There were some mighty funny folks in 19th century America: writers Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, for instance. And, by some accounts, stage comedians Fanny Rice and Marshall P. Wilder.
For a while, Rice was billed as the Funniest Woman in America. And Wilder, who specialized in mother-in-law jokes, was called the Funniest Man.
“It is one of the hardest things in the world to be funny,” an aspiring comedian said in an 1887 reprint of a New York Journal story about Marshall Wilder and other comics, “because while what you are saying may be awfully comical, yet the fact that a lot of critical girls and fellows are looking at you makes you feel and look frightened.”
That fear didn’t stop Americans from telling jokes. Sometimes the quips were crude or cruel or racist or just plain humorless. Here are half a dozen from the 1800s, lightly edited, that may still play well to contemporary sensibilities:
1870: While passing a house on the road, two Virginia salesmen spotted a “very peculiar chimney, unfinished, and it attracting their attention, they asked a flaxen-haired urchin standing near the house if it ‘drawed well’ whereupon the aforementioned urchin gave them the stinging retort: ‘Yes, it draws all the attention of all the d—-d fools that pass this road.'” Daily Milwaukee News, May 21, 1870
1872: A man said to a preacher, “That was an excellent sermon, but it was not original.” The preacher was taken aback. The man said he had a book at home containing every word the preacher used. The next day the man brought the preacher a dictionary. Daily Phoenix, April 4, 1872
1888: There was a man whose last name was Rose. As a lark, he named his daughter Wild, “with the happy conceit of having her called Wild Rose.” But that sentiment was “knocked out” when the woman grew up to marry a man whose last name was Bull. Weekly Journal-Miner in Prescott, Ariz., May 23, 1888
1890: Whatever troubles Adam had / No man could make him sore / By saying when he told a jest / “I’ve heard that joke before.” Philadelphia Times, Feb. 23, 1890
1896: A fellow tells his ma that there are two holes in his trousers — and then tells her that’s where he puts his feet through. Cincinnati Enquirer, Nov. 1, 1896
1899: A man got up one morning and couldn’t find his alarm clock, so he asked his wife what had become of it. She said “It went off at 6 o’clock.” Salt Lake Herald, April 27, 1899