Our Ancestors’ Riddles and Jokes of the 1850s

Introduction: In this article, Mary Harrell-Sesniak searches old newspapers to find jokes, riddles and “conundrums” our ancestors enjoyed in the 1850s. Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.

I recently posted two articles about jokes and riddles of the 1830s and 1840s (see links at the end of this article), and would now like to share conundrums from the subsequent decade – the 1850s.

While reading these riddles, I noticed that many made fun of celebrities. Jokes about local celebrities were commonplace – but unless you knew who they were, you might not get the meaning. Better-known celebrities, such as P. T. Barnum (1810-1891), also ended up in the papers. For example, notice the clever play on words for his name in this conundrum.

A riddle, Manchester Daily Mirror newspaper article 14 February 1852
Manchester Daily Mirror (Manchester, New Hampshire), 14 February 1852, page 2

Jokes provide insight by reflecting cultural choices. For instance, could you answer this conundrum? Why is a six-foot woman with a baby like a certain outside garment? The answer is: Because she is a talma (a tall ma.) This definition of a talma is provided by “The Free Dictionary”:

A screenshot from "The Free Dictionary" website showing a definition for the word "talma"
Source: The Free Dictionary

As the popularity of conundrums grew, so did the number of contests that sprung up around the globe. Maybe one of your ancestors attended a concert or public venue, hoping to win a prize for their wit. Imagine winning an expensive prize at one of these humor contests, such as the silver goblet that was presented at Exeter Circus in England.

An article about a conundrum contest in England, Litchfield Republican newspaper article 5 April 1855
Litchfield Republican (Litchfield, Connecticut), 5 April 1855, page 1

Want a fun activity for your next family gathering, genealogy meeting or family reunion? If so, download and print this joke quiz. Even the cleverest among us will find this challenging – and it could be amusing to read quips and responses. Let’s see if you can answer these jokes I’ve chosen to represent each year of the 1850s. You’ll find the answer key at the end of this article.

A quiz showing jokes from the 1850s

Here is another conundrum for you to ponder.

A riddle, Memphis Daily Eagle and Enquirer newspaper article 14 January 1854
Memphis Daily Eagle and Enquirer (Memphis, Tennessee), 14 January 1854, page 2

The answer key follows!

A quiz showing jokes from the 1850s, with the answer key

Here is one more conundrum for you to ponder.

A riddle, Ohio Farmer newspaper article 6 August 1859
Ohio Farmer (Cleveland, Ohio), 6 August 1859, page 7

Hope you enjoyed these clever conundrums from the 1850s!

The same jokes were often printed in newspapers around the country. If you go look for them in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, you’ll find them easily, as the one above about a dog wagging his tail. It reminds me of: Why did the chicken cross the road? The familiar answer we all know is: To get to the other side.

If any readers can think of original genealogy-related conundrums, let us know in the comments section. Here’s one I found in the 28 December 1882 edition of the Muskegon Chronicle (Muskegon, Michigan). Hint: If you don’t know the answer, you’ll have to look it up.

Why is a genealogist like a grammarian?

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