Wednesday, April 2, 2014

History and Etymology of "Happy Hour"

Happy Hour and the First Atomic Cocktail

How the Mexican Revolution Introduced the World to “Happy Hour” and

How the Home of “Happy Hour” Became the Original Atomic Cocktail
(Hint: It involves same-sex tango in the US Navy)

Atomic Cocktails
For some, “Happy Hour” conjurs images of Madison Avenue advertising executives slurping space-age atomic cocktails in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Others associate “Happy Hour” with spring break bikini parties in exotic locations like Daytona Beach, Florida, the Caribbean or Mexico.  

Both associations are appropriate, since the origins of the phrase, “happy hour,” are connected with the space age, atomic cocktails, bikinis, and exotic locations in Florida, the Carribbean, and Mexico, in surprising and unexpected ways; the Mexican Revolution, atomic weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles all played a role.

Many sources credit an article from the Saturday Evening Post in 1959 for introducing the concept of “happy hour” into our broader pop-culture in the United States; but the phrase goes back even further.  Barry Popik’s online etymology dictionary, Big Apple, lists several examples of civilian use of the phrase “happy hour” in California in the early 1950s, mostly from cities with or near large naval bases (Long Beach and Hayward (near Alameda)).  Popik places the origin of “happy hour” within the United States Navy in World War I. 

Although Popik correctly credits the United States Navy as the origin of the phrase, the use of the phrase pre-dates the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand by several months, and pre-dates the United States’ involvement in World War I by several years.  

[(See my Happy Hour Update for evidence of President Taft's possible association with Happy Hour.)]

The Mexican Revolution and Happy Hour

Wounded Marine from the Arkansas
On April 22, 1914, the United States’ Navy’s Atlantic Fleet steamed into the harbor at Veracruz Mexico in response to the Tampico Affair.  Mexico was, at the time, in the midst of an ongoing revolution.  On April 9, 1914, some Mexican soldiers encountered several American sailors who were loading legally purchased fuel onto a boat at Tampico Mexico.  The US and Mexico were not at war, but due to an innocent misunderstanding exacerbated, perhaps, by language difficulties, the Mexicans arrested the sailors.    

Laying Mines in Veracruz Harbor
Although the troops were quickly released, President Wilson ordered the occupation of Veracruz harbor in response to a perceived, arcane diplomatic insult.  The occupation would last for six months.  

Gunfire during the early days of the occupation resulted in the death of about twenty American sailors and Marines and about one-hundred-fifty Mexican soldiers, many of them students at Mexico’s Naval Academy. 

Despite the violent start to the campaign, the aftermath was relatively calm.  Within a few short weeks, war correspondents looking for a story - any story - filed stories reporting on the more mundane aspects of the daily life of sailors and Marines in the war zone:

The “Happy Hour” Aboard Ship Makes Tars [(sailors)] Contented

The “Happy Hour” on board the U.S.S. Arkansas is setting a record for contentment of the crew in the Atlantic fleet now in the harbor.

The happy hour is really several hours set apart three nights a week for the entertainment of the crew, both officers and men, while the ship is at sea.

The entertainment consists of moving pictures, boxing bouts, chorus singing of popular songs, and dramatics from vaudeville to tragedy and the tango.

The Day Book (Chicago, Illinois) May 8, 1914.

The Happy Hour held on April 17, 1914, while enroute to Mexico, included:

1. Picture – “Bunny’s Honeymoon.”
2. Boxing Bout – Stickney vs. Dalton.
     (3 rounds, 145 pounds.)
3. Picture – “Ramy Target Practice.”
4. Boxing Bout – Murray vs. O’Neil.
     (4 rounds, 133 pounds.)
5. Selection – By The Ark Glee Club.
6. Boxing Bout – Smith vs. Kohl.
     (4 rounds, 154 pounds.)
7. Picture – “A Man among Men.”
8. Boxing Bout – Brown vs. Burton.
     (4 rounds, 125 pounds.)
9. Picture – “Broncho Billy’s Sister.”
Slides by Woodford.
Pictures by Oakes
Referree – Chief Gunner Aigner.
  April 17, 1914

The Washington Times (DC) May 1, 1914.

Feminineless Tango
The Arkansas had a band, which sometimes played ragtime, and an orchestra, and the sailors danced a “feminineless tango.” 

Once in port, and after the fighting had subsided, the “happy hour” entertainments also included dancing girls recruited from a local bar.  The dancing girls, accompanied by local musicians, were blocked from leaving the stage forced to repeat the same few songs and dances until rescued by ship’s officers. The Sun (New York) May 19, 1914.  I guess it had been a long cruise.  The “Happy Hours” reportedly contributed to particularly high morale onboard the Arkansas, and the organized athletic events that were part of “Happy Hour” enabled the Arkansas to hold “nearly all the athletic records of the fleet.” The Day Book, May 8, 1914.

All of the early “Happy Hour” reports focus specifically on entertainments and athletic event; omitting any mention of a connection to alcohol.  Although the Navy has a long tradition of alcohol use (In 1794, Congress established a daily ration for sailors of “one half-pint distilled spirits,” “or in lieu thereof, one quart of beer”), times had changed.  In 1899, the Navy made it illegal to sell or issue of “any malt or alcoholic liquor to . . . enlisted men.”  It seems unlikely then that alcohol would have been a part of the "happy hours" on board, particularly when the ship was at sea.   

In May of 1914, however, officers could still legally drink Alcohol on board naval vessels; although that would soon come to end.  On June 1, 1914, the Secretary of the Navy issued General Order 99 prohibiting the use or introduction of alcohol on any ship or station; the order was effective as of July 1, 1914.  

When in Veracruz, however, the crew would also have had access to alcohol; they did, after all, recruit the dancing girls from a local bar.  Perhaps they were permitted to bring the alcohol on board - the rules only forbade the "sale" or "issue" of alcohol; not its consumption.  And their treatment of the dancing girls was not particular sober.  It makes one wonder whether General Order 99 was a response to the mayhem at a USS Arkansas "Happy Hour," or just another notch in the belt of the prohibitionists, who would succeed in banning alcohol throughout the United States within six years.

The officer responsible for organizing “Happy Hour” on the Arkansas, and quite possibly the originator of “Happy Hour,” was Lieutenant Jonas H. Ingram.  Although it is impossible to say with any certainty that Ingram was personally responsible for developing “Happy Hour," his background, character and experience were perfectly suited for it.

Ingram was a fierce competitor, a leader and an innovator.  He was a football star at the Naval Academy, which was then a national powerhouse.  He was Navy football’s head coach during the 1915 and 1916 seasons, and served as Navy’s athletic director in the late 1920s.  He was commissioner of the All American Football Conference, the original home of the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts, for two of its three years of existence (1947 through 1948).  He was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.  Clearly he was a man familiar with how to motivate a crew and one who would be comfortable organizing athletic events and other entertainments.

Regardless of who was responsible for initiating and naming “Happy Hour,” the fact that it happened on board the Arkansas put it in a prominent position, from which it could spread throughout the fleet.  The USS Arkansas (BB 33) served as flagship to Admiral Charles Badger, Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, during the Tampico Affair.  Admiral Badger reportedly enjoyed the Arkansas' “Happy Hours” from a front row seat.  As Commander in Chief of the entire Atlantic Fleet, he was in a position to order or encourage the use of “Happy Hour” on other ships and other commands to boost morale throughout the fleet.  

Sketch of "Happy Hour"; Colliers, December 27, 1913
The Arkansas had also served as flagship to Admiral Cameron Winslow, commander of the first division of the Atlantic Fleet, who sailed with the Arkansas on a show-the-flag tour of the Mediterranean in 1913.  He later succeeded Admiral Badger as Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet.  An article in Colliers magazine several months prior to the Tampico Affair (December 27, 1913) also reported favorably on "happy hours" onboard the Arkansas.  Lieutenant Ingram, who served with both Admiral Wilson and Admiral Badger on the Arkansas, was also in a position to influence thousands of young officers during his two-year tenure as the head coach at the Naval Academy.

[(See my Happy Hour Update for additional evidence of even earlier use of Happy Hour on the Arkansas)]

The concept of “Happy Hour” did, in fact, spread throughout the fleet, as indicated by several sources dating the phrase to World War I.  A contemporary description of “Happy Hour” at a small Navy shore command, at the end of World War I (the Radio School located on the campus of Harvard University), may be typical: 

Of course there are the usual baseball and football, and there are entertainments, and very good ones, at the Y.M.C.A. hut, but the glory of the week is the “Happy Hour,” which the men have in the gymnasium on Saturday night.  Here they entertain themselves, and what with singing and recitations, sparring and wrestling, they have as good a time as anybody can give them.

Frank Hunter Potter, The Naval Reserve (Henry Holt and Company, 1919).  Soldiers and sailors returning home, or perhaps even Harvard students who were exposed to the happy hours, introduced the phrase into the general population.
In a usage which may or may not have been influenced by the naval origins, an excursion boat, dubbed the "Happy Hour" launch, plied a lake in Central Park, New York City in 1919: 

The centre of the lake on a fairly quiet Sunday afternoon, showing the usual Sunday rowboat tangle and the “Happy Hour” launch coming along at just the wrong moment.
New York Tribune, August 10, 1919.

The "Happy Hour" launch can be seen entering from the left, behind the rowboats.

Earlier Uses of Happy Hour

It seems certain that the phrase, “Happy Hour,” as used on the USS Arkansas and as extended throughout the fleet and the military by the end of World War II, is the ultimate source of the phrase that found its way into the Saturday Evening Post in 1959.  It is less certain, however, that the phrase, itself, was coined on the Arkansas, or borrowed from earlier uses.

In 1914, the words “happy” and “hour,” and the phrase “happy hour” were not new.  The phrase had long been used in a nostalgic sense, often appearing in the phrases, “the happy hours of childhood,” or “many a happy hour we spent together.”  The phrase was also used in entertainment-related contexts.  The Happy Hour Publishing Company of New York City, for example, published a line of scripts and theater-related books as early as 1872.  In addition, starting in about 1900, a number of social clubs throughout the country adopted the name, “Happy Hours Club,” or some variation thereof; many of those clubs organized various entertainments from time to time.  Between 1909 to 1914, there were several “Happy Hour” theaters, mostly located in the far west (El Paso, Texas, Mojave County, Arizona, Las Vegas, Nevada and Murray Utah).  It may have been inevitable that someone would designate the time for entertainment as “Happy Hour.”
There are also at least two reported, pre-1914 examples of the phrase “Happy Hour,” used to designate a period of entertainment.  In January of 1905, for example, the Minneapolis Journal organized a “Happy Hour” for their newsboys, featuring lectures, sing-alongs, dramatic readings, songs and instrumental performances:

A thousand persons – Journal newsboys and “grown ups” – attended “The Journal Newsboys’ Happy Hour” at the Unique theater Sunday morning . . . .
“The Happy Hour” was a most interesting one.  The Unique orchestra played “The Minneapolis Journal March” after which the audience sang the doxology heartily.  Rev. G. L. Morrill read the twenty-third psalm and all united in the Lord’s prayer.

The Minneapolis Journal, January 16, 1905. 

In 1913, an advertisement for performances at a theater located in another Upper-Midwestern city read:

Every night, clean, laughable entertainment; 15 c for the best.  BISMARCK THEATER.

Bismarck Daily Tribune (North Dakota) October 3, 1913.
Although “Happy Hour,” as a name for a scheduled period of entertainment may not have been completely original to the Arkansas, the initial military use of “happy hour” on the Arkansas (and its continued use and expansion in Navy and military circles) seems likely to have been the source of the term, which ultimately took root in the civilian world in the early 1950s, before its lift-off in 1959.

Atomic Weapons, Bikinis and Happy Hour

The connection between bikinis and atomic bombs is well-known.  French engineer Louis Reard introduced the modern bikini on July 5, 1946, a mere four days after the United States Navy’s atomic weapons test, Test Able, part of Operation Crossroads, at Bikini Atoll on July 1, 1946.  The connection atomic bombs to the origin of “Happy Hour,” however, is more obscure.

Test Able - July 1, 1946
Operation Crossroads involved two atomic bomb blasts.  The purpose of the tests was, in part, to test the destructiveness of the bombs on ships at sea.  Test Able, the first test, demonstrated the destructiveness of an above-water blast and a second test, Test Baker, conducted about three weeks later, on July 25, 1946, evaluated the destructiveness from an underwater blast.  Both tests involved an array of nearly one-hundred ships at varying distances from the blasts.  Ships were arranged at distances ranging from directly below or above the blast to more than a mile away from the center of the blast.

Test Baker - July 25, 1946
In Test Able, the bomb “Gilda” exploded 520 feet above the water and resulted in the sinking of five ships.  For Test Baker, the bomb was suspended 90 feet below the landing craft, LSM-60.  The explosion vaporized the landing craft and sank eight other vessels, including the next-closest ship (170 yards), the USS Arkansas, the home of the original “Happy Hour.” 
A fitting end, perhaps; the USS Arkansas, home of the original “Happy Hour,” was stirred into the first, actual atomic cocktail.  A photograph from Test Baker famously shows what appears to be the USS Arkansas lifted up, nearly vertical, in the water column from the blast.  Later analysis of the blast suggests that the dark form in the photograph is actually a water “shadow” of the Arkansas, a space where water did not rise in the column because it was blocked by the Arkansas which was still horizontal. 

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and Happy Hour

“The most dramatic spectacle of our time, with the possible exception of the explosion of a hydrogen bomb, is the sight of a long-range missle blasting off its launching pad at Cape Canaveral.”  So begins the article from the Saturday Evening Post (April 25, 1959) credited with introducing the phrase “happy hour” into pop-culture. 

The article, The Men Who Chase Missiles, describes the living and working conditions of the Air Force and civilian contractors who manned remote, down-range island outposts to monitor missile launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida (which, coincidentally, lies just down the road from spring break, happy hour mecca, Daytona Beach).  The listening posts were located on islands stretching from Cape Canaveral to Ascension Island in the eastern Atlantic Ocean; the islands included Grand Bahama, Eleuthera, Grand Turk, Antigua, Santa Lucia and several others.

One of the benefits of the remote duty stations was the possibility of saving extra money, as a result of the out-of-country bonus, tax benefits, and lack of opportunities for spending money: 

Except for those who spend too much during “happy hour” at the bar – and there are few of these – the money mounts up fast.

This is the sentence that is credited with launching “happy hour” as a widely used term for times in which drink specials are available in bars.


We were first introduced to Happy Hour by the early-20th Century battleship, the USS Arkansas, which at the time was probably one of the most dangerous and powerful weapons and means of projecting military might on earth.  The Arkansas met its end during early testing of the even more destructive atomic weapons.  Happy Hour finally reached general acceptance in the language in 1959, thanks to the testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles which, when armed with atomic warheads, are the most dangerous and powerful weapons on earth.  All-in-all, the history of “happy hour” reflects a rather sober pedigree for such a non-sober concept.  

I need a drink.  Perhaps an Atomic Cocktail!

It's the drink that you don't pour
Now when you take one sip you won't need anymore
You're small as a beetle or big as a whale-BOOM-Atomic Cocktail.

Splashes ice all around the place
When you see it coming, grab your suitcase
It'll send you through the sky like airmail-BOOM-Atomic Cocktail.

You push a button, turn a dial
Your work is done for miles and miles
When it hits-it's bound to shake 'cause it feels just like an earthquake.

That's the drink that you don't pour
When you take one sip you won't need anymore
You're small as a beetle or big as a whale-BOOM-Atomic Cocktail.

Atomic Cocktail: Slim Gaillard [1946]
Words and music by Slim Gaillard
Atomic, Inc. [ Hollywood, CA.] A-215-A
Recorded 12/15/45 | Length: 2:39 | 78RPM

Performed by The Slim Gaillard Quartette:
Slim Gaillard-Lead Vocals, Guitar
"Tiny" Brown-Bass, vocals
Dodo Marmarosa-Piano
Zutty Singleton-Drums

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