Once a Week (subtitled an illustrated miscellany of literature, art, science, & popular information) was a weekly (hebdomadal) periodical that ran from July 2nd, 1859 to 1879, and possibly to April 1880. A popular publication, it had a circulation of 22,000 per week in 1859 and a total of 570,000 by the end of that year, this period being when “Six of the One, and Half-a-Dozen of the Other” was published (November 1859, vol. I no. 19); in January to July of 1860, Once a Week had a circulation of 150,000, and in 1865 it had lowered its circulation to 35,000. No information is readily available on the poet J. Roy, despite the popularity of the periodical at the time his poem was published. In keeping with Once a Week‘s proclivity for ‘lavish’ (Waterloo) illustrations, a large picture appears above the poem and, indeed, occupies considerably more space than does the poem itself.
This humorous dramatic poem has an undemanding, relatively disorganized, changing rhyme scheme, suited to its conversational tone. With exclamations, pauses, onomatopoeias (“whif, whif, whif, whif” (17)), repetition, and emotional or nonsensical utterances (“Haw” (9) and “Hoops-de-dooden-do” (16)), the poem imitates everyday speech to comic effect. Most eight-syllable lines are followed by a seven-syllable one, though even this scheme changes, as in the last two lines, both of which contain eight syllables, so that the metre of the poem likewise reflects, through its variability, the messiness of casual conversation. The illustration above the poem suggests a similar kind of chaos, if also an elevated one—now smoke billows everywhere, a chimney-like top hat spews smoke, cherubs fly in crinolines, and large anthropomorphized tobacco pipes harass and frighten people. Illustrations thus enact the events of the poem in a strange and ridiculous manner, but use normal household objects—hats, pipes, skirt supports—as their bases for doing so.
That “Six of the One, and Half-a-Dozen of the Other” has a man-woman, husband-wife dynamic and a setting of household items fits Once a Week‘s audience, who, writes Jerold Savory, were “generally middle-class, liberal-minded readers of fair educational standard” (Waterloo). Hence they were, usually, married couples, often with children (here pictured, perhaps, imprisoned beneath a crinoline), and whose homes were populated with basic items as seen in the illustration and still small enough to fill up with smoke (again, as in the picture.) The poem therefore suggests certain conventions in Victorian middle class life. For instance, it genders smoking as a male activity and contrasts that with the (apparently) annoying womanly habit of wearing overly large dresses. Indeed, depictions of smoking in Victorian England generally dwell on males, as in illustrations depicting “smoking clubs” or John Leech’s wood engraving “Do you object to my Smoking a Cigar, Sir?,” published in Punch on November 5th, 1859, near the date when “Six of the One, and Half-a-Dozen of the Other” appeared in Once a Week, so that tobacco appears to have been a popular subject for humorous publications at that time. When the couple overcomes their disagreement—the man no longer smoking, the woman wearing a more reasonable size of dress—their marriage is improved, their romance renewed, as they look into each other’s eyes and the husband gives his wife a bouquet of flowers. As befits a periodical of Once a Week‘s casual, amusing tone, “Six of the One, and Half-a-Dozen of the Other” compares two social-political issues, tobacco smoking and women’s fashion, and draws them together in a humorous equivalency, one of them being “Six,” the other “Half-a-Dozen.”
Once a Week, Vol. 1-13. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1859-1865. Print.
Leech, John. ” Do you object to my Smoking a Cigar, Sir?” The Victorian Web.
Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals, 1800-1900.