Mr Brown, Mr Robinson, and the average Joe
U 16.536-8: A great opportunity there certainly was for push and enterprise to meet the travelling needs of the public at large, the average man, i. e. Brown, Robinson and Co.
As it turns out, this is both helpful and unhelpful. There is no doubt at all that Punch was largely responsible for the popularity of the characters Smith, Brown, Robinson, and Jones in the nineteenth century. These are some of the most common English surnames, and might easily stand for the average man, the “man in the street”. There is a slight problem with this, as we will see. There is also the question of whether Punch introduced readers to the expression “Brown, Robinson and Co.” as well as to the general context of Smith, Brown, Robinson, and Jones.
The Punch Connections
Jerrold published his set of three articles in the New Monthly Magazine, telling the story of four school-fellows who played truant and went swimming.1 Sadly Smith drowns, and the rest of the text shows how the actions and attitudes of the other three (a non-swimmer, a mediocre swimmer, and a strong swimmer) are indicators of their individual success or lack of it in later life.
Jerrold was one of the journalists who wrote for Punch from its second issue, and he was firmly associated with the magazine. In 1842 Punch published the popular Punch’s Pantomime, written jointly by Jerrold and others and performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. In this, Barons Smith, Brown, Robinson, and Jones take their place in the dramatis personae alongside King John (“a character naturally drawn by Shakespere and now a little overdrawn by Punch”) and Oberon (“a mere wreck of the Rex of the Fairies”).2
None of the three school-friends is really what we would regard as a “man in the street”. They are each privileged, leisured, and – at least at school – idle. They are caricatures of the type of Victorian young man familiar from sketches from Pickwick’s Papers, or from the writings of Surtees. Perhaps to the readers of Punch these were just the average man.
The characters receive another boost from the Punch stable in the cartoon-book The Foreign Tour of Messrs. Brown, Jones, and Robinson of Messrs. Brown, Jones, and Robinson: Being the History of What they Saw, and Did, in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland & Italy, published by Punch caricaturist Richard Doyle in 1853. The adventures of the three friends are documented in sketches as they “tour” Europe.4
In the 1870s Brown, Robinson and Co. took on a new role, as a stock business name used in accounting and business manuals. So in F. Hayne Carter’s popular Practical Book-keeping (1874 ed. 2: Appendix, p. 202) the name of a stock business is based on Jerrold’s old characters in a new guide:
Bloom categorically states that “Brown, Robinson and Co” represents the “average man”. When the names were first used together they referred to young men who enjoyed a comfortable, leisured lifestyle at school and on their travels. Later, the names were employed as a generic, typical name for a commercial business.
At what stage does the expression start to encompass the ordinary bloke?
The American Linden H. Morehouse introduces the characters in his Biscuits and Dried Beef. But even here, the names are applied to several inept business friends rather than to anonymous ordinary people:
The names are merged with the tradition of the anonymous “John Smith”. The evidence seems to show that when Joyce used the expression in Ulysses it had lost its original strong association with Punch magazine and was enjoying the tail-end of its popularity in a business context – especially in America. Even here it seems that it was not normally used neutrally and generically to mean “the average person”, unless in some form of commercial context. Bloom’s context is commercial, perhaps as befits an advertising agent “in possession of the pen” (in Kenner’s phrase), but “Brown, Robinson and Co” is unusually applied to the average customer and not the average entrepreneur or business person.
1 New Monthly Magazine and Humorist (1837) vol. 51: September pp. 84-100; October pp. 221-30; November pp. 401-15. Jerrold re-published the stories in volume 2 of his Cakes and Ale (1842; pp. 1-69).
2 Punch’s Pantomime; or, Harlequin King John and Magna Charta.By the Writers of “Punch, or the London Charivari” (1843, ed. 2), p. . Another London dramatist, Nelson Lee, had written a pantomime in 1840 for the Garrick Theatre called “ Smith, Brown, Jones, & Robinson, the four naughty boys, or, Harlequin and Old Tiddyball at the bottom of the Thames”, presumably slightly closer to Jerrold’s original story.
3 Punch (1848), vol. 15 p. 103. Later that year Mayhew republished his essays as Model Men (see “The Model Waiter”, p. 19), and in 1856 as part of Wonderful People.
4 Two of numerous other books along the same lines from this period include The Tour in North Devon of Brown, Jones, Robinson and Smith (1862: Spottiswoode) and A Freshwater yarn, by William Brown, Henry Jones and John Robinson; being ye true and veracious Log of ye Boats “Fury” and “Kate”, while on an exploring expedition in ye Month of August, A.D. 1861: Done by ye Three Officers in Charge thereof, viz: - Captain William Brown, Lieut. Henry Jones, and Lieut. John Robinson (1866).
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