Knock, knock. Who’s there? Humor in cultural history research

Baas boven Baas

Who’s the boss?

by Jesper Verhoef

One of the nicer things about doing cultural history with newspapers as primary source are the strange particularities you sometimes encounter. Humor is a case in point. Nowadays, Dutch newspapers are not expected to come up with jokes. Of course, columnist are allowed to make them, but in news sections it is simply “not done” to tickle readers in this way. If you want to laugh, you will visit a comedian – right?

This begs the historical question: has this dogma been invariable, or did it change over time? Of course, my dissertation will provide some thorough answers. But I will offer a sneak preview, by exploring an article culled from the digitized corpus of the National Library of the Netherlands. This tiny example is taken the a 1937 issue of the local newspaper Limburger Koerier:


Baas boven Baas

Baas boven Baas: who is the better man? (Limburger Koerier, 15 May 1937)




















For those who are unable to read Dutch I will repeat the jest. The article tells a joke about two persons who quibble over the matter who was the better man. Former American president Hoover, one argues — clearly referring to the alcohol prohibition in the United States from 1920 to 1933 — for he learned the Americans not to drink. To which the other responds: that is nothing compared to Stalin, for he learned the Russians not to eat.

Reading this article, I could not help but smile.  Like the joke or not, blunt it is. For what reason were such jokes included into a newspaper? The answer could hardly be “for journalistic reasons.” The first answer that pops to mind would be: offering the readers relaxation. Without internet or television,  with radio that was restricted by the state, what other ways were there to disseminate jokes on a scale like this ?

There are more substantial questions to ask about this article as well, though. Did it allude to the terror famine in the years 1932-33 in the Ukraine? Were contemporary readers informed about this catastrophe at the time? If so, it would be a crude thing to make fun of it in this manner. That is, according to our standards. The interwar years ostensibly reflected a different moral, though. Irony in newspaper articles was overt and ubiquitous, up to the point of outright sarcasm and Schadenfreude. Articles like the one cited above are to be found in all newspapers, national, regional or local.

Apart from offering news, newspapers — either explicitly or implicitly – mediated. What can we learn from an article like this? I would say a lot. Humor is of concern to cultural historical research, for it can help grasp the mentality of the Dutch population. Or as the proper cultural historical word is: mentalité, a concept on which I hope to expand in later blogs. In this case, I would say humor served the end of “othering” both America and the Soviet Union at the same time. At the risk of extrapolating too much, it might even hint at the fact that the Dutch could not conceive of state intervention in the everyday life of citizens on a scale experienced in the United States or the Soviet Union. In other words, was the Dutch ideal of the minimal state (or nachtwakerstaat) still in place during the interwar years, meaning government should interfere as little as possible in peoples’ lives? If so, how did this idea affect public opinions about state intervention elsewhere?

They say a smile carries a long way. By discussing this example, I hope to have shown how a historical smile can serve a similar end. It opens up new questions, broadens research, and is of importance to the study of mentalities.