Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jump on the Bandwagon

Political Rallies and Circus Parades - 
the History and Etymology of "Jump on the Bandwagon"

At the 1884 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Dwight M. Sabin, Senator from Minnesota and Chairman of the Republican National Committee, addressed the convention in support of the Republican nominee for President, James G. Blaine.  In his speech, Senator Sabin announced:

. . . that Minnesota had concluded to be solid for Blain, “getting into the band wagon.”  Sabin delivered it well, and his “getting into the band wagon” was very generally listened to, which is saying a good deal in a convention where scarcely anything was heard but yells and cat calls.

St. Paul (Minnesota) Daily Globe, June 9, 1884, page 4, column 7.

The Daily Globe’s report of Sabin’s speech is the earliest known appearance of the idiom, “get into the band wagon,” in print (“jump into the band wagon” appeared by 1888).  In light of the special reporting of the phrase, and the attention the phrase is said to have received at the convention, it seems possible, if not likely, that Dwight M. Sabin (or his speechwriter) coined the idiom.  Even if he did not coin the idiom, his inclusion of the idiom in a speech before a national audience of power-brokers, businessmen and journalists may well have been the catalyst necessary for the idiom to gain wider acceptance and use.

The Saturday Evening Post, October 6, 1906

The Idiom

The word “bandwagon,” originally a wagon that carried a band, is now used to refer to any, “activity, group, movement, etc. that has become successful or fashionable and so attracts many new people: a bandwagon effect.”[i]  The related idiom, to “jump on the bandwagon,” means “to join an activity that has become very popular or to change your opinion to one that has become very popular so that you can share in its success.”[ii]  Both expressions are based on the use of bandwagons as a mode of advertising, frequently for circuses or politicians.  

“Bandwagon” (or band wagon) is often dated to 1855, when it appeared in P. T. Barnum’s autobiography.[iii]  The idiom, “to jump on the bandwagon,” is often dated to an 1899 letter written by Theodore Roosevelt.[iv]  But both the word and the expression are decades older than generally believed.  Senator Sabin’s speech, at the Republican National Convention of 1884, shows that the idiom is older.  Earlier newspaper accounts of political campaigns and circus parades demonstrate that the word is much older yet.

The Kansas Herald of Freedom, May 22, 1858, page 3.

Band Wagons

Bandwagons were used in political campaigns long before the idiom, “jump into the bandwagon,” was first coined.  The “bandwagon effect,” although not referred to by that name, was already on full display in 1855, the same year in which P. T. Barnum published his autobiography:

[A]s your Know-Nothing neighbor says: “Sam geared up his band wagon, told his boys to get their whistles and come along – catch up some fellow to make a speech, and all would be right.”  The wagon was “geared up,” and as a writer in the Age says: while Mr. Johnston was speaking, the band came along playing a lively air, and took most of his hearers up street to listen to the music and a Know-Nothing speech from a Welshman. . . .

Cooper’s Clarksburg Register (Clarksburg, Virginia), March 21, 1855, page 2.

The use of bandwagons for political purposes was not new in 1855.  “Band wagons,” themselves, were also not new.  A circus history time line, provided by The Circus In America, 1793 – 1940, dates the first us of circus wagons to 1835.  Presumably, circus wagons with performing bands onboard were used shortly, if not immediately, thereafter. 

The earliest use of “band wagon,” that I could find dates from just a few years later, in 1842.  Interestingly, however, it appeared in a reference to a political rally, not a circus bandwagon:

We feel no disposition to crow over the unfortunate, but we tell the whig leaders, with their four band wagons, their foreign silk flags, and their Giraffes[v] that the days of humbuggery have gone by.

The Ohio Democrat (Canal Dover, Ohio), September 15, 1842, page 3, column 2.

It is not clear from the context whether the term, “band wagon,” was already a standard, idiomatic expression or merely one of several ways to describe a large conveyance carrying a band.  But an item on the same page of the same paper might suggest that the expression, “band wagon,” was not yet standard.  An advertisement for S. H. Nichols’ “unequalled troop of Equestrians and Splendid Dramatic Performances,” describes what sounds like a circus parade with a band and circus wagons, but does not use the expression “band wagon”:

A superior Band is attached to this company, and on entering each city or village will head the numerous train of twenty-one new and elegant carriages of the most costly description . . . .

The Ohio Democrat (Canal Dover, Ohio), September 15, 1842, page 3, column 5. 

Two years later, an account of more bands on more wagons in a political rally also avoids the term, “band wagon”:

Second Whig State Convention in Ohio.
Correspondence of The Tribune. Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 22, 1844.
. . . [E]very road leading to our city was thronged with stages, wagons and horses, many of them carrying bands of music with banners flying . . . .

New York Daily Tribune, February 28, 1844, page 2, column 3.

But in 1848, the expression “band wagon” appears in association with both political campaigns and circuses:

Locofoco Pole Raising. 

. . . The Circleville delegation was the last, but not the least; it consisted of one band wagon drawn by four horses, one two-horse wagon, and two or three other vehicles.  The band wagon contained six little children, one man with a five and one boy with a drum! That’s all.

The Lancaster Gazette, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, September 8, 1848, page 2;

A string of half a dozen Elks went through town a day or two ago.  We understand they belong to the Messrs Mabie, and are to be trained this winter for the purpose of drawing the band wagon of the Circus establishment owned by these gentlemen.  Beloit, Wis. Journal, 23d ult.

Vermont Phoenix, Brattleboro, Vermont, December 22, 1848, page 1.

The popularity of band wagons seems to have led to technological advances in bandwagon technology.  In 1852, “a large band wagon on a new principle, by John B. Young,” was singled out for “approbation” at the Northumberland County Agricultural Fair in Pennsylvania.[vi]

During the following decades, the word “band wagon” is used with increasing frequency with reference to circuses, political rallies, and military and civic bands.  Band wagons were also available for rent; a sort of mobile, attention-getting billboard:

That Band Wagon. Los Angeles, April 3, 1888.

Editors Herald: - Mr. Collins has informed the City Council that he has heard of several severe accidents having occurred by reason of the parade of the “advertising band wagon.” . . . Mr. Collins cannot prove that anybody has been killed or hurt by reason of the parading band wagon.

Los Angeles Daily Herald, April 7, 1888, page 3, column 1.  A brief film-clip, shot by the Thomas Edison company on South Street in los Angeles in 1898, clearly shows a trumpet player sitting at the back of a horse-drawn wagon – is this a “band wagon”? – is it the same bandwagon ten years later?

Get Into the Band Wagon

In 1884, after more than four decades of use in political campaigns, “band wagon” jumped on the idiom bandwagon, to become a figurative, idiomatic expression that would remain a fixture in the language.  The first reported use of the expression, “get into the band wagon,” was in Dwight M. Sabin’s speech before the 1884 Republican National Convention.  The specific, repeated reference to the phrase, the comment that Sabin “delivered it well,” and the observation that the expression was “very generally listened to” in an otherwise noisy and chaotic convention, all suggest that Sabin’s turn of phrase was something new at the time.  It seems plausible, if not likely, that Senator Sabin (or his speechwriter) coined the expression for the occasion. 
But whether Sabin coined the expression or not, the expression seems to have remained, largely, a regional idiom for several years; centered in the Upper Midwest, in and around Senator Sabin’s home state of Minnesota and in the Dakota Territory.  Through the end of the 1880s, most of the various metaphorical uses of “band wagon” that I could find in print are from or relate to events in the Upper Midwest, particularly in association with the Dakota Territory statehood debates (one Dakota or two):

It was at first proposed to have [the meeting of the Democratic club of New Ulm] private . . ., but as soon as this was announced there was a strong protest.  There are a good many who are anxious to be in the procession just now, and they want to get into the band wagon too.

New Ulm (Minnesota) Review, February 25, 1885;

And the fact is, Kansas leads the procession – band wagon and all.

Phillipsburg (Kansas) Herald, June 13, 1885;

Mr. Keith is one of the most aggressive and creditable citizens of South Dakota, and will be found on the lead horse when the band wagon turns the corner.

Bismark (Dakota Territory) Weekly Tribune, February 11, 1887;

Mr. Fuller [(Chief Justice Melvin Fuller)] was never ‘one of the boys.’ He never followed the band wagon.

New York Tribune, May 6, 1888 (quoting an article from the Chicago Mail);

When Dakota sees clearly which way the wind blows, she will jump on the band-wagon and blow her full quota of instruments.  She will try to get on the wagon in time to get good seats, and you may depend upon it, Dakota will try to be in the front rank for the winning candidate.  Dakota is for division and admission first, last and all the time.

New York Tribune (quoting Colonel W. C. Plummer, of the Dakota delegation), June 21, 1888;

New York and Vermont were the only states and Dakota the only territory that began voting solid for Harrison on the first ballot of the last day.  On the second ballot New Hampshire came into line and on the third of the last day, or eighth of the session, there was a general scramble to get on the band wagon where Dakota had so early in the day secured a comfortable seat.

Bismarck (Dakota Territory) Weekly Tribune, June 29, 1888;

Get on the Band Wagon

St. Paul Daily Globe, July 28, 1888;

. . . one of the last to climb into the band wagon was Waldo M. Potter . . .
The fact of the matter is that Stutsman county got into the band wagon before the race commenced and remained there and played one of the instruments when the combination went under the wire a winner.
The rustling qualifications of Bob Wallace were displayed every day during the convention.  He is one of the best and quickest band wagon organizers in the territory.

Jamestown (Dakota Territory) Weekly Alert, August 30, 1888;

Mr. Lampman saw the “fish a-making for his boat,” so he crawled out of the Republican wetness into the Democratic band wagon and escaped the “fish” by the dry land route.

St. Paul Daily Globe, November 17, 1888, page 10, column 7.

I find it interesting that most of the metaphorical uses of “band wagon” in the 1880s were expressed in a positive sense, as opposed to the modern, generally negative sense.  Although an early, literal illustration of the bandwagon effect from 1855 (in which one candidate’s audience was seduced away by a bandwagon) was expressed negatively, most of the early metaphorical jumping, getting into or climbing onto “band wagons” was generally portrayed as a good thing.  Of course, whether getting behind a particular candidate or cause is a good thing depends on which side you support, many, if not most, of the early use of the idiom appears to have been expressed in a positive sense, by people who supported or encouraged the particular “band wagon” at issue. 

In modern usage, “bandwagon” is mostly used in a negative sense, to express disappointment that someone switched sides or supports an issue, team or person based merely on the perceived success of that issue, team or person; not based on heartfelt or sincerely held beliefs or feelings.  One of the last metaphorical uses of “band wagon” in the 1880s is an early example of the modern, negative sence of the idiom:

The seventeen Southern Republican congressmen are reported united ready to jump on the band wagon in the speaker contest, as the Dakota figure is.  They have a good deal of the old carpet bag instinct, and are always ready to jump to the side they think has the fat things.  They want the taxes taken off the necessaries of life, such as tobacco and whisky, and put on sugar and the other luxuries.  They take their drinks without sugar.

St. Paul Daily Globe, November 29, 1889, page 4, column 3.

In the 1890s, the expression became much more widespread, in the positive and negative sense, appearing in newspapers from New York[vii] and Washington DC[viii] to Hawaii.[ix]  

In the mid-1890s, the idiom, to get on the "bandwagon" formed the basie of another still-familiar idiom, to get on/or fall off the "wagon."  The original form of the idom was, to get on the "water-wagon;" apparently an allusion to water-wagons, temperance wagons, the temperance movement and its metaphoric "bandwagon." 

Other Theories

The demonstrated early use of the word “band wagon” and the idiom, “get on/jump on the band wagon,” demonstrate that the word and idiom are much older than previously thought.  The word predates P. T. Barnum’s 1855 autobiography by nearly fifteen years and the idiom predates Theodore Roosevelt’s 1899 letter by about fifteen years.  There are, however, at least two further suggestions about the origin of the idiom that deserve mention.

Puck Magazine

William Safire’s Political Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2008, page 42) states that, “[t]he humor magazine Puck in 1884 depicted Chester Arthur driving a bandwagon carrying other presidential hopefuls . . . .”  He does not give a specific citation with date or issue number for the purported depiction of a bandwagon.  If such an image actually exists, and it had been published after the Republican National Convention, the image might be an early, visual representation of the metaphor uttered by Senator Sabin at the Republican National Convention.  If such an image exists, and it appeared before the convention, it could have been the inspiration for Senator Sabin’s early use of the phrase.

I am not convinced that such an image exists, at least not in the pages of Puck magazine in 1884.  I have personally looked at every page of Puck from that year (or at least every page available to me online, which appeared to be every page of every issue for that year), and I did not see any cartoon, engraving, image, description or depiction of Chester A. Arthur in a bandwagon.  If anyone finds such an image in Puck, or any other magazine, please leave a comment with a citation or link to the image. 

In any case, such an image, even if published before the convention, would not necessarily be metaphoric; bandwagons had been used in politics for more than forty years, and an image of a political bandwagon might be nothing more than a depiction of a literal bandwagon.  The metaphoric use seems to have started with, or at least come to public notice, Senator Sabin’s speech.
Puck, volume 16, number 395, October 1, 1884, pages 72-73

Puck 1884 - a Sleigh
Although there did not appear to be any bandwagons in Puck in 1884, there were several images of politicians in/on/or near various wagons, none of them bandwagons.  Only one of those cartoons depicted a band – a one-man band, not a bandwagon.  The drawing depicts a one-man band, with bells, a barrel organ, bellows, tuba, cannon and a bass drum, marching in front a wagon driven by James G. Blaine.  The wagon is loaded with cash for buying votes and a box of campaign lies and scandals.  A number of presumably recognizable personalities are pulling and pushing the wagon.  The wagon does not have the shape or look generally associated with bandwagons; it appears to be merely a workman’s cart for hauling stuff.  The other wagon-like political cartoons that appeared in Puck in 1884 do not show a band of any kind, and do not show a bandwagon.  The cartoons depict a sleigh,[x] a carriage,[xi] a prison wagon[xii], and a cabriolet;[xiii] but no bandwagon. 

Puck 1884 - a Carriage

Absent the discovery of the image described in Safire’s Political Dictionary, I am inclined to believe that Sabin’s speech is probably the first metaphoric use of the expression, “get into the band wagon,” or at least the first such use a national stage.   That speech, made before a collection of movers, shakers, businessmen and reporters from across the country, would have introduced the idiom to a national audience.  The regional character of the idiom for several years after the convention also suggests that the idiom did not originate in the pages of Puck, or any other national magazine.  The idiom was most popular in the early years in an around Senator Sabin’s home state of Minnesota.
Puck 1884 - a Prisoners' Wagon
Puck 1884 - a Cabriolet

Bandwagon Advertising

A biography for Benjamin T. Babbitt on states that:

His soap, one of the first nationally advertised products, was sold from brightly colored street cars (with musicians), which led to the phrase "get on the bandwagon.”

Ginny M., biographical sketch of Benjamin T. Babbitt,

Babbitt is believed to have been one of the first people to use bandwagons for commercial advertising:


. . . National Association of Ballplayers organized (forerunner of National League).
Benjamin T. Babbitt, 1st to use band wagon for advertising purposes.
Wilhelm Schneider patented the carousel. . . .

Who Was Who in America, Historical Volume 1607-1896, Chicago, Marquis – Who’s Who (1963), page 653.

But in 1871, the use of bandwagons as an advertising medium was not new.  Bandwagons had been used in political and circus advertising since at least the early 1840s, if not earlier.  It is possible, I suppose, that Babbitt’s commercial advertising, and any imitators, may have made bandwagons more ubiquitous, thereby providing fertile ground for the idiom to take root.  However, since the first known use of the idiom, and nearly all of the early uses, occurred in the political arena, Babbitt’s role in the creation or spread of the idiom may be minimal at best. 


The idiom, “jump on the bandwagon” or “get into the bandwagon” has been in use since at least 1884.  Senator Dwight M. Sabin of Minnesota may have coined the expression; the first-known use of the idiom was in his speech in support of James G. Blaine’s nomination for President at the 1884 Republican National Convention.  Whether Sabin coined the expression, or not, the expression seems to have been a regional idiom, confined primarily to the Upper Midwest, in and near Sabin’s home state of Minnesota.  Starting in about 1890, the idiom gained widespread and frequent use throughout the United States.  Although early use of the idiom appears to have been in a positive context, the idiom has been used witn negative connotations, more closely resembling the dominant, modern sense of the idiom, since as early as 1888.  

If you are someone who is susceptible to jumping on bandwagons, be careful.  Remember, the original “band wagon,” James G. Blaine’s 1884 nomination for President of the United States, went down in flames.  Blaine lost the election by a vote of 219-182 in the Electoral College.

So look before you leap.

[i] Cambridge Dictionary Online (definition from the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary & Thesaurus, Cambridge University Press).
[ii] Cambridge Dictionary Online (definition from, Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, Cambridge University Press).
[iii] P. T. Barnum, The Autobiography of P. T. Barnum: Clerk, Merchant, Editor and Showman, London, Ward & Lock, 1855, page 73. “At Vicksburg we sold all our land conveyances, excepting foru horses and the “band wagon” . . . .”
[iv] Dave Wilton, (citing Oxford English Dictinoary, band-wagon, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press).  “When I once became sure of one majority they rumbled over each other to get aboard the band wagon.”
[v] Although the reference to “giraffes” in the parade might otherwise suggest that a circus bandwagon was used in the rally, a separate article on the same page of the same paper refers to, “the picture of a giraffe in the whig procession.”  The Ohio Democrat (Canal Dover, Ohio), September 15, 1842, page 3, column 3.
[vi] The Sunbury American (Sunbury, Pennsylvania), October 30, 1852, page 1.
[vii] The Sun (New York), June 9, 1896. They believe that Mr. Miller simply saw an opportunity to jump aboard the band wagon, and that it was his desire to further his own interests more than McKinley’s that led him to take the step he did..
[viii] Evening Star (Washington DC), January 18, 1894.  Having thus captured the old eastern allies of the Foraker Republicans – the Blaine men – by making Joe Manley of Maine the chairman of the national committee, he leaves to the Foraker men the unpleasant alternative of either getting into the band wagon with the McKinley forces or staying out of the precession altogether.
[ix] Evening Bulletin (Honolulu), October 4, 1898. Join the Procession! And Get in the Band Wagon (in an advertisement for readers to use the want ads).
[x] Puck, volume 16, number 399, October 29, 1884, page 144.
[xi] Puck, volume 15, number 377, May 28, 1884, page 200.
[xii] Puck, volume 15, number 377, May 28, 1884, page 208.
[xiii] Puck, volume 16, number 397, October 15, 1884, page 100.

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