Ah, the Henpecks.
Jokes about a married couple with a domineering wife and subservient husband — named Mr. and Mrs. Henpeck — made the rounds in the late 19th century. She is the strong one; he's the weakling. She reads the newspaper; he does the dishes.
The idea of the "henpecked husband" was social shorthand for underscoring cultural expectations of men and women.
Here are three of the jokes, as told in the 1890s:
The Henpecks, who eventually became recurring characters in Vaudeville skits, seem to have surfaced as a popular trope in the 1890s. But after a change of centuries and the First World War, American society went through a transformation, according to social critic Doris Blake, writing in the Chicago Daily Tribune on Aug. 21, 1925.
"Where do you ever see those two old figures of humor that flourished a generation ago, Mr. and Mrs. Henpeck. You don't see them. They aren't anymore," Blake writes. "They have passed into historic limbo."
One person quoted in Blake's story points out that the fading away of the Henpecks "marks a great change that has come over married life." One noticeable shift, according to the article: Married men had become more sympathetic and empathetic.
Blake opines that Mr. Henpeck brought the overbearing troubles on himself. When a smart and strong-willed woman "finds herself wedded to an inferior personality and deprived by law and customs of all outlets for her energy, and of all freedom of thought, it is natural that she would turn sour and henpeck."
The contemporary wife, she continues, "knows more about men than she used to. She knows they are not easily driven, but that they can be led."
Modern women in a world with expanding possibilities "have subtler and far more potent methods of achieving their ends," she adds. "The element of comradeship bulks largely in their scheme of things."
What The Dickens?
In earlier America, the notion of henpeckery was widespread.
Catherine Golden, who teaches Victorian and American literature at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., points to a well-known book illustration. "Given Dickens's popularity with American readers," she says, "I would alert you to the illustrations of Mr. Bumble following his marriage to Mrs. Corney in Oliver Twist (1837-39). 'Mr. Bumble Degraded in the Eyes of the Paupers' is a perfect illustration of an unhappy henpecked Mr. Bumble who concludes of his marriage, 'I sold myself for six teaspooons, a pair of sugar tongs, and a milkpot.'"
The American depictions of Mr. and Mrs. Henpeck, Golden says, vanished into the vapor of history with World War I "because men suddenly had to be seen as powerful and brave soldiers, not henpecked husbands."
Cross Word Puzzle
One last gag from the Winchester, Ky., News on March 6, 1909, under the headline "Score One for Mr. Henpeck."
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