Difficulties in Nineteenth-Century Humor
Difficulties of Nineteenth-Century Humor
Children’s books have historically played a role in introducing children to cultural norms. They used words and pictures to reinforce moral messages and encourage appropriate behavior. This is particularly true in humorous tales where a protagonist’s pratfalls are often designed to empower children to point out right and wrong. While many McLoughlin Brothers books contain silly rhymes and jokes, or are full of ridiculous incongruities that make children laugh, other titles in this genre can be viewed today as representative of a society desperately attempting to maintain its status quo.
Looking closely at many McLoughlin Brothers titles offers perceptive modern viewers a glimpse of some of the difficult issues of America’s Gilded Age (1880–1900), a time of great social and political disorder. Thousands of European and Asian immigrants were pouring into cities along the coasts, and Native people were being forcibly displaced across the West. Recently emancipated slaves were driven into sharecropping or moved away from the South seeking opportunities. Large swathes of political power were being consolidated by members of corrupt organizations like Tammany Hall, and women rallied against the establishment for the right to vote.
Many of McLoughlin’s primarily white, lower- and middle-class customers were surrounded by the social upheaval that resulted from these events. They sought out books and games for their children that poked fun at people not like them, reducing them to caricatures and perpetuating stereotypes that still exist today. The demeaning of the “other,” the “not-like-us” exclusionary tone, and the violent actions masquerading as an amusing part of childhood innocence, were all acceptable narratives.
Comic titles that dealt with race, gender, and ethnicity were among the most popular books in McLoughlin Brothers’ catalogs. Many books, including Ten Little Niggers, remained steady sellers for the firm for decades. These books are reminders of a past from which we have become, by the authority of time and events, very nearly disconnected, and yet they also echo many of the challenges, from inequality to violence, that American society faces today.
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