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Through the Eyes of The Octopus

How a Forgotten Campus Publication Reveals the UW’s Comedic Character

Students working on The Octopus

How a Forgotten Campus Publication Reveals the UW’s Comedic Character

Big university campuses are funny places, and UW–Madison, some might argue, is one of the funniest. East Coasters encountering kids from Hurley, Wisconsin. Ivy League professors. Major-league parties. ROTC and radicals. Athletes and engineers. Hayseeds, liberals, frat boys, and wonks.

This conglomeration of contrasts occasionally makes for a big mess, but it’s the perfect mix for comedy. No publication captured the true comic character of campus better than the Wisconsin Octopus, known simply as the Octopus: a humor magazine published by UW students from 1919 to 1959.
To understand this multi-tentacled monster, we’ll take a decade-by-decade look at the magazine, starting in 1919.

In the magazine’s first issue that November, editor Lowell Ragatz ’20, MA’21, PhD’25 stated the simple goal of the publication: “We believe that there is a real need at the University of Wisconsin for a humorous campus journal, and we will do our best to fill that need.” It’s a remarkably simple vision, and for the next 40 years (and during a brief revival of the publication by the Badger Herald in 1972 and early 1973), the Octopus did its best to make Badgers look at themselves and laugh.
Dick Hamlet ’59, who worked on the Octopus in the late 1950s and has the distinction of being the magazine’s last editor, says that the publication was always a shoestring operation.

“We put out a magazine without any money,” notes Hamlet, adding that there wasn’t even a dedicated advertising sales staff. “Everybody had a different set of businesses they would go to. I sold ads to the University Book Store and a laundry called Suds and Duds.”
The Octopus’s distribution apparatus was simple as well. “The magazine was just sold in local stores,” says Hamlet. “A volunteer or editor would drop them off on the doorstep. Some sellers didn’t even get a penny for them.”

From the Beginning: A Male-Dominated Magazine

Although nearly every masthead included some women’s names, through the decades, men made up the vast majority of the editorial staff and writers. Sexism — coupled with misogyny — seemed to be the inspiration for a percentage of the Octopus’s content. The Octy’s Dream Girl centerfold (a popular gimmick among campus humor magazines and famously co-opted by Playboy magazine in 1953) was a key example of the Octopus’s male-dominated editorial direction.

The inaugural issue ran an article called “The Hens and the Wrens,” which began, “I think that it would be possible to divide all girls into two classes, and call them the Hens and the Wrens.” It went on to explain, “The Hen is usually a Very Nice Girl … the sort of girl who, if she is pretty, draws her hair down on her head and wears a sober frock, and neglects all opportunity to exploit herself.” And, not surprisingly, the author noted that the Wren is the opposite: “But how different is the wren — Oh, garçon! She is a potential bombshell and a public menace …”

If women were crudely categorized, freshmen were mercilessly despised. In a 1919 column titled Health and Beauty Hints, readers found this rather sadistic item: “Friend U. Hurt: I am a freshman here and am very discouraged and despondent. I have decided to commit suicide. What is the best way?” The answer? “The surest way is to put on full dress, a high hat, take a cane, a cigarette, and go sit on the gym fence at about five-thirty in the afternoon, and yell for the class of 1923. Easy!”

But, not everything in the issue was crude or cruel. This poem about a young man’s visit to Chadbourne Hall is, at first, quite sweet:

Queer sensation
Heart a-thumpin’
Quiet giggles overhead,
Giggle, giggles, yet more giggles—
Gee, my face is getting red!

Noise in hall
And buzz in parlor;
A queer roaring in my ears.
Giggles, snickers, laughs and whispers —
What a lot of things one hears;

Swish of skirts,
Faces o’er the railing;

1920s: Imitation

By the end of the 1920s, the magazine took on a style more imitative of the most prominent literary magazine of the time. “The schtick of these college humor magazines was that they were all trying to be little New Yorker magazines,” says Hamlet. One of the ways college humor magazines imitated the New Yorker was through monthly gossip columns. But, to modern readers lacking inside information, many of the jokes of that era fall flat. A look at the Octopus’s 1929 SCANDALS columns gives a candid glimpse into the lives of students: “Summer has come! A lemonade stand at the corner of Lake and Langdon has put up a bright new orange and green awning. Already it has been used as a parking place for couples. Yes, that’s the honest truth!”

1930s: The Octopus Grows Up

The content of the magazine grew more complex — and, at times, more mature —during the 1930s. By 1939, as the world had slipped into war, the November issue’s On Second Thought column felt all grown up in its wartime politics in this lead-off item: “Senator Carter Glass said of Adolf Hitler, ‘His word isn’t worth a thrip.’ Thrip is an English slang for threepence; the Chicago Tribune had better frisk Senator Glass for more foreign propaganda.” Luckily, the column didn’t stay serious for long: “The birth rate in all democratic countries is falling off rapidly. Isn’t there something we can do about this?”
That same year, a cartoon feature chronicled the life of coed Clara Netwick in Life Discloses the Happy Weekend of a Wisconsin Coed. Showing Clara and her date, Hubert Fidgets, amid a ballroom filled with dancing couples, the caption reads: “This is the Polygon Dance, which engineers go to as part of their socializing process (including a subscription to the Wisconsin Engineer). Clara’s girdle is too tight, and Great Hall is overheated. Everything points to a lovely evening for this young couple.”

1940s: The Magazine Hits its Stride

It is this sort of intimate look at the ridiculousness of life as a student that would probably capture the imagination of the modern reader. Candid, close-up content related to student life continued into the 1940s and beyond. During this period, the magazine begins to have more illustrations, cartoons, and special features with inventive designs.

One such design was on the March 1949 issue’s cover: a spoof of a Daily Cardinal front page (listing a price of “Too Much per copy”). The Octopus produced its own version of the student newspaper on newsprint and bound it into the middle of the magazine. The mock newspaper included articles such as, “Student Board Split, 17–1, In Surprise Action,” “Co-eds Demand Beard Suffrage,” and “Student Bored by Smorgasbord Editorial Board.” This send-up of “real news” publications such as the Daily Cardinal — one of dozens by the Octopus — is still replicated today in another publication with Madison roots: the Onion.

As always, corny jokes abounded in the 1940s. But by 1949, these short chucklers grew in quality:

“Look, is that lady’s dress torn or am I seeing things?”
First drunk: “Shay, know what time is it?”
Second drunk: “Yeah.”
First drunk: “Thanksh.”

1950s: Breaking Rules

The 1950s saw more photography and a greater variety of genres. A November 1954 issue featured “Ane Illustraeted Histourie ofe Womenn’s Fasshion: Europe and the Near East — 2900 B.C. to 1900 A.D.” This three-page article featured hand-drawn illustrations and began with, “It is written in small print somewhere in the scriptures that at the sight of woman’s first attempt at fashion design, man issued forth the first laugh.”

The material became more subversive and sometimes dark in the 1950s. “The fifties were a time of lots of rules and regulations,” says Hamlet, “and it was our job to try to break all of them.”

But there were limits to what the rebels at the Octopus could publish. “We always had a censor,” says Hamlet. “We paid to have a copy put on their desk, and they would tell us what we could and could not say. The censor was sometimes a student, sometimes faculty.”
During the magazine’s last years in print, “The Bounders of the Campus Are the Bounders of the State” emblazoned the covers — a backhanded reference to the Wisconsin Idea. The first page of the March 1958 issue was a stark photograph of a drunk lying passed out in a muddy gutter with the caption, “Sabbatical.” It was one of the grimmest images in the entire run of the magazine. Octy’s Dream Girl was replaced by Nancy Myers, Octy’s Uninhibited Co-ed (who showed a lot of leg). The sexual revolution was beginning, and the jokes were more risqué and, arguably, much funnier than the previous three decades.

“No,” said the centipede, crossing her legs, “a hundred times no.”
“Then there’s the one about the sweet young thing who bought herself a bicycle so she could peddle it out in the country.”
News Item: A roaring twister last Wednesday carried off Jim Bennington’s house and all of his eight children are missing. Neighbors donated a bed to give Jim and his wife a new start.
“We see a new edition of Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” is coming out under the title “How Hester Won Her A.”

The Octopus’s demise

In 1959, after 40 years of poking fun at the campus and its inhabitants, the life of the Octopus was coming to a close. “At any point along the way, the magazine could have folded,” says Hamlet. “There was never any money.”  The task of putting out the magazine, which received no funding whatsoever from the university, took a huge toll on the editors.

“The way you got to be an editor was being picked by the last editor,” says Hamlet. Because no one would take the reins from him, the Octopus folded. The magazine’s last edition was a retrospective overseen by Hamlet in 1959.

Luckily, humor publications did not die with the Wisconsin Octopus. From its ashes rose other humor magazines on and around the campus. The Badger Herald had a short-lived humor magazine called Bite and, as mentioned, tried to resurrect the Octopus in 1972–73. The Onion, founded in 1988 by former Daily Cardinal staffers, went on to have a print run of 500,000 distributed in cities throughout the country.

Few copies of the Octopus exist outside of the UW Archives. It’s quite possible that many of the earliest editions of the magazine can be found only there. “We have many rare publications in the archives,” says UW Archives director David Null. “And the earliest copies of the Octopus are some of the rarest.”

If you’re interested in seeing for yourself the multifarious splendor that is the Octopus (or if you want to delve into the treasure trove known as the Sphinx), visit the UW Archives, located on the fourth floor of the Steenbock Library on the west end of campus. Those interested in campus humor in general should head to Memorial Library’s Special Collections and check out the Dobbertin College Humor Magazine Collection of hundreds of magazines from everywhere from Stanford to Penn State.

Even though the Octopus is long gone, the spirit of humor that was embodied in the magazine is echoed in the inspired goofiness that pervades many campus traditions, from the flamingos on Bascom Hill to the annual parade of creatively hilarious Halloween costumes on State Street. And who knows? Even now there might be another funny creature swimming in the depths of campus culture just waiting for the right time to reveal itself.

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