Friday, 31 July 2015

Miss Gaswell the Sand Witch, a 19C meme


I have previously posted on the subject of mysterious late 19C/early 20C postcard memes (see here for my attempt to work out what donkeys have to do with Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”).

Today’s nineteenth-century meme concerns the “sand witch.” What is a Sand Witch? Below are a series of postcards featuring sand witches.




After a lot of digging I think I have discovered the origin of this meme: it is a joke—first published in the Pittsburgh Chronicle-Telegraph—that did the rounds in 1902.

The Sand Witch.

“Look at Miss Gaswell as she sits on the sand in her bathing-suit,” exclaimed a Pittsburgher at Atlantic City. “She is pretty enough to eat.” “That’s what she is,” assented his hearer. “She is a regular sand witch.”


Cue postcard-caption for any bathing beauty; anyone on the sand who is “pretty enough to eat.”

So, not a witch made of, or sculpted out of, sand and animated like a Golem. Though, it seems, modern sand-sculptors are fond of sculpting hag-witches. And not an actual, or Halloween, witch practicing real or Hallowe’en witchcraft on a beach, like Fairuza Balk in The Craft (1996).

And, despite the fact that, since 1998, The Library of Congress Subject Headings has contained an entry for “Sand Witch” that glosses it as “Fictitious character,” no such fictitious character existed pre-1902.


In the above painting by C. Coles Phillips, used as the cover art for Life Magazine, 22 July 1909, “The Sand Witch” is a bathing beauty, positioned between two men. In this scenario, Miss Gaswell is literally “sandwiched” between two men.

(Phillips’s art may be taken to suggest that you could caption any postcard of a woman—on a train, in a crowd, anywhere—positioned between two men as a “Sand Witch,” since any woman who is “pretty enough to eat may be considered a “witch”—because she is bewitchingly alluring—but the “sand” in “sand witch” makes the beach a necessity for the caption to work.)

As for Miss Gaswell, she is not a real person, just a stock name used in jokes in the late 19C/early 20C, along with Mr Gaswell and Mrs Gaswell. I presume gas-well is itself a joke meaning “joke-well” or “bluff-well,” related to the slang uses of gas recorded in the OED under, v.1, 7a “To mislead (a person) by clever or persuasive talk; to tease, to bluff” (as in “she’s gassin’ you” or “I used to gas you about this”).

* * * * *

Below are fifteen Gaswell jokes recorded in newspapers from 1889 to 1908, which give some context to Miss Gaswell the Sand Witch. I have not been able to find even a passing mention of this genre of jokey anecdote, so I have included as many as I could find, with titles where they had them.

“I want the library,” said Mr. Gaswell to the architect, “to be the largest and airiest room in the house.” “I don’t see what you want with a library,” interposed Mrs. Gaswell, “you know very well you don’t smoke.” [The Brooklyn Daily Eagle [Brooklyn, NY] (7 July 1889): 8]

Nautical Blood in Her Veins. “You may sit in the stern of the boat and work the tiller, Miss Gaswell,” said the young man, as he took the oars, “if you think you can steer.” “I think that won’t be hard to do,” responded the proud young heiress. “I have heard mamma say she was a good steerer, because she crossed the ocean in the steerage.” [The Topeka State Journal [Topeka, KA] (18 March 1891): 5]

A Finished Education. “Oh, Uncle George!” exclaimed Miss Gaswell, “why didn't you come a week ago? I graduated last Wednesday.” “Ah,” replied Uncle George, who takes a great interest in his niece’s education, “what did you graduate in?” “Why, in the loveliest white India mull, made up over the sweetest white silk.” [The Wichita Daily Eagle [Wichita, Kansas] (16 August 1891): 2]

Unfortunate. Miss Gaswell “Pop, did you see the Prince o’ Wales while you was in Europe, and did you talk with him?” Pop “I saw ’im, but the crowd was so big he didn't see me.” [The Evening Visitor [Raleigh, NC] (7 April 1891): 3]

Attractive to Bicyclist. “Have you visited the Phipps’ conservatory lately, Miss Gaswell?” “No, Mr. Dukane, I haven’t” “I think you would enjoy a visit very much. You are such an enthusiastic wheelwoman.” “Pardon me, but I do not exactly see the connection between a conservatory and bicycling.” “Well, tho conservatory is full of bloomers, you see.” [Evening Sentinel [Santa Cruz, CA] (22 June 1896): 3]

Presumption Rebuked. “One of the strong points about this carpet, ma’am,” said the salesman, “is that it won’t show dirt as plainly as some others. You wouldn't have to sweep it nearly as often as.” “I shouldn’t have to sweep it at all young man,” interrupted Mrs. Gaswell, with much sharpness. “We keep a hired girl.” [The Daily Democrat [Huntington, IN] (29 April 1896): 8]

A Connoisseur. Sir Gaswell, accompanied by several members of his family was looking through the stock of the picture dealer with a view to making a purchase. “What is the name of that one” he asked pointing with his cane at a painting banging on the wall. “That is St. Cecilia” replied the dealer. “How does that strike you” said Sir Gaswell, turning to his daughter. “It wont do” answered Miss Gaswell, with much positiveness. “She wears a style of halo that's twenty-five years old.” [Chicago Daily Tribune (15 May 1897): 12]

Mr. and Mrs. Gaswell had moved only a few weeks before into a fashionable neighborhood and were preparing to issue invitations for their silver wedding. “I’m afraid,” said Mr. Gaswell, looking dubiously at the pile of costly stationery before him, “most of these will go begging.” “Why, James,” responded Mrs. Gaswell, “that's what we are sending them out for.” [Ann Arbor Argus (8 July 1898)]

Mrs Gaswell: “The Emperor of Germany took 102 trunks with him on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.” Mr Gaswell: “I suppose his wife was with him.” Mrs Gaswell: “Yes; the Empress’ clothes were in two trunks.” [Mataura Ensign (27 April 1899): 4]

Mr. Gaswell: “I wonder why Minister Conger’s messages are all undated. Do you suppose he omits the date to save cable tolls?” Mrs. Gaswell: “No, I don’t. It’s my opinion those Chinese Boxers have stolen his calendar.” [The Sacred Heart Review, no. 11 (15 September 1900)]

Mrs Gaswell: “The Czar of Russia now has four daughters”. Mr Gaswell: “Oh, the dear little Czardines” [San Francisco Chronicle (4 August 1901): 27]

Mrs. Gaswell: “I thought you wanted to go to London for the summer. Now you're talking about Paris. What has made you change your mind?” Mr. Gaswell: “Well, in London I'd be worth only £200.000, while in Paris I’d be Worth 5,000,000 francs, and I tell you, there,s a heap of difference in the way it sounds.” [Indianapolis Journal, vol. 52, no. 184 (3 July 1902)]

Had Heard of It. Young Professor (who has taken her down to dinner): “By the way, Miss Gaswell, have you ever seen the nebula of Andromeda?” Miss Gaswell: “No; I was abroad with papa and mamma when that was played. But I’ve heard that it drew crowded houses.” [San Francisco Call, vol. 97, no. 21 (21 December 1904)]

Natural Mistake. Mrs. Gaswell (making a call): “Ah, I see you have here a volume of poems. I’m ashamed to confess it, Mrs. Highmus, but. I never could appreciate blank verse.” Mrs. Highmus: “Why—er—that’s a catalogue, Mrs. Gaswell.” [Lompoc Journal, no. 44 (21 March 1908)]

1 comment:

tina stevwing said...

We found a sand witch picture behind an old Jesus picture that hung in my mothers house for at least 60 yeàrs. I don't see it in the pictures that are listed above. It is in very good condition and it is of a woman on the beach.