Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was one of the most popular and notorious humor magazines of the 1920s. It was created by Wilford Hamilton Fawcett, who had been a captain in the U.S. Army during World War I and gained the nickname Captain Billy. Fawcett would later tell reporters that he had started his magazine to give the doughboys—as World War I servicemen were popularly called—something to laugh about.
Fawcett spent the war at Camp Georgia, Virginia. Because he had been a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune, it made sense to assign him to the military newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. He collected and reported stories geared towards entertaining and informing his military readers.
After World War I ended in November 1918, Fawcett returned to Minneapolis, where he briefly owned and ran a bar called the Army and Navy Club. He gave up the bar when Prohibition made the sale of alcohol illegal in 1919. Fortunately, Fawcett had already hit on the idea of publishing a men's humor magazine.
Fawcett's friends were not eager to invest money in a magazine. There was no guarantee it would succeed. So Fawcett and his family financed and produced it themselves. He wrote and edited the first issue of Captain Billy's Whiz Bang in his Robbinsdale home, and printed it on his hand press. His wife set the type. His young sons licked stamps and hauled magazines to the post office on their wagon.
Captain Billy's Whiz Bang debuted in October 1919. It was a magazine of jokes and funny stories. The humor reflected the American cultural climate of the time. Fawcett touched on such topics as the shortening of women's skirt lengths, bobbed hair, illegal alcohol, and speakeasies. Here is a typical one-liner about Prohibition and the sobering up of America from the May 1922 issue: "It used to be wine, women and song, but now it is near-beer, your own wife and community singing."
Some Americans protested that the magazine was immoral and corrupt. But Fawcett didn't care. His magazine was a success. "This little publication was created with the idea of giving the former servicemen . . . a continuation of the pep and snap we got in the army," he wrote in August 1920. According to Fawcett, he printed two thousand copies of the first issue and they sold like hotcakes.
By 1921, Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was selling 350,000 copies a month. Two years later, that figure had risen to 425,000. Fawcett fed the public's appetite for his magazine by creating Whiz Bang annuals and developing new periodicals to capture untapped markets, such as the gossipy True Confessions (1922) and the technology-focused Modern Mechanics and Inventions (1928).
The stock market crashed in 1929. The excesses of the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Americans had less money to spend on nonessentials such as joke magazines. Also, the carefree humor of Fawcett's original magazine fell out of favor, and Captain Billy's Whiz Bang ceased publication in 1936.
But in at least one way, Captain Billy's Whiz Bang lived on. The magazine's title was memorably woven into the lyrics of the song "Ya Got Trouble" in the 1957 Broadway show The Music Man. Few noted that the play was set in 1912—seven years before Fawcett's publication debuted.
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Fine, Gary Alan. "Captain Billy's Whiz Bang." Typescript. University of Minnesota, n.p.
Minneapolis and St. Paul City Directories, 1908-1940
Hennepin County Central Library, Minneapolis
Description: Provides addresses and occupations for Fawcett and his family.
"Minneapolis Industries: Fawcett Publications, Inc." Minneapolis Times Shopper's Guide, August 18, 1934.
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In October 1919, Wilford Fawcett uses his own money to bring out the first issue of his men’s humor magazine, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang.