Know Any Good Victorian Jokes?

Historian Bob Nicholson wants to hear a million of them.

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victorian jokes

July 1840 Godey’s Lady’s Book Fashion Plate photo via Flickr/Creative Commons. Clever addition by Madeline Bilis

The British Library is in search of some good old Yankee humorand it could use your help.

They’re looking for something like this:

Why is kissing your sweetheart like eating soup with a fork?
Because it takes a long time to get enough of it.

A call for “joke detectives” has been issued by Dr. Bob Nicholson, a British historian and lecturer at Edge Hill University who studies the relationship between Victorians and American culture. He’s setting out to create a massive online archive of Victorian jokes. But first, he’ll present his project at the annual meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association at Harvard on Saturday.

The idea for the archive stems from a day when Nicholson was researching old newspapers on microfilm. He came across a British newspaper with a column entitled “Yankee Humor.” Beside a drawing of Uncle Sam, Nicholson read a few particularly amusing jokes, which he says was “extraordinary” because the Victorians aren’t exactly known for consuming hilarious content.

Here’s a dig at Boston from an American jokes column found in a November 1899 printing of Lloyd’s Daily Newspaper in London:

American Jokes
“Dorothy, where can I find the dictionary?”
“Aunt Martha, we never use a dictionary. We know all the words in Boston.”

Nicholson soon realized tens of thousands of American jokes were published in British newspapers—the only problem was that they weren’t all found in the same place. In fact, they were extremely difficult to find, he says.

“We don’t archive them,” says Nicholson. “I can’t go to the British Library and say ‘Hey, give me all your jokes’ Because they don’t know where they are.”

So, the Victorian jokes search party was called this week. All are welcome to pore over digital newspaper archives and share found droll puns.

“Can we find them all?” asks Nicholson. “And can we make an archive where people can search all the jokes about Boston, for example, or all the jokes about the Irish?”

He hopes to compile one million of them.

“Jokes at this period were part of a transatlantic world, going back and forth, so we really want people from the States to try and help us,” says Nicholson.

To submit jokes, joke detectives can simply tweet them with the hashtag #VictorianJokes, or email them to Nicholson has crafted a handy tutorial video for exploring archives here.

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