July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
Gallows Humor from the First October Catastrophe
Topical jokes follow hard upon national disasters and traditionally are first heard on the floors of stock exchanges. In one theory they are invented by convivial men with nothing else to do until 10:00 A.M. ; in another they are the harsh amusements of an unsentimental trade. What’s remarkable is that the jokes keep coming even when the stock exchange itself is the victim of the disaster. The most widely admired current specimen cites the difference between a yuppie and a pigeon (a pigeon can still leave a deposit on a BMW). The New York Times ran a series of stock market disaster jokes within two weeks of Black Monday, concluding its survey with a vintage example from the 1929 debacle that had a businessman telling his secretary to get his broker on the phone and the secretary saying, “Certainly, sir. Stock or pawn?”
This set me to seeking other jokes that followed the crash of ’29, arbitrarily cutting off my search in April 1930, when stocks had recovered a good deal of their value and before the Great Depression had settled in.
George Orwell called any bound volume of old magazines the closest we can come to a time machine. Glancing through the pages of the humor magazines of the day, one is startled to find that the time machine’s door opens on a better, jauntier version of 1987.
Some of this is an accident of fashion history: the girls in these magazines are all slim and leggy, and their bobbed hair looks stylish to the eighties’ eye; the men seem to have dressed exactly as they do today, except for the occasional figure in plus fours. The sexual humor is brisk and at times explicit. There is the feeling of a moneyed, sophisticated, and confident American culture. There is a predictably eerie sense of the hammer about to fall on this world, but these folks don’t seem to deserve it; their prosperity looks to be such a cheerful one.
And they didn’t see their doom come on them, even months after it had hit. Only that journal of radical opinion New Masses had the vision to perceive the very dark time ahead, but that may have been a case of the stopped clock being right twice a day. Vanity Fair ran a trenchant piece soon after but didn’t dwell on the subject until 1932, when John Maynard Keynes spoke solemnly on “Banks and the Collapse of Money Values.” The Saturday Evening Post ran a cartoon in praise of bonds that was as radically unfunny and incomprehensibly crowded as something from the days of the Whigs. The most prolific commentator was the surprisingly lively Judge .
Most strangely, The New Yorker ran very few cartoons about the crash. In the best of them, a prim, weedy fellow voices pompous satisfaction over the humbling of the arrogant exchange. New Yorker readers of the day laughed at the little man. But the joke was on them. Nothing would be very funny—not in that season’s jaunty, careless moneyed idiom anyway—for a long time to come.