The use of humour is a most insightful way of assessing the attitudes of a particular location and era because we choose to laugh at things which we find difficult to make sense of or which we are unable to verbalise in another way. We express our frustrations, defuse our anger, moderate our successes, and celebrate our joy through its careful and considered application.
Humour is what sets our species apart from the others on our planet and it is a primary component in what constitutes our general humanity. As a consequence, glancing back at humour from another time tells us so much about the people who lived then and what made them tick.
When writing historical fiction, it is essential to build in humour but always being careful to make sure that it is something which your characters would find amusing even if you don’t. It’s also a much more reader-friendly way of suspending belief that the reader is there among your characters than by writing every interchange in period dialect – that really is wearing.
Here are three examples of how The Galveston Daily News used it in their issue of Thursday, 1 November, 1879. There’s nothing particularly special about that issue – it’s just an edition picked at random.
|It is reported that a number of blacksmiths in Galveston and other cities in Texas, have determined to strike – while the iron is hot.|
The pun was obviously alive and well. Blacksmiths were key people in the nineteenth century and a strike would have had major implications – horses not being shod, carts not being repaired, tools not being made etc. Such a simple comment would have been readily understood and appreciated by all intellectual and social classes – thus giving the paper its ‘common touch’.
|The free delivery system has been in operation for many years on the El Paso stage line. Occasionally a stage driver gets shot for not halting his team quick enough, but that is his own fault, not that of the system at all.|
This is some truly biting irony, presumably getting at the stage coach company for refusing to take responsibility for their drivers and placing them in the ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation’. If you stopped your coach for robbers, you’d be criticised, and if you tried to out-run them and got shot, you (or more likely your kin) would be told it was your fault for not stopping.
It was well-known for being a high-risk profession and this snippet highlights the real-life conflicts between the drivers and their employers. Books and films tend to end a scene with the bandits riding away from the site of their robbery but what happens afterwards?Someone has to clear up the mess and what becomes of the driver’s family? This article probably goes a long way towards answering those questions.
|The Texas boy who waits until he is grown before he commits murder or steals horses does not understand how to profit by his advantages. Delays are dangerous. There may be a change of administration before long.|
At a guess, this is a criticism of a politician for ‘dipping his beak’ or for indulging in some other corrupt practice. One can assume that everyone knows who is being talked about but libel laws forbid their actual naming. It’s also an open threat to the politician concerned that his days in office are numbered.
Here are just three snippets of humour from one newspaper but, between them, there exists considerable social commentary and also a window onto a life for which we may have numerous documents of one sort or another but only possess an insignificant (by modern standards) amount of audio or video recordings. What media we do have is often highly stilted or posed so humour as in the three samples given above is an excellent way of travelling back in time to a world which is still there if we just read between the lines.