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:
A CHAD CALL
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;