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The first issue of Punch

The satirical magazine appeared on July 17th, 1841.

Funny at first: the cover of the opening issue of Punch
Funny at first: the cover of the opening issue of Punch

The new threepenny weekly was launched as Punch or The London Charivari,  implying a mixture of cheerful humour and biting satire. Punch was from Punch and Judy, while the word charivari meant a hideous racket made by groups of people clanging kettles, pans and other metal objects outside the homes of people they hated, feared and disapproved of. Two young men called Henry Mayhew and Mark Lemon were the joint editors, which inspired a joke about punch being no good without lemon, but the sales figures were dismayingly low and Lemon lost interest. Mayhew was the sole editor from late in 1842 and he was responsible for its success. 

At this point Mayhew was 30 years old. He described Punch as ‘a refuge for destitute wit’ and an ‘asylum for the thousands of orphan jokes’ and the ‘millions of perishing puns which are now wandering about without so much as a shelf to rest upon’. His top contributors included William Makepeace Thackeray and Punch cartoons were an important element in the magazine’s success. One of the first illustrators was the brilliant young humorous artist John Leech. Another early Punch artist was John Tenniel. Punch launched blistering attacks on Prince Albert for being a foreigner, Roman Catholics for demanding special treatment and the Pre-Raphaelites for abandoning the traditions of English art.  When Mayhew realised that his growing middle-class readership was not comfortable with satire he eased off on it.

Punch became a household name and a treasured element of the English scene. Sales of 40,000 copies a week by 1850 rose above 100,000 by 1910 and in 1948 were above 175,000. Then things went wrong. It had become old-fashioned and people stopped buying it. From the 1960s some switched to Private Eye. In 1992 Punch closed down. It was reopened by Mohammed al-Fayed in 1996, but with only 6,000 subscribers left in 2002 it was shut down for good.

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