Alaska Life

Was Anchorage funny? We went back more than a century to find out

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Clothing, politics, entertainment and language, almost everything about our sometimes shared, sometimes fractured culture, is constantly evolving, changing due to technology, context, whims and chance. Humor is no exception, which made me curious. How has humor evolved in Anchorage, and were early residents very funny? That is, would current residents find the jokes of more than 100 years ago amusing? So, this article is something of an experiment.

The best source for early Anchorage humor is the Anchorage Daily Times, long the dominant local newspaper before its 1980s circulation war with the Daily News and subsequent 1992 closure. Early Anchorage was a small town with few extant journals, memoirs or other such documentation from the period. Unfortunately, these few non-newspaper sources fail to provide an overview of comedy as best performed or enjoyed in the nascent railroad hub. Therefore, with little other choice, I randomly reviewed Daily Times issues from 1917 to 1924 and collected some of the jokes therein.

Jokes were a frequent component of newspapers back then. Before radios, newspapers were the most widely available form of both entertainment and information. The Daily Times of 1917 to 1924 was thus typical of Alaska newspapers then, a widely variable mixture of hard news, lowest-level gossip, advertising, outright fiction, loud political takes and pure humor. In other words, newspapers had to be everything.

Many of the jokes in the old Daily Times took the form of humorous banter in one of the two classic locations of public debates: bars and classrooms. Sometimes, the names were of actual residents; other times, they were made up. Here, a senior student has a conversation with a freshman. “Senior: Have you any bird seed? Freshie: Go on smarty, you can’t fool me. Birds don’t grow from seeds.”

The effort to create such a — hopefully — witty dialogue was sometimes apparent in the product, as with this mild bit of humor from 1918. “I wonder if you could?” mused the Rummy, as he stirred his high ball.

“You wonder if you could what?” demanded the Barkeep, as he grabbed an empty beer bottle.


“Why, if you attend a spiritualistic séance, and the dame who ran the place was laughing and telling jokes, and you hit her on the nose, I wonder if you could say you were striking a happy medium?” said the Rummy as he headed for the door.

Some jokes work like a surprise, leading the audience in one direction before turning the premise on its head.

“Where did you go on your vacation?” inquired the visitor.

“I did not go anywhere on it. I went on the train,’ answered the truthful youngster.”

Or for another example: “Your jokes are old,” said the sarcastic critic. “Maybe they are,” replied the optimist, “but the roasting they get always freshens them up.”

A century ago, few dark jokes were fit for print. If the Daily Times ran material considered too risqué or promoting illegal acts, the post office might well have refused to carry it. In this way, Anchorage Postmaster Herbert Brown briefly refused to deliver issues of local newspapers in 1949 after they carried updates on the Nenana Ice Classic. Until convinced otherwise, the Postal Service thought the Classic was an illegal lottery.

This joke is about as dark as the Daily Times would print. “Mr. Bouck (in Civics) — If the president and vice-president both died who would get the job. Voice (in back of room) — The undertaker!” If everyone in the line of succession dies, we can only hope that the undertaker rules the survivors fairly.

As it happens, people with a dark or morbid sense of humor may be smarter than the rest of the population. According to a 2017 article in the cognitive science journal Cognitive Processing, “Black humour preference and comprehension are positively associated with higher verbal and nonverbal intelligence as well as higher levels of education.” In short, understanding and appreciating black humor requires a complex and correspondingly rare mixture of information processing and emotional intelligence.

Devoid of darker humor, almost all the jokes published by the Daily Times are light and almost innocent, free of innuendo or slur.

Miss Protz: “Alice, what are you chewing?”

Alice: “Ugh, nothing.”

Miss Protz: “That’s the first time that I knew you could chew nothing.”

While the jokes in the Anchorage newspaper might reflect some aspects of contemporary humor, they clearly do not represent the uncouth depths of early 1900s Alaska society. The proliferation of anti-profanity ordinances in the territory suggests that fouler jokes existed, if beyond the printed pages.

Wordplay has been a part of jokes since time immemorial, including the inescapable puns. In one of the better Daily Times examples: “About a week after one of our rising young men appeared in long trousers he was heard to remark on the way to school, “My breath is still coming short pants.”

And in a classic groaner: “Why did they kick that medical student out of the library? They caught him trying to remove the appendix out of a book.”

In another example of wordplay, a man visits a store for a better mouse trap. “I wish you’d send a large mouse trap to my house.”

“Yes sir, and who is it for?”


“Don’t be silly, young man; it’s for mice, of course.”

Misunderstandings are one of the easiest ways to generate the necessary twist, an engineered setup for a punchline. “Where were you yesterday, Jimmy?” asked the teacher. “Please ma’am I had a toothache,’ answered Jimmy.

‘Has it stopped?’ asked the teacher sympathetically.

“I don’t know,’ said Jimmy.

“What do you mean, boy? You don’t know if your tooth has stopped aching?”

“No ma’am, the dentist kept it.”

Or: Little Edna was visiting the museum with her aunt. In the Egyptian room the child saw the desiccated remains of an ancient queen and asked what it was.

“That is someone’s mummy, dear,” replied auntie.


“Goodness!” said Edna. “I’m glad my mummy doesn’t look like that.”

Some of the humor more obviously died long ago, with references few would recognize today. For example, a 1923 joke read, Morris: “If any political reform takes place you may attribute it to Australia. Take for instance our balloting system, prohibition, etc.”

Wells: “Yes, even our swimmers use the Australian crawl.”

Most modern readers would require some explanations.

Before the late 19th century, most elections in the United States were handled in a far more public manner with individual votes often announced as they were submitted. Ballots were primarily printed by partisans and handed out to voters as they congregated around a polling place, more of a festival than somber civic duty. The concept of government-printed, secret ballots, which became the American norm in the waning years of the 1800s, was called the Australian ballot. Alcohol sales were banned in part of Australia several years before American prohibition. And what is now more commonly called the front crawl swimming stroke was then better known as the Australian stroke.

Some jokes are less funny than witnesses to the difficulty of writing comedy.

Bob: “Your eyes are like the deep blue sea.”

She: “Really, Robert?”

Bob: “Yes, they’re watery.”

Or, Miss Reece (to Layton who has just finished reading a composition in English II class): “Is that original, Layton?”

Layton: “No, I made it up.”

And lastly, a freshman asked a sophomore, “What are you taking this year?” The sophomore replied, “Everything I can get my hands on.”


In Shakespeare’s time, his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon possessed about the same number of residents as 1920 Anchorage, around 2,000 inhabitants. If this ratio of legendary authors per capita held true for Anchorage, then the should-have-been local champion died as a child, never learned to read, or otherwise was never granted the necessary opportunity.

The position of newspaper editor in a small town meant intimate relationships with the readers and, ultimately, little thanks. He could not be funny, wise, general, or specific enough to please everyone. In 1921, likely in a moment of self-pity, Charlie Herron of the Daily Times published something just for himself. Titled “The Harassed Editor,” the piece ran in Anchorage on Dec. 28, 1921. “If I print jokes, folks say I am silly — if I don’t they say I am too serious. If I publish original matter, they say I lack variety — if I publish things from other papers, they say I am too lazy to write ... What in thunderation is a poor editor to do anyhow? Like as not, someone will say I swiped this from an exchange. So I did!”

In conclusion, here is a short joke from the March 16, 1923 edition. “We have never seen a man who was so absent-minded that he forgot to laugh at his own jokes.”

Neither have I. Whether or not Anchorage residents a century ago were timelessly funny will depend upon the reader, then as now.

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Key sources:

Brent, Peter. “The Australian Ballot: Not the Secret Ballot.” Australian Journal of Political Science 41, no. 1 (2006): 39-50.


“The Harassed Editor.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 28, 1921, 7.

“Postmaster Bans Local Newspapers from Mails.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 12, 1949, 1, 6.

Willinger, Ulrike, et al. “Cognitive and Emotional Demands of Black Humour Processing: The Role of Intelligence, Aggressiveness and Mood.” Cognitive Processing 18 (2017): 159-167.

David Reamer | Histories of Alaska

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.