Satirical publications in the United States date back at least to the nation’s founding and well before. American readers found satire of politics, popular culture, and contemporary American life, both literary and graphic, in books, newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets. In the 19th century, printed satire turned particularly irreverent as publications dedicated to critical humor gained popularity.
With that jocular and timely spirit, a group of New York artists and writers began meeting as the Fraternity Club, a literary and social group for men and women, in about 1869 and continued to work together during the 1870s. Club members contributed in a round-robin fashion to a handwritten magazine now held at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library. The club produced seven volumes of humorous poems, essays, short stories, sketches, watercolors, and farcical articles and advertisements, ostensibly for enjoyment and amusement between friends. Few other details are known about the origins or purpose of the club.
In 1957, William Gibbons Morse, son of James Herbert Morse (1841-1923), a classical scholar, poet, essayist, and member of the Fraternity Club, donated seven volumes of the magazine to New-York Historical. (The New York Public Library holds additional volumes of the manuscript magazine.)
The first several issues featured debates concerning the best name for the "publication" by way of various theatrical editorials. Eventually, the group settled on calling their magazine The Fraternity. Here are a few artistic renderings of potential covers and titles created by the groups’ members.
Mrs. H. B. Brown wrote a caustic editorial titled "Our Home" for one volume of The Fraternity. Brown stressed that their magazine must have a high moral tone "as that maintained by the Sun, the Herald and other evangelical organs." The article criticized the supposed virtue and truthfulness of these contemporary newspapers, along with the religious institutions they emulated. Brown disclosed to readers that The Fraternity employed "a force of detectives" made up of cooks, chambermaids, butlers, valets, and other domestic laborers "furnished with skeleton keys and jimmies" to bring confidential information about those newspapers to their editors.
Brown’s sharp-tongued article also named many well-known New York figures who had been previously linked to salacious gossip and repeated stories that were purposefully off the mark to be comical, or, in some cases, facetiously too close to the mark.
"We are also on track of a secret correspondence between Horace Greeley [editor of the New-York Tribune] and the Emperor Napoleon [Emperor Napoleon III of France], looking to the elevation of an imperial throne in America; with the same H. G. as its occupant. This is, so far, hardly more than conjecture. There is more ground for the rumor that a leading member of the Health Board has been accused of poisoning the water in the 5th Ave. reservoir, and that Mr. Bergh [Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)] mediatates the design of hamstringing the horses attached to private carriages, in order to establish an aristocracy of beasts of burden."
One of the more whimsical illustrations depicted the mock invention of aeronautic chignons, hairstyles for women supported by balloons that would lift them off the ground "Designed for use in crossing the Asphlatum Pavements." After the Civil War, asphalt paving quickly spread across Manhattan and by 1870, it had already earned its detractors who feared the speeds that drivers could reach on this new smooth surface. In the illustration, a large pothole in the bottom left corner and a speeding carriage in the distance suggest the dangers that women faced when trying to cross a street paved with asphalt. The solution, suggested the artist, was for women’s hairstyles to expand to hold balloons so that they could float above the fray.
Designed for use in crossing the Asphlatum Pavements.
The most ingenious invention of the Age!
These Water-falls are nothing more or less than miniature balloons made in a form to represent the present style of chignon.
[...] They are inflated by means of a tube artfully concealed in a solitary curl worn behind the ear, into which the wearer blows until the chignon being sufficiently charged, she is gently lifted a few feet from the ground and carried forward (according as she steers herself) until she lets herself down by turning the valve and letting the curl go and the air escape.
Any lady letting go of the curl without first turning the valve will ascend to heights more or less inconvenient according to her weight, and, deprived of her power to steer herself, may be taken into embarrassing directions. A young lady of very light weight was recently saved from being caught in the rooster on the steeple of a church, corner of 5th Avenue and 29th St. by the presence of mind of a gentleman who borrowed from a self-sacrificing lady her aeronautic chignon and mounted thereby to the afflicted girl's rescue!"
Many more prominent New Yorkers published pieces in the magazine of the Fraternity Club including members of the Bigelow, Coan, McKim, Putnam, and Sewall families. There are even more names credited within the volumes that have yet to be identified–and a treasure trove of essays, poems, and drawings to consider and research for their historical, artistic, and literary significance.
Crystal Toscano is Reference Librarian for Printed Collections at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New-York Historical Society.