Lately, I’ve been obsessing about the book “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson.
After numerous suggestions of “you’ve got to read it,” I finally carved out the time to invest in the dense tome.
The 2003 nonfiction effort details the 1893 World’s Fair held in Chicago, intertwining the efforts of the architectural mastermind behind the expo (known as the White City) and the cruel and proficient serial killer who used the event to lure victims to their doom.
As one of my friends who recommended the book observed of the latter chap, “That was one nasty bad guy.”
The work also piqued my interest about the time period involved, and subsequently I’ve done much delving into turn-of-the-century materials. It was while cruising the Internet for related info when I came across a curious website called The Annotated Conundrums.
The site sprung up around an actual 1902 joke book called “Conundrums New and Old,” compiled and published by Frederick J. Drake & Co. Each entry isolates one of the jokey items — which are obscure, antiquated, often sexist and vaguely racist — and explains and illustrates its “humor and historical significance.”
Q: Why are balloons in the air like vagrants?
A: Because they have no visible means of support.
But the real brilliance of the site is it doesn’t truly decipher anything. Instead, it makes up ridiculous historical background information and tries to force-feed an entirely new meaning into the punch line.
The balloon example is clarified by revealing that in 1902 balloons were also like vagrants because they both represented leisure conveyances for the recently married.
“After the wedding, young couples would typically take their first trip together by one of the three most romantic forms of contemporary transportation: on a cruise ship, in a hot air balloon or on the shoulders of a bedraggled vagrant.”
According to the site, the last method was considered the “most sophisticated and glamorous way” to set out on the honeymoon until a “glut on the market in the 1930s was the final nail in the coffin for hobo-rides.”
Q: What consolation has a homely girl?
A: She will be pretty old if she lives long.
According to The Annotated Conundrums, this joke makes more sense once you realize how standards of beauty have changed in the century since it originated.
“In a rougher, less civilized time ... women were prized less for their looks than for their ability to withstand hurricanes and cholera. A prospective suitor would ask to see a woman’s dental papers and weightlifting stats before popping the question. Those of delicate build and smooth skin were considered ‘homely’ since without the protective walls of the home they would be instantly pulverized by the wilderness’s raging elements.”
What I like about the Conundrums site is it offers multiple levels of humor. It’s got the original joke (technically a riddle), the humor derived from how odd and dated the joke seems, and then the high-level of Onion-type fake history mingled with real history attributed to the joke.
Q: Why are newspapers reliable?
A: They lie, then they lie again, or they re-lie, and so are re-li-able.
The site explains: “This middling bit of wordplay is clearly aimed at the Hearst papers and their ethically questionable (but ultimately successful) campaign to lead America into war in Cuba. In retaliation, the September 14th, 1902, edition of The New York Examiner ran a front-page story identifying publisher Frederick Drake as a practicing necrophiliac.”
The Hearst part is essentially true, while the Drake part is a complete fabrication.
But deep down, that’s still a pretty solid joke.
— Entertainment editor Jon Niccum explores facets of pop culture that have established a unique niche on the Internet. He can be reached at 832-7178.