America’s First Comedy Magazine: ‘The Bee’

thebeePeople are increasingly turning away from content and comedy on paper in favor of content on the Internet. Weird, right? Comedy nerds may one day ask, “What was the last American comedy magazine to appear in print,” and maybe those nerds will land on Mad, which is still alive, if not kicking.

Over the past couple of months, I became interested in a different question though: what was the first comedy magazine to appear in America? So, thus aroused, I walked over to the Internet, bought a copy of American Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals, (David Sloane, editor) and dove in.

The award for first comedy magazine, according to Sloane, goes to a weekly publication called The Bee. It “crushed” The Onion in the “race” to American newsstands by a margin of 223 years. The Bee wasn’t as long-lived though: three issues appeared in Philadelphia in 1765, and then — piff! — It vanished.

It just so happens that the rare books room at the New York Public Library has all three issues of The Bee, so I popped in for a look. I signed an oath not to stand on any tables, and moments later a librarian produced The Bee. For a comedy egg-head like me, leafing through the 250-year-old pages was a real zoot alors moment. The Bee was only the 13th magazine ever published in America, back when we were just a steaming pile of colonies.

Inscriptions in the NYPL’s volume of The Bee suggest it was acquired in 1908 for $6.50 (about $175 in 2014 dollars). I asked Timothy Hughes, a dealer in rare newspapers, what it would sell for today.

“I would guess a volume with all three issues might bring $8,000 to $10,000 in auction? It’s always difficult to guess.”

The Bee was something of a novelty even when it appeared. Philadelphia was experiencing a boom in pamphlet-printing in 1764 (overtaking Boston based on annual volume), but The Bee was one of only seven indigenous colonial magazines between 1760 and 1774.

The word “magazine,” by the way, comes from the Arabic word for “store house,” and the first magazine to call itself one was London’s The Gentleman’s Magazine or Monthly Intelligencer, in 1731.

The Bee was founded and written by “William Honeycomb,” which was a pseudonym. It was printed and published by Anthony Armbruster, who was a former business partner of the colonies’ most famous printer, Benjamin Franklin.*

Fate served Armbruster a variety of shit sandwiches, however, with ingredients inclusive of divorce, debtors prison, a falling out with Franklin, and failed business efforts.

From the American Antiquary Society’s Archaeologica Americana:

“Many accounts are given of his extraordinary conduct when he was afflicted with mental derangement.”

Armbruster was convinced that “Blanchard and other pirates” had buried treasure in “the Delaware and other rivers.” He and “a number of his associates” spent long hours in “fruitless searches” for the treasure.

Maybe he should have changed his name to Arrrrrgh-bruster?

Anyway!

The Bee appeared on February 12, February 19, and March 7, totaling 22 pages. The number of copies printed is unknown. With text-heavy 6 1/4” by 3 3/4”pages, it didn’t resemble what we think of today as a magazine.

Like other American magazines of the era, The Bee was concerned with politics and moral behavior. Unlike most colonial periodicals, The Bee featured exclusively original material. Up to three-quarters of a typical American paper’s or magazine’s content at the time was reprinted material.

Politically, The Bee embraced English rule over the colonies. It also reflected a period of tension in Pennsylvania between frontier folk in the west and city folk to the east; these tensions would get wrapped up into the revolutionary bonfire.

Honeycomb wrote in issue 1 that The Bee was intended for farmers and tradesmen, and that its mission was to terrify wealthy and powerful bullies by exposing their nefarious deeds. He accomplished this in collaboration with a talking bee that buzzed around, gathered the town’s dirt, and then relayed it to him.

According to Honeycomb, one thing you definitely did not want to do to the poor if you were a hot-shot guy in Philadelphia was grind their faces:

“If … a great man should grind the face of the poor, or cheat them out of their lands, he might as well immediately take a rope and hang himself.”

Honeycomb then moved on to describe his own background and his own ass, which was apparently enormous. He took his affliction somewhat in stride though:

“I comfort myself under this misfortune by the following reflections, that I could not avoid it; that there are famous men, in history, remarkable for the same defect; among them are King Richard, and Alexander Pope, Esq…”

Poor guy!

Issue 2 contains a pseudo-letter to Honeycomb from an alleged reader praising the colony’s governor John Penn and the Proprietary Party, and a brief rebuttal from Honeycomb. Issue 3 described a meeting in a tavern to which the “provincial praetor” invites “all the drunkards, whoremasters, prophanic swearers, rakes, bucks, bloods, fops…” and other gross people. It ends with a brief note from a reader about the abuses of one Sir John Brute.

One of the striking features of The Bee is its many references to English and Irish satire. Alexander Pope is mentioned three times; Sir John Brute is a character in the English play The Provoked Wife; Sir Hudibras, in issue 1, is pinched from a satirical poem by Samuel Butler; and there’s a quote from the Anglo-Irish satirist Nahum Tate.

There is also a mention of Isaac Bickerstaff, a pal of Honeycomb’s. Jonathan Swift used this pseudonym to pen a satirical almanac in 1708. The Bickerstaff character, in turn, was the inspiration for Richard Saunders, the pseudonym used by Benjamin Franklin to write Poor Richard’s Almanac, one of the most significant and widely read American publications of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The most telling English reference, however — a key to understanding not only The Bee, but the colonies’ media scene in general — is the choice of William Honeycomb as a pseudonym.

The Honeycomb narrator is almost certainly a nod to a character of the same name in The Spectator, a daily newspaper published in London from 1711 to 1712, and again in 1714. It was founded and written by two school chums, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

Each issue of The Spectator consisted of one essay, and these essays made quite a splash. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin claimed that he learned to write by reading The Spectator, and he reprinted Spectator essays in his Pennsylvania Gazette 18 years after they first appeared in London.

Addison’s essays became a distinct genre, and the Addisonian essay was standard fare in American papers and magazines. These essays were distinguished in part by their efforts to address an emerging, middle-class, mass audience that didn’t exist in the 1600s.

All of which brings us back to The Bee. If you look at this Addison essay from The Spectator, and then The Bee, it’s tempting to read the latter largely as a scruffy re-write of the former. Both narrators discuss their skin complexion, their childhoods, and their reasons for remaining anonymous. Both inherited land and then traveled abroad, and both are privy to political conversations in taverns, which they don’t participate in. The extent to which The Bee borrowed from this particular Addison essay aside, The Spectator was on the mind of The Bee’s creator.

And speaking of The Bee’s creator, who the heck was it? The Bee essays resemble others written at the time by a Philadelphia chap, Isaac Hunt, and one of Hunt’s essays is mentioned in The Bee. It also appears that Hunt and “Honeycomb” had work printed by Armbruster around the same time, and that Hunt may have used the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff. However, it’s impossible to say with certainty that Hunt was Honeycomb.

The final question I have about The Bee is whether or not it was the first American comedy magazine. Sloane profers an unequivocal “yes,” but The Bee is the second title in his bibliography, the first being the American Magazine and Monthly Chronicle, from 1757. Sloane explains this by calling American Magazine a “serious publication” with a humorous component. I’m not entirely convinced, but [shrugs].

Regardless, The Bee is a mind-bending document, and it’s a small miracle that a few copies have survived. It’s a significant, gluten-free piece of this crazy puzzle we call American comedy.

Check out all three issues in their entirety:

*Franklin founded the colonies’ second magazine, General Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, for All the British Plantations in America, in 1741.

Stephen Kosloff is the founder and editor of the satirical Hausfrau Magazine. He and a group of his peers are holding a rally at the New York Times on August 29 in an effort to levitate the TV critic Alessandra Stanley. He is also working on a book about American comedy.

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