It has been oft said in recent months that there have been worse times to be quarantined amid a pandemic than in an era in which we can simply ask a small robot to sing us most any song ever recorded, or call forth a century’s worth of filmed entertainment with a few flicks of a finger. Hell, during the height of the bubonic plague in 14th century Italy, all there was to do while you waited to see if your skin would turn black as you pooped yourself to death was sit around and tell jokes and dirty stories.
But a book recently revealed to me by my new best Twitter follow Dr. Bob Nicholson — that “historian of Victorian pop culture” who recently poured over a treasure trove of 19th century theatrical posters and shared some real gems — suggests that you really would’ve done well to be sitting around with nothing to do circa 1866. That’s when American artist, illustrator, and cartoonist Frank Bellew published The Art of Amusing, a book that answers the immortal question: What did people do with all their time before there was TV?
(The answer is “dress up their hands like tiny Scotsman and make their fingers do a dance.”)
Frank Bellew appears to have been the mid-1800s answer to Al Hirschfeld; he drew a popular caricature of Abraham Lincoln (he was a Very Tall Man, you see), was for a time incorrectly credited with inventing the patriotic figure Uncle Sam, and was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau (apparently discussing theories of utopian socialism with the latter). Yet all of these accomplishments pale in comparison to The Art of Amusing.
With this illustrated volume, he intended to do nothing less ambitious than discard boredom onto the ash heap. As the title page avows, it is “A volume intended to amuse everybody and enable all to amuse everybody else; thus bringing about as near an approximation to the Millennium as can be conveniently attained in the compass of one small volume.”
‘Tis a tall order, but I think if you peruse the complete text of the book on the Project Gutenberg website, you shall immediately see that he totally nailed it.
But oh, you say, anyone can make an elderly woman’s face with their fist, “an old affair, but very funny” that reportedly had Bellew’s friend Nix in “a very fervid condition.” But it takes a true genius to realise that the trick will be ever so much more amusing if you make a tiny bonnet, stovepipe hat, and corncob pipe with which to adorn your fist lady, like so:
The Art of Amusing is a delight not only for the sheer nonsense it contains — don’t miss page 112, which reveals the secret to “making a giant” via a method that we now know as “the Muppet Man” — but for the endless “guess you had to be there” descriptions of just how hilarious all of these amusements shall be, should you unleash them upon unsuspecting visitors to your parlor.
Take, for example, this enthusiastic recreation of the scene that followed when a gaggle of party guests encountered the strange objects of a stick that kinda looks like a dragon, I guess? And a pig made out of a lemon:
All were in a chatter over a couple of little objects on the centre-table. The one a pig manufactured out of a lemon, and the other a dragon, or what not, adapted from a piece of some kind of root our friend Nix had picked up in the garden. As will be seen, they are very easy of manufacture, and not excessively exciting when made, but they serve to set people talking. One person told the story of Foote, or some other old wit, who, at a certain dinner-table, after numerous fruitless efforts to cut a pig out of orange-peel, retorted on his friend who was quizzing him on his failure: “Pshaw! you’ve only made one pig, but (pointing to the mess on the table) I have made a litter.” Then some one else discovered a likeness between the dragon and a mutual friend, which produced a roar of laughter. Then a child exclaimed, “Oh! what a little pig!” and some one answered her: “Yes, my dear, it’s a pigmy.” Then a young lady asked how the eyes were painted, and a young gentleman replied: “With pigment.”
Oh, what mirth.
You might think I am mocking these citizens of yesteryear, but I am decidedly not. For I live in an era in which I stand upon the shoulders of giants. The accumulated knowledge of centuries is available to me with little more than a thought, and I can learn to do basically anything I want to do. I could fill these empty pandemic hours with so many worthwhile pursuits, but even if I choose not to, I could at least spend them, say, staging a “private theatrical” a la the March sisters, or making prank exploding spiders for a laugh or arguing about how long it would take someone to count to a billion (complete with elaborate equations). Instead I just ask Alexa to do my maths for me and go back to doom-scrolling and neglecting my to-read pile.
Maybe it’s time we all amuse ourselves like they did in the Victorian era. But, again, minus all of the virulent racism.