April Fool’s Day is two weeks away so I’m making a case for foolishness. I’m citing droll writings from the distant past, things our grandparents chuckled at, maybe even our great-grandparents.
The year 1916 saw the debut of Archy and Mehitabel in New York newspapers. Don Marquis reported the correspondence he received from Archy, a cockroach, often concerning Mehitabel, an alley cat friend. Archy types the material at night, jumping down on the keys. He’s unable to lock the caps key so there are no caps or punctuation.
well boss I saw
mehitabel the cat the other day
archy she said to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have I done to deserve
all these kittens
1926. Winnie the Pooh’s friend Piglet lived in a tree in the middle of the forest. “Next to his house was a piece of broken board which had: “TRESPASSERS W” on it. When Christopher Robin asked the Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather’s name, and had been in the family for a long time. Christopher Robin said you couldn’t be called Trespassers W, and Piglet said yes, you could, because his grandfather was, and it was short for Trespassers Will, which was short for Trespassers William.”
I have my grandfather’s copy of Chic Sale’s “The Specialist,” a small book published in 1929. Sale performed it as a monologue in theaters, reciting in the first person. It’s Lem Putt, a carpenter whose specialty is outhouses, informing a new customer of the many options.
“And about her roof,” I sez. “I can give you a lean-to type or a pitch roof. Pitch roofs cost a little more, but some of our best people have lean-tos. If it was for myself, I’d have a lean-to, and I’ll tell you why. A lean-to has two less corners for the wasps to build their nests in; and on a hot August day there ain’t nothin’ more disconcertin’ than wasps buzzin’ around while you’re sittin’ there doin’ a little readin’, figgerin’ or thinkin’ … And as long as we’re on furnishin’s I’ll tell you about a technical point that was put to me the other day: “What is the life, or how long will the average mail order catalogue last?” I checked up, and found that by placin’ the catalogue in there, say in January — when you get your new one — you should be into the harness section by June …”
In the early ’30s James Thurber ran an “advice column” for pet owners:
Q. No one has been able to tell me what kind of dog we have. I am enclosing a sketch of one of his two postures. He only has two. The other one is the same except he faces in the opposite direction.
A. I think what you have is a cast-iron lawn dog. The expressionless eye and the rigid pose are characteristic of metal lawn animals. And that certainly is a cast-iron ear. You could remove all doubts by means of a simple test with a hammer and chisel, or an acetylene torch. If the animal chips, or melts, my diagnosis is correct.
Does anyone remember Don Marquis or Chic Sale? Or George Ade, Milt Gross or Irwin Cobb for that matter? If so, let me know; I won’t reveal your age. And, hey, there’s a wasp on your shoulder! April Fool!
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].