Looking for a few good laughs to drive the cold winter away?  Look no further than the pages of an early-nineteenth-century newspaper.  People liked a good chuckle then as much as now, and no age in American history was more addicted to elegant witticisms, puns, and bon mots.

Sailors and their friends seem to have been the butt of many a tale.  This choice piece comes from the February 15, 1808 edition of Suffolk Gazette (printed in Sag Harbor, New York).

A painter was employed in painting a West-India ship in the river, suspended on a stage under the ship’s stern. The captain, who had just got into the boat along-side, for the purpose of going ashore, ordered the boy to let go the painter (that is, the rope which makes fast the boat).  The boy, (who had never been to sea, and was ignorant of the term) ran instantly aft, and let go the ropes by which the stage was held.  The captain, surprised at the boy’s delay, cried out, “You lazy dog, why don’t you let go the painter?”  The boy replied, “He’s gone, Sir, pots and all.

If slapstick is not your thing, perhaps this zinger from the Farmer’s Register of Troy, New York, is more your type.  In 1815, as soon as the war with Great Britain ended, the United States sent a powerful squadron, under the command of Commodore Stephen Decatur, to finally put an end to the attacks of the Barbary States of North Africa.  As it had done a decade before, the American squadron touched at Gibraltar.  That’s the background- the rest is pure bluster:

At the time Decatur arrived in sight of Gibraltar, a great number of British officers and citizens, and among them an American gentleman, were assembled on an eminence to view the American fleet.  Decatur entered the harbor with his squadron in a very handsome stile [sic]; sailed round, and went out again without coming to anchor- his object being merely to make signals to the sloop of war Ontario.  The British officers were very desirous of knowing the names of the vessels of the squadron as they approached.  The shrewd American pretended to know every vessel the moment he saw her broadside, and they crouded [sic] around him for information.  The first frigate, he said, was the Guerriere; the second, the Macedonian; the third, the Java; the next was the Epervier; the next the Peacock; – and the next – “oh, damn the next,” they exclaimed, and immediately moved off, highly disgusted with the names of the vessels of the Yankee squadron.

That is to say, using another phrase so popular at the time, “put that in your pipe and smoke it!”

The Author(s)

Matthew Brenckle
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum

Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.