Thursday, May 22, 2014

Skyrockets, the Transatlantic Cable and Pre-Civil War Militia - the Explosive History of Sis! Boom! Bah!

Skyrockets, the Transatlantic Cable and 

Pre-Civil War Militia Units

The Explosive History of Sis! Boom! Bah!

Cheerleading’s most iconic cheer, Sis! Boom! Bah!, is also the mother of all sporting cheers.  It was even chanted in its original form (Sis! Boom! Ah!) at the very first intercollegiate football game between Rutgers University and Princeton University in 1869:

Rick-a-rack-a, firecracker, sis-boom-bah!
The events immediately preceding the game were as primitive as the game itself.  The spectators who had arrived early appropriated seats upon the top board of a fence which partly surrounded the field, while the others found places upon the ground.  There was no admission fee, no waving of flags.  The famous orange and black still was in the forming.  But there were college songs, and, strange to say, a college cheer, Princeton’s booming rocket call [(Sis! Boom! Ah!)], hissing and bursting just as it does to-day.

Parke H. Davis, Football - The American Intercollegiate Game (Scribner & Sons, 1911), page 46. 

But the cheer is even older.  When Princeton played Rutgers in 1869, Princeton students had already been saying Sis! Boom! Ah! for at least ten years.

The standard history of the cheer, as taught to Princeton freshmen at orientation (the "locomotive" version shown in the link is a later variation from the 1890s), holds that Princeton students learned the cheer from New York’s Seventh Regiment when their train stopped in Princeton on their way to war, shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War.  The cheer, however, predates the Civil War, and did not originate with the New York Seventh.  The New York Seventh learned it from another militia unit.  As it turns out, however, even if some Princeton students first heard the cheer from the “Seventh” in 1861, the phrase may have been coined by a group of Princeton students in August of 1858.

The Early Days

Sis! Boom! Ah! was already an established Princeton institution in 1868 when students cheered the school’s new President, Dr. James M’Cosh, after his inaugural address:

‘Long live President M’Cosh!’ and then proposed three cheers, which were given with a will, followed by the usual tiger and ‘rocket.’ This rocket, by the way, is a thoroughly Princeton institution, and as such deserving a word of description.  It is given with a f-z-z-z – boom – a ---h!  The first exclamation is supposed to imitate the fight of a rocket in the air, the second the explosion, and the third the admiring exclamations of the enthusiastic spectators as they witness the burst of colored fire.   

New York Times, October 29, 1868.  

Equestrian Statue of George Washington
The New York Times piece was not the general public’s first opportunity to learn about the “rocket” cheer, however.  In 1860, Vanity Fair published a poem that recounted the New York Seventh Regiment’s adventures during a trip to Washington DC to take part in the dedication ceremony for the Equestrian Statue of George Washington (ironically, the statue depicts Washington as he appeared at the Battle of Princeton).  

The skyrocket cheer appears as part of the refrain at the end of each of the four stanzas.  The first two stanzas describe how the Seventh learned the “Sky-Rocket Cheer” from the Baltimore City Guards on their way to Washington: 

(Respectfully Dedicated, Without any Permission Whatever, to the
Seventh Regiment.)

Air – Bow, wow, wow.

The Seventh Regiment went on,
  As we have heard it stated,
To see the Horse and Washington
  Duly inaugurated;
And when they came to Baltimore
  They all got ripe and mellow,
And each and every soldier swore
  He was a jolly fellow
With his ch-h-h.! boom! Ah!
  Rol-de-rol de riddle-diddle, ch-h-h! boom! Ah!!!

The City Guard turned out in force
  To meet our Seventh’s boys, sir;
They had a goodly time, of course,
  And made a goodly noise, sir;
They did the thing for men to do
  With heart, and hand, and pocket,
And taught the Seventh something new-
  That cheer – the great Sky-Rocket,
With its ch-h-h! boom! Ah!
  Fol-de-rol de riddle-diddle, c-h-h-h! boom!! Ah!!! 

Vanity Fair, Volume 1 (March 1860), page 164.

The Baltimore City Guards and the New York Seventh Regiment were not the only militia units to use the skyrocket cheer; the Cleveland Grays also used the “new rocket cheer” in 1861:

We are pleased to acknowledge the compliment of a grand serenade and new rocket cheer by the spirited Cleveland Grays and their excellent Band, at a very early hour this morning.  Long may both wave!

Cleveland Morning Leader, October 5, 1860.

The cheer also seems to have been used by Confederate troops from Louisiana on their way to fight in the Civil War less than a year later:

“Letter from an Orleans Cadet. Richmond, June 10, 1861.”  [(News of the trip to Richmond: In Salem, Virginia)], “[a]n ample dinner was spread on planks placed on the ground, and never did we relish more a dinner than we did this one.  Several articles of provisions were left on the tables, which we were told, were all ours, and must be “filed away for future reference,” to use a mercantile term.  With three times three cheers, a tiger and a sky-rocket [(italics in original)], we left this hospitable town, and arrived at Lynchburg at 10 o’clock the next night.”

New Orleans Daily Crescent, June 21, 1861.  The use of italics for both “tiger” and “sky-rocket” suggests that sky-rocket refers to the cheer, as opposed to actual rockets. 

The “skyrocket” continued to be used by military units, even into the 1880s.  At a meeting of the Thirteenth Regiment (New York Volunteers) in Brooklyn, New York, on the occasion of a visit from General Fitzhugh Lee and his staff, of the First Virginia Volunteers: 

Three cheers were given for Gen. Lee, with the customary skyrocket tiger, fizz-boom-ah!  

The Sun (New York), February 8, 1883.  

Veterans of New York’s Seventh continued their skyrocket tradition at a reunion dinner held at Coney Island in 1882:

Each company rose to its feet simultaneously and drank the health of the other, and then they gave their ringing “sky-rocket” cheer, which fairly shook the building, each platoon of cheerers striving to outshout the others.

The Uniformed Battalion of the Veterans of the Seventh Regiment, National Guard S. N. Y, 1861-1892 (Rogers & Sherwood, 1893), page 35.

The “rocket” may also have been used in New Orleans as early as 1859.  A report about protests against the Know-nothing Party (who controlled the position of Mayor of New Orleans from 1856 until occupation in the Civil War) describes the use of three cheers, a tiger and a rocket.  The leader of the protest carried a yellow, knotted stick, or baton, that resembled a bed-post:

The yellow bed-post flourishes in the air, and the flourisher yells, “Three cheers for Judge Cotton!”  Given, with rockets and a “tiger-cat” for lagniappe, by the enthusiastic sovereigns who look to the man with the bed-post as their leader. . . .  Grand flourish of the yellow bed-post, and tremendous cheers, with rockets from the field.”

New Orleans Daily Crescent, October 3, 1859.  Lagniappe, by the way, is a New Orleans-French word meaning, a little extra something.

It is not entirely clear from the context of the story, however, whether the rockets are real or virtual, vocalized skyrockets.  The article describes an actual fireworks display earlier in the story, so it is debatable.  But the three cheers, a tiger and rockets, in is at least suggestive of the phrase that Princeton would adopt as its college cheer.

[As a side note, the "tiger" in the original Princeton cheer, as well as the "tiger" mentioned in other contexts here, is unrelated to the Princeton "Tiger" nickname, which evolved later, after Princeton started wearing orange and black-striped uniforms.  The "tiger" in the cheers is from an even older cheer format, "three cheers and a tiger," which dates to about 1830 (it has its own disputed or uncertain history which may be the topic of a later post).  A "tiger" is a low growl, the word "tiger" or elongated tiger-r-r-r-r, extended into a growl, which was added after the traditional "three cheers," to indicate particularly strong approval.]

Sis! (the Launch)

The Vanity Fair piece about the New York Seventh and the Baltimore City Guards does not tell us where the Guards learned the cheer.  But it is possible, that they learned the cheer from a student or someone else with a connection to Princeton.   

James W. Alexander gives the following description of the possible history of Sis-Boom-Ah:

On all public occasions student enthusiasm finds expression in the well-known Princeton cheer – the “sky-rocket,” as it has been called.  Undergraduates of to-day may think it has come down from a time “whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.”  But this would be an error.  All college cheers are of modern date.  Princeton’s is among the oldest; nevertheless, thirty-six years ago it was unknown. Where did it come from? Who invented it? These are momentous questions, and are answered differently by different men.  A member of the Class of ’60 declares that the late Dr. Woolsey Johnson, of New York, of that class, first sounded the “Hooray, hooray, hooray! Tiger, siss-boom-ah, Princeton!” in one of Professor Schenck’s recitations.

Alexander Porter Morse, of Washington, of the Class of ’62, claims that the cheer was consecrated during what he calls the noctes ambrosianae of the “McVeigh Group,” between 1858 and 1861, and adduces the written testimony in his own Princeton autograph-book, where, over the literary contribution of a fellow-collegian, written in June, 1860, is found this cabalistic combination:

Sh-sh-boom! ! Ah-h-h-h-h-h!

But Chancellor Alexander T. McGill, of the Class of ’64, says he remembers quite distinctly when the Seventh Regiment of New York went to the war, and how nearly the whole College went down through the Potter Woods to the old depot by the canal at midnight to greet it as it passed through.  The chers of the boys were responded to by the Seventh with the “sky-rocket,” which so impressed the youthful mind that it was indulged in, at first as borrowed property, and later, as time advanced, was adopted as the college cheer.

Princeton -- Old and New: Recollections of Undergraduate Life, C. Scribner’s Sons (1898). 

James W. Alexander’s book was based on an article he first published in 1897, Undergraduate Life at Princeton – Old and New, Scribner’s Magazine,Volume XXI, June 1897, Number 6).  The account in the book differed from the account in the original article, in that the passage in the book added the paragraph about Alexander Porter Morse and the “cabalistic combination” in his Princeton autograph-book. 

The source of the additional information is a letter to the editor written by Alexander Porter Morse in response to James W. Alexander’s Scribner’s article.  While we might be tempted to discount Morse’s story, based on his involvement in establishing the separate-but-equal interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause (he represented the State of Louisiana in Plessy v Ferguson), his detailed explanation of the history of sis-boom-ah seems very plausible.  You be the judge:


It First Became Known at the Atlantic Cable Celebration. 

To the Editor of The Evening Star:

. . . [M]y best independent recollection is that the “skyrocket” cheer of Princeton was introduced without any other formality than that which attaches to any taking fashion which is adopted by a community or combination of persons having a common interest, at a date that was synchronous with the celebration in the city of New York and in Princeton of the successful laying and operation of the Atlantic cable. In commemoration of this achievement of mechanical and scientific skill on the part of American and English pluck and talent, New York and Princeton indulged in, at that time, very rare and unusual pyrotechnic displays; and the sound of the exploding skyrocket was a new sensation, which appealed to the imagination and the physical exuberance of undergraduates.  

The final success of this transatlantic submarine cable was the great event of the period, in which the scientific and intelligent minds of the country took a deep interest; and Princeton professors and students commemorated the event with great enthusiasm. The vocal imitation on the campus and in town, occasional at first, soon became recurrent upon slight provocation until it became somewhat familiar at a period which antedates the war.

While there was, so far as the writer is aware, no formal adoption of the "skyrocket" as the college cheer, it seems to him that it was consecrated during the “Noctes Ambrosianae” of the “McVeigh group,” who contributed something to the history of the college between the years 1858 and 1861, not found in the ordinary chronicles.  I include in this group not only the princely fellows who lodged at McVeigh's, but also many of their boon companions, whose rooms were in “Old North” or “East” or “West” colleges, and who occasionally participated in the literary and musical exercises in the big brick building, which were not always announced in the college curriculum.  Among the latter, I recall the historian now under review, who was wont to regale his select audience with the ballad of the “Old Gray Horse” and other popular melodies, with a banjo accompaniment of considerable verve. Another was Georgius-Tyler Olmsted, jr., with whose name I have always associated the popularization if not the introduction of the “skyrocket” as a college cheer.  The latter was a member of 1860 – the same class as Woolsey Johnson, to whom has been attributed the formulation of the “Hooray, hooray, tiger, siss-boom-ah, Princeton;” and it may well be that these two good fellows may be called the sponsors of the Princeton skyrocket.

I am confirmed in my recollection that the “skyrocket” cheer antedated the war, and the passage through Princeton Junction of the 7th Regiment of New York, by written testimony which appears in my Princeton autograph book, where over the literary contribution of Geo. T. Olmsted, jr., of the class of 1860, which was subscribed in May or June of that year, I find this cabalistic combination:
“Sh-sh-Boom ! ! Ah-h-h-h-h-h.”

Evening Star (Washington DC) on June 2, 1897.

The fireworks celebrations were very extravagant, and were drawn out over several weeks.  The first rash of celebrations occurred on or around August 5th and 6th, when the cable was first connected.  But the cable did not open for business for several more days, while testing was completed and necessary hardware and infra-structure was completed.  Even bigger celebrations took place after August 16, when the cable was officially opened for business with an exchange of messages between Queen Victoria and President Buchanan:

“The Queen is convinced that the President will join with her in fervently hoping that the Electric Cable which now connects Great Britain with the United States, will prove an additional link between the nations whose friendship is founded upon their common interest and reciprocal esteem”
First Message over the Atlantic Cable – August 16, 1858.

  . . . The reception of the Queen’s Message on the 16th and 17th of August, however, produced the most remarkable effect.  Celebrations which had been promised, but were postponed until the certainty of success became assured, took place under circumstances of unusual impressiveness.  That which occurred in the city of New York, on the evening o Tuesday, August 17, was in many respects the most remarkable popular demonstration that has occurred for many years. . . .  From the City Hall, the hotels and offices, flags floated.  Banners were displayed in the leading thoroughfares, as night drew on; and at dusk the City Hall, the Astor House, the newspaper establishments, stores and dwellings in the lower part of the city blazed with the light of a spontaneous illumination. Unfortunately a display of fine pyrotechny which took place in front of the City Hall, resulted in a disaster to that fine edifice; the unconsumed remains of the fireworks igniting the roof of the Hall and producing a partial destruction of the upper floor.  The celebration was marked by the burning of a City Hall, and the two events became historical together.

Charles F. Briggs and Augustus Maverick, The Story of the Telegraph, and a History of the Great Atlantic Cable, Rudd & Carleton, (1858).  

Boom! (the Explosion)

Whatever the origin, the phrase caught on and soon spread.  When people first started sis-boom-ahing one another in and around Princeton, New Jersey in 1858, the phrase was catchy enough to be repeated, progressively, more and more often, until it was familiar and eventually adopted as the official school cheer.  

Punch - November 28, 1868
The phrase deemed exotic enough or interesting enough to deserve special mention in numerous publications shortly thereafter.  When the “Sky-Rocket Cheer” poem appeared in Vanity Fair, they liked is so much that they recycled the phrase on the cover of its next issue. Vanity Fair, March 17, 1860.  The phrase was still enough of a novelty in 1868, that it received special mention in the New York Times.  The New York Times description of the phrase was intriguing enough that the description of the rocket was reprinted in the British magazine, Punch, in an article entitled, “Pyrotechnical Cheers.” Punch, Volume 44, November 2, 1868. 

Vanity Fair, March 17, 1860
Alexander Porter Morse’s description of the origins of sis-boom-ah is very plausible, as it neatly ties together the means, motivation, and opportunity necessary for the creation of the phrase.  It is also possible that students from Princeton, or other townspeople from in or around Princeton, could have spread the phrase beyond Princeton; to Baltimore or Cleveland, and perhaps as far as Louisiana.  Many Princeton students were in a position to spread the “rocket cheer” in and among various militia units before and after the onset of the Civil War.

Before the war, many of Princeton’s students, from the North and South, drilled together as members of the local militia.  When the war broke out in 1861, nearly a third of Princeton’s students were from the South; presumably some from New Orleans.  The Southern students all “crossed the lines” and returned home.  Many of them would fight for the confederacy, and against some of their former classmates.   Princeton – Old and New, page 100-102.  

The Baltimore City Guards, who also played a major role in the early spread of Sis! Boom! Ah!, suffered a similar fate.  Maryland, a border state, had voted to remain in the Union.  But many members of the Guard were Southern sympathizers who chose to fight for the South.  The unit disbanded in 1861.  But its singular contribution to pop-culture soldiered on.

Sis! Boom! Ah! survived the war and thrived on the battle fields of athletic competition.  By the mid-1870s, many of the elite Eastern universities had developed their own distinctive college cheers.  Following the races at a large collegiate regatta on Lake Saratoga in 1875:

“. . . the students amused themselves by running foot-races down the principal street, and by Columbia shouting the “Rah!” “Rah!” “Rah!” of Harvard, and the latter the “C-O-L-U-M-B-I-A” of Columbia. . . .  The effect of this was heightened by the rich displays of the college colors festooned around the columns of the States, Union and Congress [(hotels)] the different colleges, meanwhile, each in turn, shouting their particular battle cries as they moved along. . . . Passing through the hotel, they entered the courtyard and made it ring with the college cheers repeated in succession, all joining in one chorus.  The Yale boys shouted “Yale” and the Harvard’s “rah’d,” as if the pipe of peace had been smoked and the hatchet buried.  The “three cheers and a tiger,” followed by the “fizz, boom, ah!” of Princeton was also a favorite cry, but all spelled “C-O-R-N-E double L” with a vim.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 31, 1875, page 367.

Grover Cleveland doing the Princeton Rocket

A-h-h-h! (The Appreciation)

But in time, Princeton’s Sis! Boom! Ah! would be adapted and modified for use in many other schools’ cheers.  In 1889, for example, the following variants were in use:

Georgetown: Georgetown, tiger, sis, boom, ah!
Hamilton: Rah! Rah rah! Hamilton! Zip, ‘rah, boom!
Indiana University: I-U! I-U! I-U! ‘rah, ‘rah, ‘rah! Saith boom, bang!
NYU: ‘Rah, ‘rah, ‘rah! N.Y.U.! sis! Boom! Ah-h-h!
Tennessee: Bim-boom-bee! ‘rah, ‘rah! Tennessee!

Miscellaneous Notes and Queries with Answers, Volume VI, Number 6, page 301. 

The Princeton students who first yelled Sis! Boom! Ah! in 1858 might have had second thoughts if they could have forseen what sixty years of arms-race-style one-upsmanship would bring.  By 1918, the simple, evocative Sis! Boom! Ah! would be twisted beyond recognition into such classics as: 

Augustana College: Rocky-eye, Rocky-eye, Zip zum Zie, Shingerata, Shingerata,
                         Bim, Bum, Bie. Zip-zum, zipzum. Rah! Rah! Rah!
                         Karaborra Karaborra, Augustana!,”

LSU: Hobble, Gobble! Razzle, Dazzle! Siss, Boom, Bah!
             Louisiana! Louisiana! Rah! Rah! Rah!,” 

Trinity Collge: Rah, rah, rah, hip-poo-pee-phiz-boom-tiger-hipporah-hipporah! Trinity!

Wesleyan (women): Boom-a-lacka! Boom-a-lacka! Bow-wow, wow!
Chick-a-lacka! Chick-a-lacka, Chow, Chow, Chow!
Boom-a-lacka, Chickalaca! Who are we? Wesleyan! Wesleyan! W. F. C!”

World Almanac and Encyclopedia 1918, Newspaper Enterprise Association, 1917.

And then there’s my personal favorite (date unknown):

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