Cover of the Sphinx from May 1910. (Image courtesy of UW Archives.)

The Sphinx

UW Humor Magazine

Nearly a century before the Onion started making its readers laugh in 1988, a different group of enterprising students at the University of Wisconsin showed a deft hand at creating a humor publication.

The Sphinx launched in 1889, and every two weeks during the academic year, the campus could read the latest silliness from the magazine’s staff. At one point, some 200 college humor publications were rolling off printing presses around the country, and they often cribbed content from each other. Many of these efforts are now part of Special Collections in the UW’s Memorial Library, thanks to a donation in 2008.

But the Sphinx had some jokes that only Badgers could love. In 1903, while saluting a student headed overseas as a Rhodes scholar, the staff noted, “It is undoubtedly a matter of congratulation for us that we may send a man to Oxford, but it is also a matter of congratulation for Oxford that they can get a man from Wisconsin.” The board of regents apparently loved the magazine’s humor, too, allocating a whopping $75 to support it in 1908.

Seen through contemporary eyes, issues from the 1900s and 1910s have a you-had-to-be-there quality. And some articles and drawings would raise eyebrows in today’s world, where differences are embraced and female students aren’t simply dance partners. The issues’ ads also point to a decidedly different era; shoe-polishing services are prevalent, trunks and traveling cases are popular items, and clothing stores make compelling claims to draw in customers. (At The Crescent on North Pinckney Street, “You can find all the latest and up-to-the-minute haberdashery shown by all the swell shops in the large cities.”)

Yet the Sphinx hit on familiar topics, too: the upcoming football season, the anxiety of final exams, the joys of teasing freshmen. Articles range from the very silly (suggesting that courses be added in operating elevators, selecting wallpaper, and making pillows) to the rather serious (touting the important role of student government).

The magazine’s pages were sprinkled with what are clearly space-fillers. Some are groan-worthy: “Say, the Bell Company charges for phoning. So I was tolled.” Others are charming: “Life is a thesis, which must be handed in without revision.” But all pages capture a slice of Badger life from an earlier, perhaps more innocent, time.