June 22, 2014

Josh Billings: Job Potter died of death

"Job Potter died of death," according to the listing for June 22, 1873 in the almanac Old Probability (Perhaps Rain—Perhaps Not) (1879) by Josh Billings. Billings, pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw, was a journalist turned humorist and lecturer, who made his way from Massachusetts to New York to California (where he befriended Mark Twain). He became known for his phonetically spelled folksy witticisms.

Billings's book Old Probability collected a series of pseudo almanacs originally titled Farmer's Allminax. Filled with guesswork on weather patterns, vague advice on planting, and pithy aphorisms, the book began with this philosophical quote: "It is better to know less, than to know so mutch, that aint so." The calendar sections included completely nebulous and/or meaningless events — like the death of Job Potter mentioned above. Short poems pop up throughout the listings as well as semi-meaningful factoids, life advice, and brief news notices — all with humor intended. A few samples from the book:

Tew git wrong things out ov yure child's head,—comb it often.

I hope i shall never hav so mutch reputashun, that i shant feel obliged tew be civil.

Tew make a hen lay 2 eggs a day, reazon with her; if that dont dew, threaten to chastize her if she dont.

fakts are stubborn things & so be mules

I hav alwus notised one thing, when a man gits in a tite spot, he dont never call on hiz friend the Devil tew help him out.

Nov. 30 — now chop wood

In youth we run into difikultys, in old age, difikultys run into us.

To find out whether a man has got a good moral karakter or not, ask him pleasantly.

Opportunitys are like birds, they will slip out ov yure hands if yu giv them haff a chance.

Throughout the book, Billings included scattered illustrations with handwritten tales and pieces of advice like the above. He also included a page here and there of positive critical notices (some of which might not be legitimate), including: "It kured mi wife ov wanting to die."

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