Thursday, March 6, 2014

More Fun than a Barrel of Monkeys!!!

The Origin, Etymology, and 

History of the Phrase:

More Fun than a Barrel of Monkeys 

  Some time ago,
I saw three fellows clever, hale and spunkey,
  Taking a horn, you know; -
Sucking the monkey; -

The above excerpt from the poem, An Honest Confession, (The Salt River Journal (Bowling Green, Missouri), August 7, 1841) includes one of several idioms that may form the basis for the phrase, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys.”

Is there a known origin of the phrase, aside from the fact that a barrel of monkeys is likely pretty funny.  It seems that the phrase may may be conjured from several, pre-existing idioms or images that all related to various combinations of fun, barrels and monkeys.  When combined in just the right way, the resultant phrase created such a perfect image in the mind’s eye that it caught on and continues to be a useful means of conveying a mood of raucus, unrestrained fun.

[(This post should be read in conjunction with my update about the related idiom, "more fun than a box of monkeys.)] 

Baby boomers and post-baby boomers probably first encounter the phrase in association with popular game/toy, Barrel of Monkeys, introduced by Lakeside Toys in 1965.  Their advertising jingle assured us that, “nothing’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys.”  But the phrase did not start there; in 1965, the phrase, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” was already nearly ninety years old.

The phrase had earlier been used in advertisements for Velvet Tobacco, beginning in 1919, and for a line of humorous postcards in 1907. By the mid-1890s, the phrase was well-established, appearing regularly in print.  Here's one example, from the Daily Public Ledger (Maysville, Kentucky), January 20, 1893:

“Bub Brown, a river man, poor, honest and industrious, stole his sweetheart, Miss Anna Collins, aged 30 and worth $2,000, and at the end of a sleighride married her Covington.  When they returned to Ludlow, “Bud’s” mother-in-law met him with pet names and a pair of fists, and there was more fun than a barrel of monkeys.  Instead of “cleaving to his wife” as the law directs, Brown climbed the back fence and lit out.

The year 1893 seems to have been some sort of watershed year for the phrase, at least as judged by its appearance in searchable databases.  The phrase appears frequently during and after 1893, but only sporadically prior to 1893. 

The phrase first appeared in print in 1881.  It is used in Henry McAlpin’s, The Messenger: A History of the Class of 1881, of Princeton College, (H. Holden, New York, 1881) and in a newspaper article in the Richmond Democrat (Richmond, Missouri).  In both cases, the phrase was set apart in quotations, which suggests that the writers may have considered the phrase was new, slang or a figure of speech.

The Messenger recounts a freshman-year, after-curfew prank that involved a plot to steal the fly-wheel from Princeton University's pipe organ.  They did not want to start too early, because they thought that the guards would fall asleep later in the evening.  To kill time before the appointed hour, they decided to go duck hunting, with rocks, at a quarry in the Jugtown section of Princeton.  The organizer of the outing assured everyone that they, "would have more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

The duck hunt took place during the class of '81's freshman year, which would have been the 1877-1878 school year.  If the 1881 recollection of the use of the phrase is accurate, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys" may have been in current use among Princeton freshmen as early as 1877.  And no, they did not succeed in stealing the flywheel.  They did, however, eat several ducks for dinner the next evening.

The author, Henry McAlpin, Princeton ’81, was a member of the McAlpin family of Savannah Georgia.  The McAlpins owned the Hermitage Plantation and a brick manufacturing plant.  Henry’s grand-father, Henry McAlpin, is said to have built the first railway in the United States, a short track with a car pulled by horses that was used to move a building from one brick kiln location to another.  After Princeton, the younger Henry studiedlaw at Columbia and the University of Georgia and became a judge.

[(The phrase, "more fun than a box of monkeys," first appeared at about the same time.)]

A second appearance of the phrase from 1881 appears in a brief report of a visit to Excelsior Springs from the June 30 edition of the Richmond Democrat:

Richmond was well represented at Excelsior Springs, last Sunday.  Murry McDonald and Miss Lula Hughes, "Bush" Hughes and Miss 'Phene Scholl, John Mosby and Miss Blanche Sayre, Chas. Scholl and Miss Enna Wilson, "took in" the town in all its vastness, and they had "more fun than a barrel of monkeys."  The "redeeming feature" and "the group" were lovely - as beautiful as a glimpse of Paradise.

The use of quotes around "took in" and "more fun than a barrel of monkeys" seems to suggest that the phrases were thought to be slang or figures of speech.  Or, perhaps, the writer heard the word from one of the members of the party.  The nicknames used in the article ("Bush" and 'Phene (presumable short for Josephine)) and the reference to the women as Miss, suggest to me that the members of the group were young people.  Perhaps the phrase was young-person slang at the time, or perhaps they had heard the phrase at school out east or from friends out east. 

The "redeeming feature" mentioned in the article is likely the mineral springs that had been discovered the previous year; Excelsior Springs, Missouri now claims to be the home of the world's longest mineral water bar!

An 1886 newspaper article further suggests that the phrase was believed to be of American origin.  The article recounts a conversation between an American, Wyoming Steele, and an Englishman, Cecil Cameron. The two are engaged in a conversation about a poster advertising Monsieur Blitzini, "Prestidigispiritiste."  Blitzini was a magician who had debunked seances performed by other "spiritualists," but who had himself, during his research into seances, discovered the existence of ‘actual’, invisible spirits, or Genii, who helped him with his act – I imagine Monsieur Blitzini to have been something like Woody Allen’s character, Sid Waterman, in the movie Scoop.

     The American says, "Cecil, . . . this is tall talk, but I like it." 

     The Englishman replies, "Steele, . . . I think it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys." 

     To which the American remarks, "it is very stange, . . . how well he can talk American.  
     Much better than I do, in fact."

So, the phrase, “more fun than a barrel of monkeys,” was American and was in current use among, or at least in relation to, young people in places as far-flung as New Jersey and Missouri in 1881 (or perhaps as early as 1877).  But is there more to the origin beyond the obviously funny image?

The impulse to create the phrase may have been influenced by several phrases or well-known images that suggest an association among fun, barrels and monkeys.  Prior to 1881, the phrase, “barrel of fun,” was in use, monkeys had long been associated with barrel organs, a famous New York monkey was known to have performed on top of a barrel, and the expression, “sucking the monkey,” was used to refer to drinking rum from a barrel.

The phrase "barrel of fun" was known and used before it was extended to monkeys in barrels. In 1880, for example, a military band was said to have had a "barrel of fun":

"Cofield's Battery C Cornet Band was out on a serenading expedition Sunday evening.  It was by no means such "a starry night for a ramble" as the familiar song describes, for the darkness was inky and the rain poured down in fitful showers, but the boys rambled nevertheless, and had a barrel of fun."

The Donaldsonville Chief (Donaldsonville, Louisiana), March 13, 1880.

A reunion held in 1878 was said to have been, "[s]everal barrels of fun, unheaded." The Home Journal (Winchester, Tennessee), September 12, 1878, page 3.

In 1861, an advertisement for a recently opened general store bragged that:

Their clerks are as busy as a monkey in a tar barrel, dealing out goods to the crowds of customers that come there daily.

The Jeffersonian Democrat (Chardon, Ohio), April 19, 1861, page 2.

Monkeys had long been associated with barrel-organs, the type of organ commonly played by organ grinders. For example, an 1853 story, reprinted in The Belmont Chronicle (St. Clairsville, Ohio) on July 21, 1854, included:

“’Och, murther!’ cries Neal, shakin’ his hand wid the black lobsther clingin’ to it, an’ he skippin’ about like a monkey on a barrel-organ.”
Again, I am reminded of Woody Allen, thistime in the Lobster scenes in Annie Hall.  While barrel organs are not barrels, the word barrel is at least associated with monkeys.  

The March 24, 1871, edition of The Sun (New York) reported on the theft of the famous monkey, Jocko:

"Osdanndien Jean Baptiste Genorken, an Italian organ grinder living at 41 Laurens Street, had a monkey, which used to sleep with him.  He called him Jocko, and had brought him from Italy, having purchased him in Genoa at a cost of $100.  He valued him above all price.  Jocko since his arrival here has made a local reputation for himself.  What little New York boy does not know the monkey which shoots off a gun, plays on a banjo, cymbals, and harp, and performs all kinds of tricks, while standing on a little round barrel?  Jocko was indeed an invaluable monkey to his master."

And yes, they caught the thief when he tried to sell the monkey to a pet shop on Greene Street.

An 1855 article about an organ-grinder referred, specifically, to a “funny monkey” and also makes reference to how common organ-grinders were:

The monkey, it is needless to add, was the “bright particular star,” and to say the least, a funny monkey it was.

The organ man continued to “crank” music as an accompaniment to the superior performances of the long tailed animal, which in the course of five or ten minutes, won for itself a reputation for smartness exceeding that of all his many predecessors combined.

The Evening Star (Washington DC), April 5, 1855.
Finally, “suck the monkey,” is another factor that created an association among and between barrels, monkeys and fun.  A slang dictionary from the period defined, "suck the monkey,” as, "to rob a cask of liquor by inserting a straw through a gimlet hole, and sucking a portion of the contents." The Slang Dictionary, John Camden, Hotten, Picadilly, London (1864).
The following excerpt from, An Honest Confession, illustrates the use of the idiom:

  Some time ago,
I saw three fellows clever, hale and spunkey,
  Taking a horn, you know; -
Sucking the monkey; -
Or whatso'er you call it when we blow;
  There's nothing strange in drinking,
For all men drink; -
  Some till they blink,
But I've a way of thinking,
That more get corded than
  Parsons dream of
Who shew long faces with their steam off.

Salt River Journal (Bowling Green, Missouri), August 7, 1841.

[(For additional information on the origin of "more fun than a barrel of monkeys," see my update on "more fun than a box of monkeys.")]

So, in review, 
     a barrel of fun, 
        funny monkeys with barrel organs or on top of barrels, 
         sucking monkeys, drinking from a barrel, 
            getting drunk, having fun – 
                 how much fun? - 
                      more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
TV Advertisement - 1965 (at 2:45)

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