As part of my job, I often receive emails asking if the historical society has a certain resource or asking for a small amount of research. Most of these requests have to do with family genealogy or the history of our fine county. Last week, I received an unusual request. An independent researcher was looking for the original appearance of the following story:
“A horse ran away at the railroad depot, in Philadelphia, yesterday, and knocked down seventeen persons, each one belonging to a different Pinafore company about starting on a country tour.”
The short little joke appeared in newspaper across the country and was attributed to Montgomery County’s very own Norristown Herald and Free Press (today known as the Times-Herald). The researcher, Russ Sype, an expert on Gilbert and Sullivan who’s working on a book about H.M.S. Pinafore in the U.S., wanted to find the original appearance.
So, I went to our microfilm collection and loaded the 1879 reel onto our microfilm scanner. If you’ve never had an opportunity to read a nineteenth-century newspaper, they were little different from today.
You’re probably not surprised that there are no photos or even drawings, but there are also no headlines. Headlines start appearing in newspapers at the end of the nineteenth century when the number of newspapers increased, when they had to compete for readers.
In fact, there isn’t even much news on the front page. There are several fictional stories on this front page and part of a continuing series on ancient mythology. On the right hand side is news from the literary world and a section called “Editorial Etchings.” Page 2 usually contains national news and often more Editorial Etchings, while local news, including train schedules and social announcements appear on page three. The back was mostly advertisements for ready made clothes, patent medicines, and anvils.
I while searching for the story, I concentrated on the Editorial Etchings, since most of the items there were short and humorous.
Sorry about blurriness; the microfilm is old and the original type is very small (I should also apologize for reproducing such awful jokes). It took me a while to find the piece I was looking for, but in the meantime, I found nearly a dozen other references to H. M. S. Pinafore. The editors at the Herald were obsessed with it. According to Sype, all of America was obsessed with Pinafore. He explained that the operetta debuted in Boston in late November of 1878 and in early 1879 “an armada of touring companies” worked their way around the United States. It was even translated into Pennsylvania Dutch for a performance in Reading.
Here are some of the quotes I found:
This one was from the "Philadelphia News" section:
And my personal favorite:
I suspected right away that many of these touring companies weren’t paying royalties for their performances, and according to Wikipedia, that’s correct. The U.S. generally didn’t recognize international copyright, and Americans often pirated European works.
With all of this obsession, I was hoping to find evidence of a performance here in Montgomery County during this initial period of enthusiasm, but so far no luck.
I did find evidence that the enthusiasm for Pinafore did not wane. We have in our collection a scrapbook kept by Margaret Blackfan, an avid theater-goer from Norristown. She kept programs from all the performances she attended and clipped newspaper articles about the theater in Norristown and Philadelphia. These two articles, about two different productions of Pinafore, appeared in the same newspaper. The article is undated, but the scrapbook was produced between 1896 and 1899.
Now, I think I'll go home and reaquaint myself with H.M.S. Pinafore.