At a recent workshop, I was asked about humor, how to be funny. I regaled the group with stories about American female humorists with the caveat that I had not written the book on humorists. Then realized, hey, I but DID write my Master’s Thesis on them. Why not share a bit about the history of funny American woman?
At the turn of the Century – the frontier closed and the urban centers expanded. Newspapers and periodical outlets increased in numbers, and women authors writing for those periodicals increased accordingly.
This was good for women authors.
But the messages to women readers delivered through these new magazines were not always liberating or helpful. Periodicals were, for the most part, devoted to keeping women at home, then creating more and more activities to keep them there. Good Housekeeping magazine appeared at this time and aimed to codify housekeeping and child-rearing as a science. Not surprisingly, the sincerity of the magazines bred parody on the part of a number of women writers.
Josephine Daskam wrote “The Memories of a Baby” in 1904 as a satiric response to the then-new children-rearing methods touted in homemaking magazines.
The more periodicals and newspapers printed, the more opportunity women had to write. Women created both the sincere, helpful articles (seventeen ways to bath the baby properly), and the counterpoint to those articles:
Between 1900 and 1920 the humorous column of the urban daily, conducted in each case as the personal organ of one writer, grew to become the most important single medium of American Humor. […] In combining the informality of the rustic oracles with the literacy of the better magazines, the metropolitan column doubtless filled a need felt by many people who had been reared in the country by had migrated to the city […] In addition, many city-bred readers welcomed the humorous column as a relief from the impersonality or sensationalism of the news and the seriousness of the editorials (Yates 33).
In these growing newspapers and periodicals, women found a readership and an outlet for their writing. Even though their work was not taken seriously by historians, women writers were able to make a living through their craft, which, at the time, was probably more important. Women had always told stories and exchanged exaggerated tales of domestic and relationship woes in person, in the kitchen, in the sewing circle, at the ladies’ clubs. Writers in the newspapers and growing periodical market were able to expand this audience of women, and at the same time bring them together by expressing common concerns, and like their grandmothers, proposing change.
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