We greet it with smiles, as a friend, not a stranger,
And laugh loud and long at his old-fashioned fun.
Those worm-eaten chestnuts,
Those grizzly old chestnuts,
Those old fashioned chestnuts that used
to be fun![i]
On “American Press Humorists’ Day” at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco In 1915, the newspaper joke-writers of America tried to atone for their sins of spreading figurative “chestnuts” (tired old jokes) by joining John McLaren, who designed Golden Gate Park, to plant a literal chestnut tree.
Sheboygan Press (Sheboygan, Wisconsin), June 12, 1915, page 3.
How did a chestnut come to represent old jokes or stories? It might take some digging.
Chicago Day Book. April 5, 1915, page 28.
The joke-sense of “chestnut” dates to at least 1876. The earliest known example expressly defines the word, suggesting that its meaning was not widely known.
“Chestnut” means “old story,” or “old joke.” We don’t mean the vegetable chestnut, but the technical, ejaculatory one.
The Republican Journal (Belfast, Maine), May 25, 1876, page 2.
The next-earliest examples I could find first appear three years later, in 1879, after which it appears with increasing regularity over a span of four or five years until 1884 when, ironically, a new joke about old jokes went viral in 1884, which seems to have launched the word into widespread use. Although the expression does not seem to have been particularly common before 1884, its use was geographically widespread, appearing in newspapers from Maine to New Orleans and St. Louis to Washington DC.
Most of the early examples of “chestnut” in print relate to show business, and most of those referred to old jokes told in minstrel shows, the stand-up comics of the day.
Haverly’s Minstrels run with “eight eminent end men.” Seedy clothes and chestnut jokes prohibited.
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), January 3, 1879, page 1.
“Chestnut” was used to refer to an old song as early as 1879. In an exception to the general rule that “old chestnuts” are bad, a review of a performance by Emerson’s Minstrels referred to an “old chestnut” song as “beloved.”
It secured him another hearty encore, and then the ‘boys’ demanded “The Big Sunflower.” Billy [Emerson] declined the beloved “old chestnut,” and gave instead a new song and dance called “The Fairest of the Fair.”
Buffalo Courier, January 19, 1879, page 2.
A review of the May Fisk Variety and Vaudeville Troupe’s act criticized one particularly terrible joke.
The bone solo by Billy Diamond was about the best we ever heard, but would be better if he would leave out that terrible old chestnut, with the hull off it, that he tells about the Adams Express Company, although one man did laugh.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 17, 1879, page 8.
A review of a performance by amateur minstrels at a charity benefit event in Cincinnati praised them for not telling too many old jokes.
The end men were Bob Morgan, Nick Robers, Al Thayer and Frank Dunnie. All acquitted themselves well, and each told a fresh joke – chestnuts being barred.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 14, 1880, page 4.
An 1881 article about the state of “Irish Comedians” on the stage explained the meaning of “chestnut,” suggesting that the expression may not have been generally well-known, and notes the use of the word in show business.
After the song he exits and his partner comes in with another armful of “chestnuts,” as old jokes are called in the profession.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 31, 1881, page 6.
In addition to old stories or jokes, an “old chestnut” might also refer to an old play.
I have several good dramas, by American authors, which I would produce if I were not so certain of success next season with my – well, call it if you will – ‘old chestnut’ [(a play entitled, “My Partner”)]. The point is,” continued Mr. Aldrich, “not whether you tire of the public, but whether public tires of you. They seem to want me another year and they can have me. If they change their minds as to what they want I am ready to give them something new.”
The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, Louisiana), February 11, 1883, page 8; Boston Globe, February 18, 1883, page 4.
But for the most part, an “old chestnut” was usually a bad, old joke.
The theater was opened with a performance for the first time in English of Offenbach’s “Orpheus.” It has been translated with an entire disregard for the original meaning of the opera, and the result is a bewildering creation of lurid puns, antique jokes, “chestnuts” and slang.
Evening Star (Washington DC), December 8, 1883, page 2.
The Yankee Blade says: “Chicago has had its last circus. . . . the clowns have juggled with their hard shell chestnut jokes, and the political equilibrists have tenderly tossed the magical barrels, and now the garden city has resumed its wonted calm.”
The Marion Enterprise (Marion, New York), July 26, 1884, page 3.
A New Joke
Ironically, a new joke about old jokes went viral in late-1884, apparently launching the word into widespread use. The earliest example of the joke appeared in the Boston Folio in about September 1884.
Jenny – Why are old jokes called chestnuts? Don’t know, unless it is because they are bad-in-age. Boston Folio.
Detroit Free Press, September 11, 1884, page 8.
A more concise form of the joke went viral again in 1888.
Bad-in-age – chestnuts. New Haven News.
Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1888, page 4.
The joke spread quickly and persisted for at least a year. One writer chronicled the “Rise of the Chestnut” in a quasi-scientific, tongue-in-cheek analysis. Although none of the purported “facts” can be verified, the piece at least illustrates how ubiquitous the joke had become a year later, and how it appeared to have displaced another then-new expression, to “paint to the town red.”
. . . It is eight months or more since the chestnut joke first saw the light. Its birth is involved in obscurity, in spite of earnest efforts to trace its ancestry. In the early days of its existence it gave no sign of coming greatness. . . . [T]he tin-pan joke or the n[-word] baby joke of even date with the chestnut seemed surer of fame.
At the time the chestnut appeared the paint-the-town-red joke was at the height of its fame. Its monthly appearance in January was twenty-six thousand seven hundred and forty-six, which is surpassed only by its unprecedented November record of thirty-eight thousand nine hundred, due to the local disturbing cause of a Democratic victory that month at the polls [(to “paint the town red,” which dates to about 1882, became a Democratic campaign rallying cry during the presidential campaign of 1884)]. For the same month the chestnut appeared in public but a beggarly one hundred and eleven times. Previous to that date it was insignificant as not to seem worthy of record. Starting from this point, we see the gradual rise of the chesnut and the corresponding decline of paint-the-town-red. In February the chestnut appeared twelve hundred and forty-four times, and the paint-the-town-red appeared twenty-five thousand nine hundred and fourteen times. . . .
The following month paint-the-town-red nearly held its own, appearing twenty-five thousand seven hundred and nineteen times, but the chestnut increased to thirty-two hundred. . . . [I]n the month of May the chestnut leaped at one astonishing bound to fourteen thousand seven hundred and eighty appearances, its only one rival coming down something less than the same figure. . . .
[W]e may safely assume that the average life of the successful American joke is sixteen or, at the most, eighteen months. The subject is one of much interest, and should attract some young and enthusiastic social scientist.
Emporia Daily News (Emporia, Kansas), November 11, 1885, page 3.
But as ubiquitous as the joke became, it is only funny if you understand it. But don’t feel bad, “badinage,” a loan-word from French meaning, “playful repartee” or “banter” was much more familiar in the 1800s than it is today (I first learned the word a few years ago while researching the origins of “Brass Tacks.”). The joke resonated on several levels, accounting, perhaps, for its sudden, long-lasting and widespread success.
All jokes constitute playful repartee or banter, in other words, badinage. But even a good joke will sour with age, as do actual chestnuts. And “chestnut” was already known to have a double-meaning. The double-meaning of “bad-in-age” and similar negative effects of time on both actual and figurative “chestnuts,” combined to reinforce the pre-existing double meaning of “chestnut” in a new and humorous way.
This perfect storm of humor caught the public’s fancy, went viral, spawned a “chestnut bell” fad, secured for “chestnut” a permanent place in the language, and over time, became a tiresome old joke itself – a “chestnut.”
The specific combination of these several layers of humor may have been new in 1884, but all the constituent elements of the new joke were drawn from old jokes. “Chestnut,” as an old joke, story or song, dates to at least 1876; punning jokes comparing something physical that becomes bad with age with badinage date to at least the 1840s; and puns based on contrasting badinage with “bad in age” dates to at least 1828.
Badinage/Bad in Age
The badinage/”bad in age” pun dates to at least 1828. The earliest known example was recorded by Cornelius Webbe, an acquaintance of John Keats.[ii]
It is, perhaps, as to its conversational value, mere nonsense: it is what an ingenious punster (fracturing a French word in pieces) considers bad-in-age, and not tolerable in youth.
Cornelius Webbe, Posthumous Papers, Facetious and Fanciful, of a Person Lately About Town, London, W. Sams, 1828, page 209; reprinted in the United States in the New York Mirror, and Ladies’ Literary Gazette, Volume 6, Number 4, August 2, 1828, page 30.
Jokes based on the pun emerged quickly, and variants were still in wide circulation in the years leading up to the original “chestnut” joke.
“This is all mere badinage.”
“I don’t know, sir, whether it is bad-in-age, but I know it is bad enough, sir;” and the inspector laughed at his own pun . . . .
Middlebury Free Press (Middlebury, Vermont), May 3, 1836, page 1.
One early joke nearly anticipated the later “chestnut” joke, but with respect to slang instead of jokes, and without the extra layer of humor related to the double-meaning of chestnut that would resonate with the public. I could find only one instance of this joke.
Why is slang like cider?
Because it is bad-in-age.
Boston Post, September 16, 1841, page 2.
But most of the badinage/”bad in age” jokes follow the template established by the original pun.
Why should old people never joke?
It is bad-in-age.
Merry’s Museum, Parley’s Magazine, Woodworth’s Cabinet, and the Schoolfellow, New Series, Volume 5, Number 10, May 1858, page 159 (question) and Volume 6, Number 1, July 1858, page 29 (answer).
Some versions played-off the French origin of badinage.
Elderly people never jest or chaff in France. It is considered bad in age.
The Buffalo Commercial, September 16, 1876, page 4.
Old folks should be serious. Frivolous talk is bad-in-age.
Brown County World (Hiawatha, Kansas), March 7, 1878, page 1.
A smart uptown boy lately informed his grandfather that he didn’t like to hear him joke – “it’s bad-in-age,” he explained.
The Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina), June 6, 1879, page 3.
“My dear,” said a playful husband to his matter-of-fact wife, “what do you think of badinage as a definition of wit?” “What do I think of it?” she responded. “Well, I wonder, if wit is bad in age, what must it be in youth?”
Wilson Advance (Wilson, North Carolina), November 25, 1881, page 1.
A purported Hindu saying, published in Boston twice in the two years before the original the first chestnut/badinage joke appeared in the Boston Folio in 1884, appears unrelated but might easily have been adapted for use in a badinage pun.
He that is bad continues bad in age. A cucumber or colocynth, however ripe it becomes, is never sweet. – Hindu (Vriddha Chan akya).
Journal of Education (Boston, Massachusetts), Volume 17, Number 5, February 1, 1883, page 79.
The ground was prepared, and the humor ripe, for a new joke that would quickly grow into a “chestnut,” if not a tree. It was just waiting for someone to connect the dots.
The chestnut/badinage joke that took the country by storm in 1884 was not the first chestnut joke. A joke from 1883 apparently played-off the new sense of “chestnut,” as an old joke, suggesting that using an old joke was an easy laugh.
Autumn attic – “Chestnut jokes.”
The Coeymans Herald (Coeymans, New York), October 24, 1883, page 1.
A joke from early 1884 does not use the word “chestnut,” but the word “horse” used in the joke reads as though it might have been intended as a double-meaning allusion to a “chestnut horse” and a veiled allusion to an old joke about chestnuts.
The Same Old Joke.
About a month ago, Tom Keene performed in Austin as Richard III. Among the audience were several members of the Texas legislature. When Richard exclaimed: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse,” the solons nudged each other and whispered, “That’s an old joke. I’ve heard that one before.”
Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, Iowa), March 19, 1884, page 4.
|A Chestnut Horse. Macksville Enterprise (Macksville, Kansas), March 21, 1913, page 5.|
It’s not clear what to make of how this joke was intended or understood at the time. I might simply be commentary on the low-culture of the Texas legislators, to find humor in one of the most dramatic scenes in Shakespearean drama as delivered by one of the leading actors of the day. It might also be a play on the newer meaning of “chestnut,” as an old joke, made subtle by the elision of “chestnut” from “chestnut horse.” Read in that light, it could be seen as a veiled allusion to what was then a very old joke, perhaps the granddaddy of all chestnut jokes, about the difference between a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse, a joke so well-established by the mid-1800s that it “might have given the figurative ‘chestnut’ usage a boost.”[iii]
This ancient “chestnut” joke first gained notice in June 1808 on the floor of the House of Commons. It soon found its way into print, but with the then-prevalent, archaic spelling, “chesnut,” as opposed to the now-standard, “chestnut.”
There are two Members in the House of Commons, named Montagu Mathew, and Mathew Montagu; the former a tall handsome man, and the latter a little man. The Speaker, a few days ago, having addressed the latter as the former, Montagu Mathew observed, it was strange he should make such a mistake, as there was a great difference between them, as between a Horse Chesnut and a Chesnut Horse.
The Morning Chronicle (London), June 8, 1808, page 3.
Montague Mathew’s pun inspired an anonymous wit to “impromptu” write a humorous poem in which the new pun served as the punch line. In the poem, Tom, a brash, young law student from Eton College on Christmas break, dazzles his uncle Peter with his newly acquired skills in logic by proving, “as plain as A B C,” that “an eel pie’s a pigeon.”
“An eel pie is a pie of fish:” – “Agreed.”
“Fish-pie may be a jack-pie.” – “Well, proceed.”
“A jack-pie is a John-pie; and ‘t is done,
For every John-Pie must be a Pie-John.” (Pigeon)
“Bravo!” Sir Peter cries, “Logic for ever!
That beats my grandmother’s, and she was clever.
As reward for his cleverness, his uncle promised him a horse, a “Chesnut Horse.” Excited, Tom imagines what a “dash” he’ll cut at the Epsom races and dreams of “boots and spurs, and leather breeches, Hunting of cats, leaping rails and ditches.” But when they go out to find the horse the following morning, Tom’s dreams are dashed when his uncle gives him something much smaller and much more difficult to ride.
But no such animal the meadows cropt.
At length, beneath a tree, Sir Peter stopt;
A branch he caught, then shook it, and down fell
A fine Horse Chesnut, in its prickly shell.
“There, Tom, take that.” – “Well, Sir, and what beside?”
“Why, since you’re booted, saddle it, and ride.”
“Ride what? A chesnut?” – “Ay, come, get across;
I tell you, Tom, that chesnut is a horse –
And all the horse you’ll get; for I can show,
As clear as sunshine, that ‘t is really so,
Not by the musty, fusty, worn-out rules
Of Locke and Bacon – addle-headed fools!
Or old Malebranche – blind pilot into knowledge!
But by the laws of wit and Eton College.
All axioms but the wrangler’s I’ll disown,
And stick to one sound argument – your own.
Thus now, you’ve prov’d it, as I don’t deny,
That a pie-John’s the same as a John-pie;
What follows then? – why, as thing of course,
That a Horse Chesnut is a Chesnut Horse.”
The Ipswich Journal (Ipswich, Suffolk, England), August 13, 1808, page 4; The Spirit of the Public Journals of 1808, Volume 12, London, James Ridgway, 1809, pages 272-274 (noting it was, “From the British Press, Aug. 2.”).
The poem, and the anecdote that inspired it, were both reprinted regularly in England and the United States for many decades.
Grammarphobia.com notes that, “apart from its humorous use, the motif of the horse chestnut versus the chestnut horse cropped up frequently in serious 19th-century British and American writing as a rhetorical device for contrasting and comparing. Here’s an example: ‘No two things in nature, not a horse-chestnut and a chestnut-horse, could be more different.’ (From Maria Edgworth’s novel Harrington and Ormond, 1841.)” [iv]
A philosophy text from the 1830s used the expression as an example of a “mere pun.”
If it be merely an unexpected coincidence of sound, or any other similarity, without a general correspondence, that can magnify either object, or lead to a train of continued discovery or emotion, it is a mere pun. As when we ask the difference between “ a chest nut horse,” and “a horse chestnut,” the perfect correspondence of the words, to a very letter, the total dissimilarity of the objects, and the utter impossibility of connecting the discovery of this incongruity with any reasoning, or any emotion, occasions a momentary laugh . . . .
Silas Blaisdale, First Lessons in Intellectual Philosophy, Boston, Lincoln & Edmands, 1832, page 245.
Abraham Lincoln used the pun during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. In Quincy, Illinois, Lincoln accused Stephen Douglas and the press of mischaracterizing earlier comments of his, suggesting that he had said that whites and blacks were of “perfect social and political equality.” The future President admitted to saying that “there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence – the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man,” he denied having made a public statement on the inherent equality of the races.
[A]nything that argues me into his idea of a perfect social equality with the negro is but a species of fantastical arrangement of words by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse.
Chicago Tribune, Octob er 15, 1858, page 1.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt borrowed the same pun, crediting Lincoln instead of Montagu Mathew.
“We are holding a national election while the nation is at war – and this is the first time an election has been held under such conditions since 1864 – 80 years ago.
“Which calls to mind a remark made by Abraham Lincoln when he was campaigning against Stephen A. Douglas – a remark which is particularly timely and applicable today. Lincoln said, ‘In every way possible he tried to prove that a horse chestnut is a chestnut horse.’ It seems to me that applies very neatly to some of the Republican political oratory which has lately been agitating the air waves.”
Daily Review (Hayward, California), October 27, 1944, page 1.
The chestnut horse pun was not merely borrowed and repeated in its own right; it also inspired numerous variations on the theme with similar puns, frequently accompanied with an explicit reference back to the original.
One such joke noted how widely known the chestnut joke was, even as early as the 1830s.
Quid Pro Quo – Every one has heard the reply of Montague Matthew, when he was spoken to for Matthew Montague, - that there is a great difference between a chestnut horse and a horse chestnut; but this seems to have been forgotten, nevertheless, by an unlucky wight, who, being engaged to dine at the Green Man at Dulwich, desired to be driven to the Dull Man, at Greenwich, and lost his dinner by a quid pro quo.
Carey’s Library of Choice Literature, Philadelphia, L. Carey & A. Hart, Volume 2, 1836 page 410; The Tin Trumpet; or, Heads and Tails for the Wise and Waggish, Philadelphia, L. Carey & A. Hart, Volume 2, 1836, page 94.
One sub-class of chestnut jokes revolved around what chestnut horses might eat.
The Horse-Laugh. – Horses do not eat horse-radish; and a chestnut horse is moreover, quite a different thing from a horse chestnut.
The Wilmington Advertiser (Wilmington, North Carolina), April 8, 1841, page 1.
Are horse chestnuts proper food for chestnut horses?
Atchison Daily Patriot (Atchison, Kansas), November 17, 1870, page 1.
Never feed horse-chestnuts to chestnut horses, nor horse-sorrel to sorrel horses. You can give cream to a cream horse if you like, and the horse likes it. It is not necessary to employ a cream-pitcher to pitch hay to a cream horse . . . .
Bucks County Gazette (Bristol, Pennsylvania), July 22, 1875, page 3.
A second sub-class of chestnut jokes introduced new puns with similarly transposed words or sounds, with specific reference back to the well-known joke about chestnut horses and horse chestnuts.
What is the difference between a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse? – Exchange. This joke that appears to have come down from the middle ages is a fac-simile of the sick family conundrum that bothered Horace.
The Cincinnati Daily Star, July 18, 1879, page 2.
They say that Bagot is an ominous name for a Liberal candidate coming to catch stray votes. On the principle of the old horse-chestnut chestnut-horse story, they say I may transpose Bagot into got bag, which is what Mr. Molesworth will have got when the election is over.
Weekly Standard and Express (Blackburn, Lancashire, England), August 30, 1879, page 5.
The first defense set up by John’s eloquent counsel was that the charge was not laid in technically legal terms. A double-barrelled gun, he said, was a two barreled gun – two barrels were equal to a hogshead – ergo, agreeably to the ever-correct logical axiom that a horse-chestnut must be a chestnut horse – his client stole a hogshead gun instead of a double-barrelled gun.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), January 30, 1842, page 2.
He then made some sarcastic attacks upon the Ministry, remarking that until those great men had been seen in office together, you could no more have imagined that the Conservative-Liberals of one House were the same as the Liberal-Conservatives of the other than that a horse chestnut was a chestnut horse; a mot which excited the most intense delight in the Opposition benches.
Morning Chronicle (London, England), May 16, 1854, page 6.
A third sub-class of chestnut jokes likened the similarities of two dissimilar things (regardless of any similarity in sound) to the similarities between a chestnut horse and horse chestnut.
A Philadelphia paper says that “Mrs. Brougham is about as good an actress as Susan Cushman – and about as pretty.” How accurate is this remark the reader will known when we assure him that the two ladies – each with the strongest claims to admiration – are about as much alike as a chestnut horse and a horse chestnut!
Morning Chronicle (London, England), May 16, 1854, page 6.
Clay and Douglass. – Attention has been called to the close resemblance between Sen. Douglas’ welcome home, and the gorgeous receptions of Henry Clay by his constituents. – Argus.
The resemblance is as close as that so often remarked between a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse.
Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wisconsin), July 21, 1858, page 2.
Absent any other evidence, it seems plausible that the widespread, longtime popularity of the old joke about the differences between a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse might possibly, standing alone, have been the main inspiration for the later figurative usage of “chestnut.” But if it merely gave “the figurative ‘chestnut’ usage a boost,” as suggested by Grammarphobia.com, there must have been some other, independent origin.
The Origin Stories
There were at least five origin stories in circulation in the 1880s. The earliest I’ve found appeared before the viral “chestnut” joke of 1884. Four additional origin stories made the rounds shortly after the joke appeared; three stories appeared in The New York Sun over a two-day span in April 1885, all of which were widely reprinted or paraphrased in numerous newspapers across the country; and the last story, which was also widely reprinted and is the one most frequently cited in references addressing the origin of “chestnut,” first appeared in print two-and-a-half years later, in November 1887. Two of the origin stories tie the expression to Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, while one story relates to Chestnut Street in St. Louis. The two remaining stories both connect the expression to a line in an old play, The Broken Sword, although they differ as to who coined the expression and when.
Of the five stories, I lend more credence to a story told by a theatrical manager, named Martin W. Hanley, who dates its origin to about 1867. He gave credit to a travelling company of actors who borrowed the word from a line in the play, “The Broken Sword,” which they were performing that season. I find Hanley’s version the most credible because several details about who, when and where it happened are all corroborated by other sources. The second “Broken Sword” origin story conflicts with the historical timeline. Two of the remaining stories sound more like jokes intended to disparage rival comedians or theaters, and the final story is said to have taken place as a train entered “Chestnut Street station” in Philadelphia, a station that did not exist at the time.
In the interest of completeness, I lay out all five stories below – you be the judge.
Chestnut Street, St. Louis
An early explanation of the origin of “chestnut,” for old jokes, appeared in a St. Louis newspaper in 1881 and claims that the expression was coined in St. Louis.
The expression “Old Chestnut,” as applied to stale stories, originated in this city. The Republican is located on Chestnut street and is sometimes spoken of as “Old Chestnut.” The antiquity of its news and the venerable character of its jokes naturally fastened its sobriquet upon veteran yarns and club-room stories which had been worn out with repetition.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 3, 1881, page 4.
The Missouri Republican was, in fact, located on 3d and Chestnut streets[v], so the story has that going for it. But the story reads (to me) more like a joke written by one newspaper to denigrate a cross-town rival, instead of a serious attempt to record history. But you never know.
Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia
A similar story ascribed the coinage of “chestnut” to a legitimate actor’s criticism of the “alleged witticisms” of minstrel performers at the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
To the Editor of the Sun – Sir: I asked Commodore Tooker, the theatrical manager, today what “chestnut” meant as applied to a stale joke. He said that it was technical to the dramatic profession and originated with a once well-known comedian named Louis Mestayer, who was disgusted with the alleged witticism and the provoking repetitions of a company of negro minstrels performing in the Chestnut street Theatre, Philadelphia, when E. L. Davenport was the proprietor of that house. Soon after hearing an ancient story in the lobby of the Continental Hotel, he told the relator that the Chestnut Street Theatre had a copyright of it. Afterward the professionals present applied the term “Chestnut” to every story that they had before heard.
April 7. Robert Welling.
The New York Sun, April 8, 1885, page 2.
Absent any other explanation, this one seems plausible. But the fact that it follows basically the same formula as the St. Louis newspaper story of four years earlier suggests (to my mind, at least) that this may also be a joke intended merely to denigrate other performers, and not a true recitation of history.
I am not the only one skeptical of Mestayer’s anecdote. The day after his explanation appeared in the New York Sun, two alternate origin stories appeared in the same paper.
Chestnut Street Station, Philadelphia
One story placed the origin of “chestnut” on a railcar full of actors pulling into “Chestnut Street,” Philadelphia from Jersey City, New Jersey.
To the Editor of The Sun – Sir: Here is probably the origin of “chestnut:” Some years ago a party of actors started for Philadelphia from Jersey City. It was the fall of the year, and each member of the party bought a pocketful of chestnuts to munch on the way. Seated in a group in the smoker, it was natural that stories should be related to kill time. Finally one of the party told one of the Paleozoic age, and as if by common impulse each one of the listeners pelted the relator with a handful of chestnuts. The idea took immensely, and thereafter each man was compelled to tell a story. If it was a new one he escaped, but if an old one he was pelted unmercifully. It was a sad fact that so many old ones were told that the air was constantly streaked with flying chestnuts. Finally the best and jolliest story teller of the lot was called upon. In order to escape a pelting he made up his story as he went along. The train by this time was entering Philadelphia, and soon it came to a standstill, and the brakeman, thrusting his head through the door yelled out, “Chestnut” (meaning the street). The story teller here roared out, “You’re a d—d liar, I made that up myself.”
Such an episode was sure to be related, and in this way, I am told, the term “chestnut,” as applied to an old joke, originated.
Brooklyn, April 7. H. L. Palmer.
The New York Sun, April 9, 1885, page 2.
Critics were quick to point out an obvious flaw.
There are no steam railway tracks on Chestnut street, Philadelphia. Mr. Palmer’s version is amusing and plausible, but incorrect.
The San Francisco Examiner, June 21, 1885, page 1.
I spent some time looking through old Philadelphia city directories and could not find reference to a “Chestnut Street station” on any railroad coming in from the north. A few years later, however, in 1888, a new station, the B & O Railroad station (it’s not just a Monopoly Property) or Chestnut Street station, opened in Philadelphia.[vi] There were, however, Chestnut Street stations in Newark, New Jersey, Reading and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in St. Louis, Missouri, so it is possible that he person reciting the story misremembered the place, even if the other details were correct. But the very specific details about the place of origin and direction of travel seem unnecessary for telling the story, and may suggest that the story may have been cooked up to fit the meaning of “chestnut,” rather than an honest retelling of something that actually happened.
Perrysburg Journal (Perrysburg, Ohio), October 2, 1885, page 4.
The Broken Sword – Hanley
A third story appeared in the New York Sun in April of 1885. Several details as to who, when and where it is supposed to have happened can be corroborated.
Mr. Martin W. Hanley, the theatrical manager formerly with Harrigan & Hart, laughs at the idea that the term “Chestnut,” applied to a stale joke, originated in Philadelphia, when a minstrel company were perpetrating stale jokes on the Quakers at the Chestnut Street Theatre. He says it originated eighteen years ago.
“It was this way,” he said yesterday: “In 1867 I was travelling through this State, putting an old play, called ‘The Broken Sword,’ on the stage, with Marietta Ravel as leading lady. In the second act an old man stands in the centre of the stage telling the story of the murder of the dumb boy. John Sanford, my comedian, sits on a low stool at the left, interrupting the old man. The old man makes frequent reference to a hickory tree. Every time he says hickory the comedian gets off his stool and says, ‘No, chestnut; I tell you, chestnut,’ till the old man is exhausted. After the performance in Rochester, P. Connelly, dead now, was in one of the dressing rooms with others of the company, and he started to get off a funny story. Everybody interrupted with shouts of ‘Chestnut!’ It clung to the company all the season and, of course, was soon caught by the profession. That’s the only true origin of it.”
The New York Sun, April 9, 1885, page 2.
Hanley places the events a decade or so before the earliest known example of this sense of “chestnut” in print, so it is at least a good candidate. He said that it happened in New York state in 1867 when Marietta Ravel, John Sanford, and P. Connelly were all appearing together in a production of The Broken Sword. In 1869, all three of those people were performing together in a production of The Broken Sword in a theater in New York state, namely the Bowery Theatre in New York City in 1869. Martin Hanley would have been there as well, as he acted as Marietta Ravel’s manager from as early as 1864.[vii]
Benefit of Mlle. Marietta Ravel . . . .
Mr. John Sanford . . .
Mr. P. Connelly engaged to support Mlle. Ravel.
New York Herald, August 20, 1869, page 3.
Although this single advertisement does not prove that the same people performed the same play in Rochester, New York in 1867, it at least corroborates his recollection that all three of them performed the play in New York state in about the same period. The date was off by two years, but it was in the ballpark; pretty good for a quick recollection sixteen years later.
It is also possible that they toured with the same play two seasons earlier. The play was already forty years old, and their company maintained several plays in their active repertoire at any one time. In 1869, for instance, they performed three plays on August 20 and three completely different plays on the 21st.[viii]
All of the people he said were there were there, in New York state, performing the play he said they had been performing at about the same time. And Hanley was married to Marietta Ravel in the 1890s[ix] (and may have been married much earlier), so he had good reason to remember his professional connections with her.
Several of the people said to have been involved had long careers in different segments of the American theater, so they were well-placed to spread their new catch-phrase, if it actually had happened as Hanley recalled it. Hanley was a long-time theatrical manager based in New York City, and was at one-time manager of the famous Harrigan & Hart’s famous theater, which played a significant role in the development of American musical theater. Marietta Ravel had a long career as a serious actress, but had family ties in other areas of show business. When her family came to the United States in 1836, fourteen family members performed together, including musicians, the musical director, actors, actresses, pantomimists, and high-wire and trapeze artists. I could not find much information about John Sanford, but he appears to have been a triple-threat as a minstrel performer, a singer, musician and dancer. I could not find any additional about P. Connelly, suggesting, perhaps, that he was not very well known or had a short career. But that makes it even more remarkable, perhaps, that Hanley could recall him, specifically, in the cast of an old play performed more than a decade earlier.
The Broken Sword
Even as early as 1867, The Broken Sword was an oldie but goodie. It received its first public performance at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London, in 1816. The text of the play, as set out in an undated, later-published script (some time after 1883[x]), is perfectly suited to inspiring the use of “chestnut” as a euphemism for an old, familiar story.
As Captain Zavior prepares to tell a story, his servant Pablo asks to be excused because he’s heard it all before; Zavior commands him to sit and listen. When Zavior mentions a cork tree (Hanley’s recalled it as a hickory tree) that plays an inconsequential role in the story, Pablo corrects him –
Pab. (Jumping up.) A chestnut, captain, a chestnut! . . . . And I swear, a chestnut. Captain, this is the twenty-seventh time I have heard you relate this story, and you invariably said a chesnut, till now.
Zav. Did I? Well, a chestnut be it then. But take your seat again.
Pab. Willingly; only out with the cork, and I’m your man for sitting.
Zav. Well, then, from the thick boughs of the chestnut suddenly slipped down a little boy . . . . His lips opened, as if to return my hail, but no utterance followed. Yet the boy kept throwing out strange signals of distress, and seemed to invite me, in dumb show, to accompany him through an opening in the underwood. I dismounted, fastened my mule to the – the –
Pab. (Eagerly.) Chestnut.
It is easy to imagine the cast sitting around the dressing room after a performance and shouting, “Chestnut!” to someone starting to recite an old story or joke.
Hanley was not the only one to trace the origin of “chestnut” to The Broken Sword.
The Broken Sword – Jefferson
Several years after Martin Hanley related his version of events, Joseph Jefferson, one of the most famous American actors of the 1800s, told a similar story. Like Leonard Nimoy a century later, Joseph Jefferson was famous for his familiar portrayal, over a span of more than four decades, of one particular character known for saying, “Live long and prosper.” Nimoy portrayed the Vulcan legend, Spock, from the original TV series in 1966 through 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, two years before his death in 2015. Joseph Jefferson portrayed the American legend, Rip Van Winkle, from 1860 through 1904, one year before his death in 1905. (You can lip-read him delivering the famous toast (at about 0:17) in a performance caught on film in 1896. [xi])
The Origin of “Chestnut.”
Joseph Jefferson is responsible for the latest explanation of the word “chestnut.” He attributes the introduction of the word in its slang sense to Mr. William Warren [(likely William Warren, Jr.)], the veteran comedian of Boston.
“There is a melodrama,” Mr. Jefferson said, “but little known to the present generation, written by William Dillion and called ‘The Broken Sword.’ There were two characters in it; one a ‘Captain Zavier,’ and the other the comedy part of ‘Pablo.’ The Captain is a sort of Baron Munchausen and in telling of his exploits says: ‘I entered the woods of Collaway, when suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork tree’ – Pablo interrupts him with the words: ‘A chestnut, Captain; a chestnut.’ ‘Bah!’ replies the Captain, ‘Booby’ I say a cork tree.’
“’A chestnut,’ reiterates Pablo. ‘I should know as well as you, having heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times.’ William Warren, who had often played the part of ‘Pablo,’ was at a ‘stag’ dinner two years ago when one of the gentlemen present told a story of doubtful age and originality. ‘A chestnut,’ murmured Mr. Warren, quoting from the play, ‘I have heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times.’ The application of the lines pleased the rest of the table, and when the party broke up each helped to spread the story and Mr. Warren’s commentary. And that,” concluded Mr. Jefferson, “is what I really believe to be the origin of the word ‘chestnut.’”
The Evening Gazette (Pittston, Pennsylvania), November 23, 1887, page 4 (a later-published, identical version of this article (Lippincott’s Monthly, Volume 41, January 1888, pages 144-145), credited “a reporter of the Philadelphia Press”).
Jefferson’s long and deep connections to the theater put him in a place where would plausibly be familiar with the origin of “chestnut.” But his version of events apparently took place after the expression was already widely known. When Jefferson told the story in 1887, he said that it happened “two years earlier,” which would have been in 1885 during the middle of the chestnut craze, and long after the earliest known example of the expression in 1876. It is believable that an old actor familiar with “The Broken Sword” might have invoked a line for the play for the same reasons Hanley said it was used a couple decades earlier, but the timing is not right for it to have been responsible for coining the expression in the first instance.
As obnoxious as “old chestnut” jokes are, the chestnut joke craze spurred even more obnoxious conduct on the part of listeners.
Emboldened, perhaps, by a succinct word to describe what had always just been a tiresome old joke or story, people on the receiving end of “old chestnuts” started yelling, “Chestnut!,” at the speaker when they started telling an old joke or story (much like Hanley’s “Broken Sword” troupe had done two decades earlier). The practice is described in a poem written during the chestnut craze of 1885.
Oh, there’s nothing new under the sun,
And every conceivable pun
You might find, if you look,
In some confounded book,
Written ages ago,
In the Greek.
. . .
Then a curse on those humorists old,
Who so long ago told and retold
Every possible jest
That now some one cries “Chest-
Nut!” whenever you say
A bright thing.
. . .
– Louisville Journal .
Evening Star (Washington DC), April 18, 1885, page 7.
And if shouting “Chestnut!” weren’t enough, people were soon ringing bells to shame people reciting “old chestnuts.” The fad started in Pennsylvania in mid-1886 and soon spread throughout the country.
Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), July 16, 1886, page 4.
Pottsville Republican (Pottsville, Pennsylvania), July 22, 1886, page 4.
But even the chestnut bell became old quickly.
The Chestnut bell Ringers
Chester youth still carry the little chestnut bells and ring them at every opportunity, utterly ignoring the fact that the bells and the ringers have long been chestnuts themselves. So stale has the bell business become that the ringers excite the yell “chestnuts” as soon as the sound is heard. Nevertheless the fellows who can’t distinguish a rotten chestnut when they see or hear one, still carry the bells.
Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, Pennsylvania), August 4, 1886, page 3.
Hear the Music of the Bells, Chestnut Bells!
What a Flood of Merriment Their Tinkiling Fortells!
Everyone needs a Chestnut protector.
No stale anecdotes or bad jokes to go unpunished hereafter.
Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), August 9, 1886, page 8.
An English comic actor, actor-manager and theatrical producer, commented on the American expression and practice of bell-ringing in his memoirs.
In America they call an old story a “chestnut,” and severe sticklers for novelty carry what they call a “chestnut bell,” which they ring – tinkle, tinkle, tinkle – whenever in society or elsewhere any gentleman indulges in a twice-told tale. Out West the other day one of these worthies found himself almost for the first time in a church, though he had a fair acquaintance with the best of all books. In an oratorical application of his text, the preacher began to tell the story of Jonah and the whale, whereupon the new-comer rang his chestnut bell.
John Lawrence Toole, Reminiscences of J. L. Toole’ related by himself, and chronicled by Joseph Hatton, London, Hurst and Blackett, Ltd., 1889, page 31.
A decade or so later, a newspaper in New York City tried starting a new fad that never seemed to catch on. They sold tokens for the “Old Jokes’ Home!,” a feature in which they invited readers to send in particularly bad, old jokes that should be retired.
The Evening World (New York), March 11, 1903, page 10.
Not to be outdone, a newspaper from Boston created their own “Old Jokes Hospital” the following year.
Boston Post, March 16, 1904, page 5.
A New “Chestnut”
Nowadays, “Dad joke” might be the new “chestnut.” But even thought they did not call it such one hundred years ago, Dads and husbands were still closely associated with shooting of an “old chestnut.”
I am resolved this New Year’s day
To go a new and better way.
No more the lodge shall I attend;
The homeward road by nine I’ll wend.
While in the house I’ll never smoke
Or tell my wife a “chestnut joke.”
Montreal River Miner and Iron County Republican (Hurley, Wisconsin), Decembrer 31, 1909, page 4.
“Good heavens is Fred going to tell that old chestnut?” (Just the little wife of an after-dinner speaker about to listen for the thousandth time to an aged joke.)
Evening Star (Washington DC), November 3, 1929, Gravure Section.
But luckily, some “Old Chestnuts” do age well.
The Cameron Herald (Cameron, Texas), January 18, 1917, page 4.
[i] Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, Iowa), December 29, 1889, page 9.
[ii] Cornelius Francis Webb (later Webbe) . . . was an acquaintance and admirer of Keats, who describes Webbe as "of our party occasionally at Hampstead." http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/AuthorRecord.php?recordid=33421
[iii] “When ‘old chestnut’ was new,” O’Conner and Kellerman, Grammarphobia Blog (https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2017/01/old-chestnut.html).
[iv] “When ‘old chestnut’ was new,” O’Conner and Kellerman, Grammarphobia Blog (https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2017/01/old-chestnut.html).
[v] George Washington Orear, Commercial and Architectural St. Louis, St. Louis, Jones & Orear, 1888, page 78.
[vii] New York Daily Herald, January 11, 1864, page 7 (“A Great Attraction. Mlle. Marietta Ravel, Niece of Gabriel and Francois Ravel, the premier Spanish Danseuse and Rope artistes of America . . . . All communications must be addressed to [her] agent, M. W. Hanley, 57 Marion street, New York City.”).
[viii] Compare The New York Herald, August 20, 1869, page 3 (performing “Wizard Skiff,” “Broken Swoar,” and “Rough Diamond”) with The New York Herald, August 21, 1869, page 3 (same company performing “The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish,” “Dumb Girl of Genoa,” and “Floating Beacon.”).
[ix] The Theatre, Volume 4, Number 2, February 6, 1888, page 24 (“I am glad to learn that Mr. Martin W. Hanley, the manager of Harrigan’s Park Theatre (and who is also the husband of Marietta Ravel), has been made a life member of the Actor’s Fund Association.
[x] The back cover of the script, listed as Number 272 of Dick’s Standard Plays, includes an advertisement for stage wigs with a purported testimonial from Lillie Langtry, dated October 1, 1883.