Holiday Humor from “Life” Magazine, 8 December 1887

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As mentioned in a recent post from the Christmas 1897 number of Life magazine, the periodical began life fourteen years earlier largely predicated on humor.  Sure enough, tonight’ highlighted object from the museum’s holdings is the 8 December 1887 issue of the magazine, where humor is predominant and much of it in season—the Christmas season, that is.

Life was largely known for its cartoons and drawings, as well as its contributions of short stories and poetry and this number has plenty of all of these on offer.  The main literary item is “Grassletree’s Christmas Crime,” a story by William Henry Bishop, a widely read novelist, whose work is basically forgotten today.


The tale concerned a trick played by the titular character, who concocted a far-fetched tale told at a Christmas Eve party about an “antol-aphobo-takistaferon” or a musical alarm clock, to convince young and beautiful Ernestine de Gilbert to meet the supposed recipient of Samuel Grassletree’s strange timekeeping gift to his friend Frederick Bradstock.  Grassletree’s inspired telling and his one-on-one conversation with Ernestine did the trick and she and Bradstock met in Bermuda, hit it off, and were later married—a gift of Grassletree’s of another sort.

Another notable element of humor is a “How They Will Spend Christmas” section, with notables of the day gently mocked by the magazine about what they would do for their holiday celebrations.  Among those mildly skewered were Queen Victoria, President Grover Cleveland, and the King of Spain.  Two samples are Pope Leo XIII, of whom it was said he would “devote the day to games of chants,” and Czar Alexander III of Russia, who “spent Christmas in terror, as usual,” a joke about the frequent and often dangerous political intrigues in that country.


There was also an interesting “Three Ghosts Who Met on Christmas Eve” piece by critic Robert Bridges, using his pseudonym “Droch.” that imagined a literary meeting of the spirits of Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens.  At one point in this summit of literary giants, Thackeray is made to exclaim, “Those crowds of people that are thronging the streets have been buying hundreds of sets of Hawthorne, Dickens and Thackeray with which to make some household happier on Christmas Day.”

Hawthorne answered “I heard the other day that there is a beautiful genius now on Earth, writing most exquisite romances about ‘Prince Otto’ and other creatures of fancy.  And the people read more of his books than of all the rest.”  The unnamed novelist referred to here was none other than Robert Louis Stevenson.  Yet, Dickens issued a rejoinder that modern writers focused too much on the individual and told Thackeray, “when we lived and wrote . . . we never forgot that the Home, not the individual man or woman, was the social unit.  In it and through it the very best which is in any man, poor or rich, learned or ignorant, is developed.”


With that, as “Christmas chimes were ringing at midnight,” the literary apparitions were “swept away from the Earth” while “restless children, who turned in their beds and looked into the night for glimpses of the good Saint Nicholas and his reindeers, were startled by three brilliant stars which shot across the sky.”

Another holiday-themed bit of humor was “An Open Letter to the Open-Handed” in which “George C. Pauper” wrote to “Mr. Croesus” begging him not to send any Christmas presents or to have any be “more moderate than your presents were last year.”  This was because Croesus sent expensive gifts to Pauper and his family and, when Pauper, mindful of his straitened circumstances, bought a dollar volume of poetry, his wife was aghast and insisted of being as generous in return to Croesus as he was to the Paupers.


Naturally, Pauper had to end his missive by noting that his request for no gifts or at least those of far more modest value was because “it is nothing short of ruin—bankruptcy—that impels me to write thus; there is nothing of disloyalty to my wife herein; all women are alike in this respect—and many men.”

Another fun article is “A Chat with St. Nicholas” in which Santa, who resided on the moon in 1887, received a visit from the “Chum to Potentates.”  Aside from some witty repartee, though, St. Nick had some bones to pick with earthlings, grumbling that,

you are the same low-down earth you ever were.  You people down there make me very tired.  You are not satisfied with the old line of goods.  In the old times your boys and girls were glad enough to get the ordinary toys of commerce.  Now, your youngsters won’t look at anything short of a steam yacht; your babies don’t care for my red, white and blue fairy books, they want [William Dean] Howells and Tolstoi  . . . and as for the girls, Lord bless ’em! a doll that costs less than three or four hundred dolars, and that can’t eat  and drink and talk and cost rnough to dress as would support a man and wife and two children, isn’t worth their while . . . you’re driving me out of business.

Elsewhere in the piece are mentions of President Cleveland, his 1884 election opponent James G. Blaine, powerful newspaper publishers Charles Anderson Dana of the New York Sun and Joseph Pulitzer of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and New York World.  Finally, Santa handed his visitor “a large envelope with the request that its contents be forwarded without delay” to the readers of Life—namely the article at hand—stating “There, you see I haven’t forgotten your readers.  I couldn’t give up the good altogether.”


Another humor section is “Hints on Gifts” with satirical advice for giving presents to clergymen (“slippers’ for the congregation and “trips abroad” for fellow clergy); those in difficult finances (basically anything completely impractical); servants (a kind word or a nod of recognition on Christmas); and more, includin a dressmaker’s bill for husbands.

As for cartoons and drawings, the centerfold image offers “A Merry Christmas” through the admonition of “A Warning to Lovers”.  Another is “Their Christmas Dinner” in which a pair of street urchins stand outside a restaurant, with a boy kneeling before a grate from which smells of the food inside emanate.  A girl standing next to him exclaims, “I say, Jimmy Oliver, you’ve been dare long enough.  Come away and let me have er smell.”  A third cartoon of note shows three children standing outside a house with one saying “Milly, don’t yer think if she hung up her stockin’s Santy Claus might giv’ her a pair o’ legs to put in ’em?”


A look through this issue of Life is both interesting for a glance at Victorian-era humor, as well as Christmas-themed stories, satire, and cartoons and drawings.  As America’s economic might exploded, its middle class expanded, and literacy and leisure time grew by leaps and bounds, magazines like this give us a good reference point for how its society evolved, including its commemoration of what was rapidly becoming the most important holiday of the year.

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