Obscurity of the Day: Ain’t it Awful, Mabel?

The catch-phrase “Ain’t it awful, Mabel?” invaded the public consciousness in 1908 and remained popular for quite some time, well over a decade at least, but it doesn’t have an origin I’m able to pinpoint..

It is true that a poem by that name by John E. Hazzard, and a song by W.T. Francis, were both apparently released in 1908, and there are at least two comic strip series that used the name the same year. But what came first? I dunno. It rather sounds like Hazzard was probably the originator, but it just doesn’t seem like the nature of poetry to make such a splash out of the blue like that.

Well, I struck out on the origin of the phrase, so let’s see if I can do better on the meaning. When uttered in conversation, when someone says (usually in a lowbrow gum-smacking Brooklyn accent) “Ain’t it awful, Mabel?”, is to say, with a wink, that you are complaining about something that you really have no right or reason to complain about.

Roy Taylor in 1911 (image courtesy of Cole Johnson)

So, for instance, if I was to say, with indignation, that I had to stand in line for the better part of an hour at customs in the Costa Rica airport, I might follow that up with “Ain’t it awful, Mabel?” to let you know that I realize the minor inconvenience is small potatoes compared to that amazing vacation.

The point of all this gum-flapping, and I do have one, is that today’s obscurity is the first comic strip rendition (aka rip-off) of the phrase. The strip is by our old friend Roy W. Taylor, one of the leading lights of early newspaper cartooning, and presumably he wrote the verses as well, which follow closely on the style of Hazzard’s poem. The strip ran just twice, on February 19 and 21 1908, in the New York Evening World. Why just twice? Well, my guess is that the copyright holder called the World and pointed out that there was bald-faced copyright infringement going on.

Here is the poem, by Hazzard, that seems to have started it all. When reading, imagine the speaker to be a cute but air-headed chorus girl talking to her girlfriend Mabel:

Ain’t it Awful, Mabel?

It worries me to beat the band
To hear folks say our lives is grand;
Wish they’d try some one−night stand.
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
Nothin’ ever seems to suit—
The manager’s an awful brute;
Spend our lives jest lookin’ cute.
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
Met a boy last Tuesday night,
Was spendin’ money left and right—−
Me, gee! I couldn’t eat a bite!
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
Then I met another guy—
Hungry! well, I thought I’d die!
But I couldn’t make him buy.
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
Lots of men has called me dear,
Said without me life was drear,
But men is all so unsincere!
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
I tell you, life is mighty hard,
I’ve had proposals by the yard—
Some of ’em would ‘a had me starred.
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
Remember that sealskin sacque of mine?
When I got it, look’d awful fine—
I found out it was a shine.
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
Prima donna’s sore on me;
My roses had her up a tree—
I jest told her to “twenty−three.”
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
My dear, she went right out and wired
The New York office to have me “fired”;
But say! ’twas the author had me hired.
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
I think hotels is awful mean,
Jim and me put out of room sixteen—
An’ we was only readin’ Laura Jean.
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
The way folks talk about us too;
For the smallest thing we do—
‘Nuff to make a girl feel blue.
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
My Gawd! is that the overture?
I never will be on, I’m sure—
The things us actresses endure,
Ain’t it awful, Mabel?
Thanks to Cole Johnson for the scans!

3 comments on “Obscurity of the Day: Ain’t it Awful, Mabel?

  1. It’s wonderful to hear even in the old days people like to complain about little things. We are just human. Ain’t it great to have a friend Mabel to listen to us? 😄

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