Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Swift Were Fart Joke Masters

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Benjamin Franklin was many things: printer, inventor, postmaster, turkey-zapper, constitution-signer, and connoisseur of fart jokes.

The founding father fancied flatus. So much, actually, that in 1781 he penned an essay dedicated to the thunder down under.

Franklin lived in Paris at the time, serving as US Ambassador to France. There, he heard that the Royal Academy at Brussels was requesting scientific essays and would award prizes for the best papers. The news annoyed Franklin. He thought scientists were falling out of touch with reality. Year after year, they churned out pompous papers that didn’t make life better for the common man. Science should be practical, Franklin thought. Science should help everyday problems. Science should, you know, make farts smell good.

To the Royal Academy…

So Franklin wrote a mock letter, "To the Royal Academy,” which opened explaining why people try to restrain and contain their windy emissions:

"It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind. That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it. That all well-bred People therefore, to avoid giving such Offence, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

Franklin argued that holding back gas could be painful, even life threatening. If science could improve the smell, maybe people would break wind freely:

“Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in Company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.”

Franklin urges the academy to “Discover some Drug wholesome & not disagreeable, to be mix’d with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreable as Perfumes.”

Because who needs cologne when your air biscuit freshens the room with the aroma of blooming daisies?

An Idea Worth a FART-hing

Franklin’s letter was a joke, of course. He never sent it to the academy. Instead, he mailed it to Richard Price, a British philosopher and friend of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Price was a member of London’s Royal Society, and he would’ve appreciated Franklin’s jab at academia, especially its closing. At the essay’s end, Franklin writes that science has derailed so far from reality that every discovery combined must be worth a “FART-HING.”

(In case you’re wondering, fragrant flatulence probably isn’t possible. When you smell a flatus, you’re actually catching a whiff of hydrogen sulfide and methanethiol. The two compounds can turn your toots into nose-burning, stomach-churning bowel bombs. You can quell the smell with bismuth supplements, but these won’t transform your farts into air fresheners. They’ll just knock your stinkers scentless.)

Jonathan Swift: Master of the Gasser

Franklin wasn’t the only believer in the art of the fart. Sixty years earlier, Jonathan Swift—a master of satire and author of Gulliver’s Travels—wrote an essay titled “The Benefit of Farting Explain’d,” published in a pamphlet in 1722.

The paper’s title page is peppered with puns. Swift hides under the pseudonym “Don Fartinhando Puff-Indorst, Professor of Bumbast at the University of Craccow.” The essay is “translated into English at the Request and for the Use of the Lady Damp-Fart, of Her-fart-shire” by “Obadiah Fizle, Groom of the Stool to the Princess of Arse-Mini in Sardinia.” Oh, and it was also reviewed by a “College of Fizz-icians.”

Seriously. We can’t make this up.

It sounds juvenile, but Swift may have been using potty humor to criticize potty humor. By the 18th century, flatulence had become taboo. Farting was rude, and gas-passing was merely raw material for crude jokes (and in some cases, subject to censorship law.) But it hadn’t always been that way—farts had a proud literary history. For centuries, authors had used scatology as a serious symbol for mortality, decay, and impurity. Dante, St. Augustine, Chaucer, Marlowe, Dryden, and even Martin Luther wrote about cutting the cheese, using flatulence as a literary symbol and even a political tool.

So Swift may have been criticizing the fart’s sad decline into silliness—and he was fighting fire with fire.

Inside “The Benefits”

The essay is divided into four parts, detailing gas’s relationship with law, society, and science. The second section, however, may be the most inventive: After clarifying the nature, essence, and definition of the common fart, Swift explains why it’s bad to bottle up your tailwind—and offers a (sexist) theory to one of life’s mysteries:

“I shall next enquire into the ill consequence of suppressing [gas], which . . . causes Cholicks, hystericks, rumblings, belching, spleen, etc, but in the women of a more strong constitution, it vents itself intirely in talkativeness; hence we have a reason, why women are more talkative than men.”

Swift says it’s better to let one rip than hold it inside. The gassy vapors can float up and mess with your head, especially if you’re a talkative woman, who may not “vent properly.” Swift theorizes that’s why people cry, too:

“If this vapour, when rais’d to the head, is there condensed by a cold melancholy constitution, it distills thor’ the Eyes in Form of Tears.”

He captures his thesis with the nugget: “Whoth stop’t at one end, burst out."

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January 28, 2013 - 3:47pm
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