What’s the Difference Between a Watch Maker and a Jailer? Adventures in Amateur Newspapers (Part I)

If you’re like me and occasionally find yourself lying in bed endlessly scrolling though BuzzFeed quizzes and pop culture articles, then you are no stranger to the modern-day dad joke. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, I like to define a “dad joke” as a cheesy and often predictable pun told by (but not limited to) a middle-aged man. One of the most classic examples of a dad joke is when a son or daughter tells their father, “I’m hungry,” and he replies, “Hi hungry, I’m Dad. Nice to meet you!” Jokes such as this one have become such a staple amongst young Millennials and Gen Z’ers that it’s almost impossible not to come across one on Twitter, Facebook or any other online social platform. But what exactly do dad jokes posted on the internet have in common with the American Antiquarian Society and, more specifically, old newspapers?

The amateur newspaper collection at AAS.

Over the past few months I have started the slow (but extremely entertaining) process of going through every amateur newspaper held at AAS to make sure the entire collection has been scanned and digitized. Most simply put, an amateur newspaper is a periodical that is written, edited, and published by teenagers or young adults. Arguably, most of these papers were created for the love of the craft and not for profit; consequently, many publications were small in size as well as short-lived. Although amateur journalism saw its heyday in America during the latter half of the nineteenth century, one of the earliest papers held at AAS dates from 1805.

Multiple issues of The Star published in Des Moines, Iowa. Our collection contains issues from 1897 and 1898, many of which have brightly colored wrappers.
One of the many tiny amateur newspapers I’ve seen so far! Florida Mite (Orlando, FL), May 1878.

In total, our collection has over 3,900 titles from every state except Alaska and Hawaii, so I was a bit overwhelmed when first starting this project (so far I’ve made it through 550 titles and I am currently looking at amateur newspapers from Iowa). However, much to my delight, I’ve found that every paper has something fun and unique to add to the world of amateur journalism—one of these things being the nineteenth-century version of a dad joke! Although dad jokes are sweeping their way through the internet today, they are certainly not a new phenomenon. Even then, people my age and younger were drawn to the groan-worthy jokes of their fathers, and one of best ways to spread that cheer was through their version of the internet—amateur newspapers.

Here are some of my favorite nineteenth-century dad jokes!

“Why is the Letter g Like Matrimony?” The Peanut (San Francisco, CA), 6 May 1878, p. 1.
“Miscellaneous.” The Western Star (Rockford, IA), Oct. 1878, p. 2.
“Scraps.” Monthly Star (Albany, GA), Aug. 1885, p 3.
“Original Gems.” Gem of the West (Lansing, IA), Sept. 1878, p. 3.
“Tag Ends.” The Bohemian (Washington, DC), May 1879, p. 4.
“Conundrums.” Hail Columbia (Hartford, CT), July and Aug. 1867, p.2.

I hope that at least some of these puns gave you a light chuckle! I know that they’ve certainly provided me with much needed laughter during these cold winter months. I’ve barely scraped the surface of AAS’s vast collection and I already have several more topics that I’d love to share with you. But in the meantime, let me know if you have any questions about our collection or feel free to leave some of your best “antiquarian” dad jokes down in the reply section!

Published by

Amanda Kondek

Programs Coordinator

4 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between a Watch Maker and a Jailer? Adventures in Amateur Newspapers (Part I)”

  1. Hello
    Enjoyed your article.
    Q: I’m looking for literary selfies.
    A: The autobiographies are on the second floor.
    Do you ever accept volunteer help?
    I’m retired, live on Worcester and would love to put on a pair of white gloves and be off assistance.

  2. This was a fantastic article–I certainly enjoyed it and shared it with a couple of groups on Facebook. I look forward to seeing more from you! Thank you so much for the research and the writing!

    1. Dear Ms. Talbott,

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing the article! I’m hoping to write a few more posts in the near future, so stayed tuned!

  3. Dear Mr. Benbow,

    Thank you for reading the article- your joke would have been a great addition to any of these amateur newspapers! If you are interested in any volunteer opportunities at AAS you can contact Carol-Ann Mackey in our HR department at cmackey@mwa.org

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