Prenticeana or Wit and Humor in Paragraphs, by the Editor of the Louisville Journal

[Editorial Note: As Robert Darnton pointed out in his Introduction to The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (1984), the "perception of . . . distance may serve as the starting point of an investigation. . . . When you realize that you are not getting something--a joke, a proverb, a ceremony--that is particularly meaningful . . . you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it." (P. 78) And the past is proverbially a foreign country. So here is George Denison Prentice, one of the foremost wits of antebellum America, on the subject of women. To the extent we "get" the jokes, we have begun to enter into a most important mindset, that of the conventionally wise man of the period. Two of his paragraphs dealt with Jane Swisshelm, editor of the Pittsburgh Visiter [her spelling]. Her account of their duels of wits, from her autobiography, is here.]

George Denison Prentice, Prenticeana; or, Wit and Humor in Paragraphs. By the Editor of the Louisville Journal (N.Y., Derby and Jackson, 1860)

P. 7: A man recently got married in Kentucky one day and hung himself the next. No doubt he wanted to try all varieties of nooses to see which he liked best.

P. 9: A young widow has established a pistol-gallery in New Orleans. Her qualifications as a teacher of the art of duelling are of course undoubted; she has killed her man.

P. 21: "She isn't all that my fancy painted her," bitterly exclaimed a rejected lover; "and, worse than that, she isn't all that she paints herself."

P. 30: A writer on domestic economy, in giving instructions for keeping eggs fresh, says, "lay with the small end down." He does not specify whether this direction is for the hen or the housewife.

P. 37: "Will you have the kindness to hand me the butter before you?" said a gentleman politely at table to an ancient maiden. "I am no waiter, sir," "Well, I think you have been waiting a long time."

P. 43: If philanthropy is properly defined to be a love of mankind, most women have an unequivocal title to be considered philanthropists.

P. 45: In Indiana, the other day, a brute of a man kicked his wife. The indignant neighbors assembled, and made a jackass kick him. The wife was kicked by the much baser beast of the two.

P. 46: It is a bad thing to be over-wifed. Better have no appointment than get a place under petticoat government.

P. 53: We received a note yesterday from the "old maids of Shelby" requesting that they may be invited to the bachelors' ball in this city. We guess the dear old things are begging the question.

P. 113: A penny paper in New York says that a strong-fisted servant girl in that city was recently assaulted by a couple of scoundrels, named John and Elam Mile, and that she flogged them both. We have heard that a miss was as good as a mile, but here was a case in which a miss was a good as two Miles, and a little better.

P. 116: We would as soon see a lady making herself a wasp in temper as in the shape of her person.

P. 146: A bill is pending in one of our western states to empower women to make contracts. They should be all means be authorized to contract- they have been expanding too much.

P. 180: If women were jurors, as some of them claim that they ought to be, what chance would you ugly old fellows stand when indicted?

P. 204: Lucy Stone recently made a speech insisting that the election of women, as well as men, to Congress would improve the character of that body. We suspect that the habit of "pairing off"1 would be even more common that it is.

P.232: An English writer says that the American ladies of the present day feel or affect a spirit of independence. We certainly have seen, at fashionable parties, many a lady, who, we thought, might very appropriately recite Smollett's2 fine lines to Independence:
"Thy spirit, Independence, let me share,
Lord of the lion heart and eagle-eye
Thy steps I follow with my bosom bare."

P. 236: Mrs. Swisshelm denounces kissing at social country parties. She never denounced it when she was young and her lips were attractive. How very proper these old ladies get to be! Why should not the recollections of their own youth teach them to have some sympathy with us young folk?

P. 276: Our old friend Mrs. Swisshelm hits us tolerably hard. Dear Jane, we may give you a kiss for a blow if you can manage to wait till it is convenient.


1 A common practice in Congress and other legislative bodies; members on opposite sides of a measure agree to abstain so that the final result is not changed.
2 Tobias Smollett (1721-1771), "Ode to Independence"
Thy spirit, Independence, let me share;
Lord of the lion heart and eagle eye,
Thy steps I follow with my bosom bare,
Nor heed the storm that howls along the sky.