HAH! The History of American Humor: Part 2

Featuring IU Student Humor Magazines from the Indiana University Archives

By: Rebecca Karstensen, Wylie House Museum Library Assistant

***DISCLAIMER*** Contains some crude and offensive humor. Discretion advised.

If you haven’t already, take a peek at part 1 of this blog where I provide a lighthearted background on the history of humor in the United States.

As part of the Indiana University Libraries, the Wylie House Museum can utilize the Indiana University Archives to conduct research. So, I thought it might be a fun adventure to look at some of IU’s old student humor magazines. I have selected three publications from three different magazine/newspaper series to share. I hope that these magazines will provide some unexpected insight into the style, quality, and historical significance of the jokes contained within.

For more info, visit the Indiana University Archives website. I’ve provided a link with each publication that leads directly to its archival webpage.

Here’s the lineup: I’ll give you a picture of each publication, some contextual stuff, then the funnies. Savvy?

PUBLICATION #1 The Vagabond, 1923-1931

Selection: May-June 1926

C461 The Vagabond, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Context: The Vagabond began in October of 1923, with a twofold objective: “the magazine offers a medium of expression for the literary life of campus; and it hopes to hasten a rebirth of science, art, and life at Indiana” (quoted from the first edition copy of Vagabond). The articles published in The Vagabond were satirical, risqué, and critical of the university, which often caused a stir in the campus community.

1926 was a peaceful year in the United States, other than the Great Miami Hurricane, the death of Harry Houdini, and the introduction of the first SAT college admissions test. The First World War was long over, the union was in a state of rest, and the Great Depression wouldn’t start until 1929. In his State of the Union Address on December 7, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge states:

“In reporting to the Congress the state of the Union, I find it impossible to characterize it other than one of general peace and prosperity. In some quarters our diplomacy is vexed with difficult and as yet unsolved problems, but nowhere are we met with armed conflict. If some occupations and areas are not flourishing, in none does there remain any acute chronic depression. What the country requires is not so much new policies as a steady continuation of those which are already being crowned with such abundant success. It can not be too often repeated that in common with all the world we are engaged in liquidating the war.”

Matters at Indiana University were no more exciting. At that time 8,800 students were enrolled at IU, and based on the Indiana University faculty minutes from 1926, nothing noteworthy happened, despite the addition of the Eastern wing of the Second Library Building (now known as Franklin Hall). In fact, 1926 seemed to be an incredibly average year. Nonetheless, the Vagabond staff found plenty of things to criticize anyways.

Funny Highlights: This particular issue covers all the basics of our human existence: marriage, sex, women, war, education, family, friendship, and so on. The front and back of the book feature a few advertisements, including one for the “New Home Laundry Co.” whose catch phrase is “Not As Large As the Largest But As Good As the Best – Our Work is Proof of That”.

C461 The Vagabond, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Many of The Vagabond’s pieces critique Indiana University–such as “Inbred Indiana” which discusses Indiana University’s habit of hiring alumni; however, there are plenty of other styles of humor represented here. For example, here’s a poem found in the back of the magazine:

C461 The Vagabond, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Despair
I saw her in the hall through murky dust,
And stood transfixed by beauty undefiled.
No glaring ray of light was there to mar
That vision of an angel come to earth.
Her skin of whiteness that outshone the ray
Of wintry moon, betokened purity,
While filmy garments, clinging, half-disclosed
Her perfect breasts, her curves of innocence.
I loved her at one glance, but ‘twas in vain’
Cold marble statues have no love for man.
-Pourquoinot

Here’s an example of a pun:

C461 The Vagabond, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Applicant: How much do I get for doing the weeping act in this show?
Manager: Thirty-five cents an hour.
Applicant: What? For crying out loud!

And another poem:

C461 The Vagabond, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

There was a good man from Calcutta,
He talked with a terrible stutta;
He screwed up his face
When he tried to say grace
And blew his false teeth in the butta.
-Wisconsin Octopus

These more lighthearted pieces make up a small minority of this magazine’s content. So, to give a better idea of what style of humor The Vagabond focused on, here’s a small excerpt regarding yearbooks:

C461 The Vagabond, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

The Arbutus
This is the annual record of faces mounted daintily on enamel paper and published to the great and vainglorious delight of one-half of the school and the disgust of the other half. The ten dollars each Junior is forced by the University to pay for a copy would approximately buy one book by Conrad, one by Cabell, one by France, one by Dreiser, and still leave fifty cents for a couple Whiz Bangs.

10 dollars in 1926 is worth about $137 in today’s money. That kind of money would cover the costs of all my textbooks, too, so I feel their pain. At least now we aren’t forced to buy a yearbook.

 

PUBLICATION #2 The Crimson Bull, 1947-1956

Selection: Greek Issue and Professor Issue, November 1948

C641 The Crimson Bull Collection, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

Context: The Crimson Bull was launched in 1947 by the Indiana University chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, a men’s professional journalistic fraternity. This magazine was meant to replace the former Crimson Bull first published in 1920 at IU, which failed. It also provided humor after the Date humor magazine ended in 1947. The last known issue of this magazine was released in March 1956. Compared with The Vagabond, the satirical style of The Crimson Bull is much more lighthearted and goofy.

1948 saw some dramatic events, including the murder of Mahatma Gandhi, the declaration of Israel’s independence from British administration, and the creation of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. People born in this year include Prince Charles, Al Gore, Ozzy Osbourne, James Taylor, and Andrew Lloyd Weber. However, it was a relatively peaceful year for the United States. The Second World War had been over for almost 3 years and the Great Depression had been over for nearly 10 years.

At Indiana University, nothing extraordinary happened either. In the State of the University address on December 9, 1948, IU President Herman B. Wells stated, “The past year was one of constructive activity. The detailed reports of the schools and divisions of the University record the year’s achievements . . . I cannot even summarize them in the space of this statement . . .” There were 14,414 full-time and 8,717 part-time students for the 1948-49 school year, some of which were World War II Veterans. Overall, despite a $1,412,989 deficit of funds, IU was in a state of productivity and achievement.

Funny highlights: The Crimson Bull’s humor is definitely more crude and silly. I’ve chosen two 1948 magazines which were published as companions. I have one excerpt that I’d like to share from each of them.

Greek Issue

C641 The Crimson Bull Collection, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

The Crimson Bull writers had some strong feelings towards the Greek community at IU, which I find ironic considering the writers were members of a journalistic fraternity. There’s one excerpt from this issue that I think is captures the silly tone of the publication:

C641 The Crimson Bull Collection, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

All Is Revealed . . . Beyond The Stone Façade
     “Ever since I saw ‘Cloak and Dagger,” I have wanted to do some undercover work. Be a real-life spy. Last week I finally got my chance.
     I was designated Special Operator 49, an espionage agent for the Crimson Bull. My assignment was to crack the Third Street Iron Curtain and find out what really goes on behind the stone façade of a sorority house.
     (Editor’s note: Just how Operator 49 arranged to get inside the house can’t be revealed now; it would cause too much unpleasantness for ourselves and a number of other persons who kidnapped the young lady whose place he took that afternoon.)
     Shortly after 3 p.m., I walked up the steps of the Sigma Epsilon Xi house on East Third. I adjusted my false front and rang the bell.
     Five beautiful girls greeted me as the door opened. They seemed a little surprised when they saw me, but managed to squeeze out an unhappy hello when I introduced myself.
     I quickly grasped the hand of the president of the house. It was so lovely I hated to let go. But she broke my grip and showed my inside. The girls didn’t waste any time trying to impress me. I found out later that my mother was supposed to have a vault that would make Uncle Sam’s Fort Knox look like a miniature wall safe.
     I gladly followed them to the upstairs lounge to play a few rubbers of bridge. I tried to talk them into another card game. They didn’t seem to care for the idea. I gave up the game for good when one of the girls started talking about clothes.
‘Oh this,’ she said, ‘I wear it to teas.’ I stumbled while moving in closer to ask whom and fell onto the lap of some pretty coed. I was just beginning to snuggle up comfortably when the rush chairman came in looking for me.
     After losing the argument, I got up and followed her on a tour of the house. Brother, the things I didn’t see! Did you know they make ladies unmentionables in six delicious colors?
     They took me into a small dressing room and offered to fix my hair. I didn’t dare remove my scarf, so I had to do some fast talking to get the girls to curl just the ends of my golden locks.
     The secretary told me that after I became an active I would have a private dressing room, but that during the short and pleasant pledge period, I would have to share my bedroom with several other girls-43, in fact. The idea appealed to me, but how could I live there sixteen weeks without having my identity discovered?
     They took me into the living room where they fed me a cup of bitter tea and some stale cookies. Guess they were trying to save on the house bill or something.
The girls apparently had rehearsed for this visit, for one of them dashed over and began playing the piano. Six others crowded around and began singing “Oh Indiana.” But this broke up fast when I crawled atop the piano and sang a little number I know about rolling in the hay fields.
     Every time I looked around, a different shape went undulating by. This had a profound effect on me. I nervously looked around for the nearest rest room. I needed a nice quiet place to map out my plans for the rest of the evening.
Once inside, I was resting comfortably, jotting down a note telling the editor I thought I’d remain for good, I had removed the scarf, hiked my dress above my knees, and was resting my aching feet, thinking just what I would do if they invited me to stay for the night.
     The door suddenly opened and the house mother was staring me in the face. I was trapped. What could I do? She just stood there, screaming at the top of her voice. I tried shoving a towel in her mouth. The towel wasn’t big enough.
Within ten seconds every girl in the house was standing there, looking in at me. I felt like a caged animal. Several of the girls shrieked. Most giggled. A few looked at me longingly.
     Four big beefers pushed their way through the crowd, grabbed me by the arms and dragged me from the house. I waited in the shrubs until dark and slipped home quietly.
I wanna go back . . .
-RED LETTER

Please understand that the Wylie House Museum does not condone the disrespect of women. I chose this piece only to reflect the style of humor contained within the magazine and it does not, in any way, reflect the opinions of our museum.

Professor Issue

C641 The Crimson Bull Collection, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

I love the introduction in this issue, which is essentially a disclaimer that they are about to absolutely roast a bunch of professors. It ends thus:

C641 The Crimson Bull Collection, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

“So here is your Professor Issue. It has been created in the spirit of malice towards none (to coin a phrase), and the hope of fun and laughs for all. Characters portrayed herein are real live persons, but don’t tell them about it. After all, we’d like to stick around and graduate.”

One might note that The Crimson Bull has more illustrations and cartoons that the Vagabond. Here’s a great one, entitled “An Illustrated Dissertation on I.U. Perfessors”

C641 The Crimson Bull Collection, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington

“Fraught with the wisdom of the ages, I.U.’s mighty line-up of perfessors cuts a striking picture as they mull and meditate over their morning coffee ~ here we have an excellent view of some of the sharper ones. . .

Touchingly human, our perfessors are actually frenzied in their attempts to always give the students a break on exam grades ~ the gentleman above is typical of those who work ’till the wee, late hours in their efforts to be ever sympathetic. . . But there must be a few spare moments, of course ~ and our perfessors always spend those moments pursuing intellectual relaxation.

Or a bit of brilliant, personal research, as this earnest chap in the Department of Chemistry is doing ~ who knows, he may come up with something astounding. . .

Justice ~ respect for the law ~ such qualities are virtually exuded by the stern, staid gentlemen of the Law School ~ this perfessor dotes on returning snitched articles. . .

Profound admiration for the masterpieces of the ages is constantly expressed by the Fine Arts perfessors. . .

And our perfessors of anatomy never fail to amaze classes with their perfectly prepared cadavers. . .”

These lighthearted jests towards the professors at IU must’ve been a great way for The Crimson Bull writers to relieve their frustrations as college students in a fun, non-threatening way.

PUBLICATION #3 Fun City, 1952-1979
Selection: April 30, 1976, No. 25

C664 Leon Varjian papers, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

Context: Here’s a quote from the IU archives discussing the creator of Fun City, Leon Varjian:

“Leon Varjian (1951-2015) was a graduate student at Indiana University from 1972-1975, known primarily for his comedic news publications such as Fun City and his organized antics on the IU campus. He ran for mayor of Bloomington in 1973 and IU Trustee in 1976, though his campaign platforms were nonsensical and humorous.”

He reminds me of Vermin Supreme.

1976 wasn’t a huge year, though several significant things happened. For example, Microsoft and Apple opened one year prior in 1975, and the South African apartheid began on June 16th. NASA unveiled their first space shuttle, Fidel Castro became president of Cuba, and the United States celebrated its Bicentennial. Jimmy Carter won the presidential election and the Winter Olympics took place in Austria.

At IU, once again, 1976 wasn’t a major year, though the men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship and the first discotheque opened in Bloomington. By then, there were 4 IU campuses: Bloomington, Fort Wayne, Northwest, and Southeast. Combined, these 4 campuses had 76,771 students enrolled.

Funny highlights: This magazine-style publication has some cheeky, definitely inappropriate humor in it. You’ve already seen this little piece on the cover of the newspaper, but my favorite excerpt is on the front page, titled the “Do-it-yourself divorce hush-up”.

C664 Leon Varjian papers, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

Here’s the thing I want to share most, though, and I almost missed it when I read through this publication the first time. I’ll let it speak for itself:

C664 Leon Varjian papers, Indiana University Archives, Bloomington.

I think the acronym that he made out of his name really makes this piece.

That’s all I have to share for now! Thank you so much for spending time reading this blog, and if you’d like to learn more about the relation between the Wylie House Museum and humor, please join us for a tour! The museum is open 10am-2pm Tuesday through Saturday.

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