When newspapers had…

Share photos on twitter with TwitpicEditor Carole Tarrant of The Roanoke Times mentioned this picture on Twitter this morning, noting that the dress is made entirely from her newspaper. (The picture was posted by Brent Watts of Channel 7.)

That reminded me of a poem I learned around the time I was in junior high. I suspect it was already quite old.

There once was a miss from St. Paul
Who went to a newspaper ball.
Her dress caught on fire,
And burnt her entire
Front page, sporting section and all.

The concept of a “newspaper ball” puzzled me at the time. But I concluded that in some olden days, maybe around the time of Captain Billy’s Whiz-Bang and back when papers wrote of “sporting,”  their publishers may have promoted their business through community events like the annual “newspaper ball.”

In fact, a newspaper I later worked for sponsored a summer camp. Its competition sponsored a camp AND a Christmas carol sing, among other things. That didn’t keep it from going out of business. Our paper just had more news — arguably a more effective way of serving its 100-some communities.

But it wasn’t a big stretch to think that a circulation-hungry newspaper might sponsor a debutante cotillion or annual “newspaper ball.” I wondered whether part of the joke of the limerick was that the girl misunderstood and actually made a dress out of newspaper. Or maybe that was part of the event. In those years before Twitter, perhaps some circulation stunt actually invited women to make such dresses. It sounds like something The New York Evening Graphic might cook up. It was famous for its contests and its Lonely Hearts Club Ball — which even figured in Samuel Fuller’s novel, The Dark Page, and the film Scandal Sheet.

The main joke of the St. Paul poem, as is usually the case with limericks, is the hint of naughtiness — referring to the young lady’s “sporting section,” indeed. For shame! Such poor taste, sinking to double-entendre puns. Who would do such a thing? (OK, is that enough foreshadowing of an unfair cheapshot?)

But I did a story about limericks once; they suit my low sense of humor and stick in my memory. (My story was about a community college limerick contest that got Isaac Asimov to be the judge; the Associated Press picked up my story and even Time magazine got in the act.)

So after seeing Carole Tarrant’s Twitter link to the photograph, I went looking for a copy of that old “St. Paul… newspaper ball…” limerick online to send her a link.

I was disappointed. The ones Google hit first were, I suspect, newer versions. Their essential double-dactyl rhythm (dot dash dot dot dash dot dot dash) was lost by lengthening the second line, even if that did clarify the meaning — to “who wore a newspaper dress to a ball” or “who made a dress of newspapers for a ball.” How sad.

The moral: Even bad poetry suffers when people can’t remember a time when newspapers were a bigger part of everyday life, when they covered all the news in their communities, and when some of them even had balls.

(OK, that would be a cheapshot if I just ended there. If getting editors to Twitter or convincing young women to dress up in the comic sections would sell more newspapers, I’d be all for it. That’s assuming the boost in circulation would mean jobs for more reporters like the Roanoke’ Times’s Ralph Berrier and Beth Macy, more reporters to cover more news, whether they do it with broadsheet pages, books, blogs, Twitter posts or limericks. )

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in History, humor, Newspapers, verse

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