Victorians went ‘crackers’ for American gags

24 Dec 2010

Millions of fun-loving Victorians acquired an insatiable appetite for imported American humour, according to new research by a University of Manchester historian.

Victorians went 'crackers' for American gags
Victorians went 'crackers' for American gags

Modern British comedians – and even some of today’s Christmas cracker jokes – owe a debt to the early American invasion, said Bob Nicholson.

According to the researcher, the craze for Yankee jokes, which was at its height between the 1870s and 1890s, side-lined the less risqué home-grown humour.

British newspapers printed thousands of US jokes, helping to kick-start our long standing love affair with American culture.

Mark Twain and other US humourists packed out British theatres, and their novels filled the nation’s bookstalls.

And American joke books were also popular – particularly at Christmas.

“American humour was characterised by sharp one-liners which are found in today’s Christmas crackers,” he said.

“While British jokes would often be clumsy and over-explain the punchline, American gags had a more recognisably modern rhythm - quick set up followed immediately by a punchline.

“American jokes were also edgier than British ones and tackled subjects – such as death and divorce – that were still taboo for some Victorians.”

Bob, from East Cleveland, who is funded by The Arts and Humanities Research Council, says many newspapers started importing columns of ‘Yankee Snaps’ or ‘Stars and Stripes’ to boost their circulations in the 1870s.

He said: “By the 1880s, millions of men, women and children were consuming American humour each week.

“The best humourists became household names in Britain - just like American celebrities today.

“The Victorians couldn’t get enough of it – half a century before the arrival of Hollywood, here was a form of US culture taking Britain by storm.”

Dr. Julie-Marie Strange, Senior Lecturer in Victorian Studies at Manchester, said: “The Victorians invented the Christmas cracker and the newspapers of the time loved nothing more than festive frivolity.

“Bob’s research suggests Victorian families would have sat around their Christmas trees telling Yankee jokes.”

Bob, who is based at the University’s School of Arts, Histories an Cultures, made the discoveries while trawling through the British Library’s online newspaper archive – a collection of over 70 papers published in the nineteenth century.

He added: “The Victorians weren’t the dour lot many might imagine – they enjoyed a laugh and produced a lot of home-grown humour.

“The success of ‘Yankee Humour’ was part of a wider Victorian fascination with America.

“People often assume that the Victorians turned their noses up at America, but this wasn’t true – many of them loved consuming US culture, adopted the latest Yankee slang, and were thrilled by life on the other side of the Atlantic”.

Notes for editors

Examples of Jokes are available

Extra details on Joke columns are available. Newspapers where jokes were printed included: Hampshire Telegraph (Portsmouth), North Wales Chronicle (Bangor), Ipswich Journal, Bristol Mercury, Birmingham Daily Post, Derby Mercury, The Blackburn Standard, The Exeter Flying Post, Isle of Wight Observer, Northern Weekly Gazette (Middlesbrough), Lloyd's Weeks News (London).

Bob Nicholson is available for comment. His research is being conducted for his PhD thesis – which will be completed next year and is supervised by Dr Strange.

He was awarded the prestigious Gale Fellowship by the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals in 2009 – a prize for innovative use of new digital archives sponsored by educational publishers Gale Cengage.

For media enquires contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567