#WittHistory: Funk & Wagnalls

In 1964 Johnny Carson introduced to NBC’s The Tonight Show his Carnac the Magnificent character. Ed McMahon’s introduction to the segment went like this:

I hold in my hand the envelopes. As a child of four can plainly see, these envelopes have been hermetically sealed. They've been kept in a #2 mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnall's porch since noon today. No one knows the contents of these envelopes, but you, in your borderline divine and mystical way, will ascertain the answers having never before seen the questions.

Funk and Wagnalls DictionaryIn other situations, Carson also used the phrase “Funk and Wagnalls” as a slightly obscene reference.

A few years later, Dan Rowan of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (an NBC comedy-variety hour) regularly used the phrase as a punch line: “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!”

Funk and Wagnalls was a publishing company, known by the 1960s chiefly for its reference works. They began publishing religious books in the 1870s, and then published A Standard Dictionary of the English Language in 1893. Eventually they produced the 25-volume Funk and Wagnalls Standard Encyclopedia (1912), which was published under various names through the twentieth-century.

Microsoft’s original Encarta encyclopedia (1993 and after) was based on the Funk and Wagnalls text.

But who were Funk and Wagnalls?

Isaac Funk and Adam Wagnalls were Ohioans who met and became friends at Wittenberg College just before the Civil War. Both entered the Lutheran ministry, with Funk ending up in a parish in Brooklyn, and Wagnalls ministering in Missouri. Funk left the ministry to travel in the early 1870s, and then founded his own company to publish religious books. Wagnalls joined him and eventually became a full partner. Funk ran unsuccessfully for office in the Prohibition Party in New York, and he became widely known for his interest in psychic research. Wagnalls ran the business after Funk’s death, and Funk family members took over after Wagnalls died.

When Funk died in April 1912, he left $10,000 to Wittenberg. He and his second wife, Helen, are buried in Brooklyn.

When Wagnalls died in 1924, he left $5,000 to Wittenberg for the use of its theological department. Both he and his wife, Hester, are buried in Lithopolis, Ohio.

Some sources: One can read about Laugh-In and The Tonight Show on Wikipedia. For more about Funk and Wagnalls, see their New York Times obituaries.

About The Project

With Wittenberg now celebrating its 175th year, and the University unable to hold regular in-person classes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor of History Thomas T. Taylor has started circulating several pieces on Wittenberg's history. Some originated in earlier series, either This Month in Wittenberg History or Happy Birthday Wittenberg. Others have their origin in the Wittenberg History Project or in some other, miscellaneous project. Sincerest thanks to Professor Taylor for connecting alumni, faculty, staff, and students through a historic lens.

Looking Back: Historical Briefs by Professor Thomas Taylor

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