November 25, 2014

Death of B. P. Shillaber ("Mrs. Partington")

Benjamin Penhallow (B. P.) Shillaber died in Chelsea, Massachusetts on November 25, 1890, after a half a century in the world of publishing. The New Hampshire-born Shillaber began working at a printing office in his teen years. In 1847, he created what would become his most enduring work: the humorous persona of "Mrs. Partington." The character was inspired by English critic Sydney Smith, who had mentioned a character by that name attempting to mop up the Atlantic Ocean. Shillaber continued with that vein of ridiculous humor by introducing his character this way:

Mrs. Partington says that the price of bread may have advanced, but that she never pays more than fifty cents for half a dollar's worth.

These short, witty "epitaphs," often inspired by current events or concerns, became his hallmark. After several years working with Mrs. Partington at the Boston Post, Shillaber and Charles G. Halpine established their own humorous magazine, Carpet Bag, in 1852. Shillaber himself admitted the magazine "had more character than patronage" and it "died happily" about a year later. He took the opportunity, however, to publish a book, Life and Sayings of Mrs. Partington in 1854. By 1866, he was mostly retired and spent the rest of his life just outside Boston. Upon his death in 1890, newspapers reported of his unending cheerfulness, much like his work, and predicted that his Mrs. Partington character "will doubtless ever remain a unique figure in American humour."

Mrs. Partington's/Shillaber's commentaries included references to violinist Ole Bull, the opening of the new Boston Music Hall, the temperance movement, and more. Perhaps the best representation considering the time of year is this short one:

What kin is that which all Yankees love to recognize, and which always has sweet associations connected with it? Why, pump-kin, to be sure.

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