Students working on The Octopus

Through the Eyes of The Octopus

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?”
“Both.”
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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.”
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“Then there’s the one about the sweet young thing who bought herself a bicycle so she could peddle it out in the country.”
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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.
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“We see a new edition of Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” is coming out under the title “How Hester Won Her A.”

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