, you would think that it would be easy to spot by now.  However, judging from the current news climate coupled with reports such as this 18-month study with middle and high school students, it appears we as a society need to strengthen our ability to identify and fight fake news as we see it. Luckily, there’s a lot of things we can do.

The first and easiest thing to do is to not spread fake news in the first place. Mad-Eye Moody said it best: Constant Vigilance. Fake news is often characterized by a number of traits which can help you spot it quickly. A few of these are:

  • It makes you angry, scared or, for some political stories, overly reassured
  • It seems too good (or bad!) to be true
  • It is not from a generally reputable source
  • It does not cite its sources, or uses poor sources to back its claims

You’ll see fake news on the Facebook pages of many of your friends, but just because they believe it doesn’t mean it’s true. Even the smartest, most-educated people will make mistakes and post fake news sometimes. It’s up to you to sniff it out.

Second, if you want to share something online, check it first. Let’s look at a claim like “Farmed salmon is bad for you.” The article that this claim is based on uses lots of inflammatory language, bright colors and statements meant to alarm you. But don’t be fooled. A quick Google search for “Is farmed salmon bad for you?” will turn up a link to the Washington State Department of Health which refutes virtually every claim in the other, negative article. If you look at the author of the negative article, you’ll learn that he’s not a doctor, dietitian or nutritionist, nor does he have a degree in any medical field. He’s an editor and CEO of a popular magazine, which gives him lots of publicity but no weight to his arguments. On the other hand, the Washington State Department of Health does not operate at a profit, employs scientists and provides excellent, credible sources for its claims in this article. Even though it’s wise to consider the safety of your food, bad information doesn’t help anyone.

Third, if you accidentally post fake news – and everyone does – apologize and take it down from your feed. Some fake news outlets can look astonishingly like real ones (like this one) and you may not think you have time to verify what you’re reading. It’s always best to double check, however, to keep yourself well-informed.

Here’s a quick checklist to verify an article’s claims:

  1. Where is it located? Good articles and videos come from good news sources.  What’s a good news source? Look for ones with strong codes or standards of ethics (like this one or this one) that clearly state their responsibilities to their writers, their sources and their readers. If you can’t find a standard or code of ethics, you will probably want to consider another news source. Other good sources of information are academic journals (which Indiana residents can find using INspire, the state library’s gateway to digital information access) and nonpartisan research organizations.
  2. Who wrote it? Look up the author using Google or LinkedIn, a professional networking site. Real news is written by real journalists, and you can often find pertinent information about them like resumes/CVs, other articles they’ve written and any other qualifications they may have, such as additional education or certifications.
  3. How old is it? Information, like fish, has an expiration date. Very often, old news is repackaged as current and articles without dates should be doubly suspect. Old news might rehash incidents or disputes that have since been resolved, or make you angry over something that is no longer true or applicable.
  4. Why was it written or developed? Fake news can be profitable – ask Jestin Coler, who registered a number of websites which produced fake news and made between $10,000 and $30,000 per month. Other reasons that fake news might be produced may be to sway political opinion, promote specific ideologies or beliefs or destroy a rival’s reputation.

Fake news may be everywhere, but you are smart enough to fight it. In addition to the above advice, I have developed a Fake News LibGuide with tools, tips, websites and other resources for you to use. You deserve honest, accurate information and you have every right to be mad that fake news outlets are trying to dupe you. Fight back with real news and real information. If you get stuck or lost, remember that the library is always there to help.

This blog post was written by KT Lowe, coordinator of library instruction and service learning at Indiana University East. You are welcome to contact her at lowekat@iu.edu or visit her on Facebook.