Friday, October 17, 2014

Baby Shoes, Calico dresses, African Golf and Crabs - a Dicey History and Etymology of "Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes!"

Baby Shoes, Calico Dresses, African Golf and Crabs – 

a Dicey History and Etymology of “Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes”

“Baby needs a new pair of shoes!”

Vermont Phoenix, January 11, 1895

Say, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes!”, and one’s mind immediately jumps to gambling; or more particularly, to throwing dice or playing craps.  In Robert De Niro’s film, A Bronx Tale, a gambler yells, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” before rolling the dice.  The 1974 film, Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes, about a “numbers racket” gangster, features craps in its trailer. 

And the phrase is much older.  Craps players have chanted, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes,” for more than one hundred years:

Played Craps on a Train.  

Stark Bell, Patrick Gallagher, John Thompson, Vincent Garcia and John Fernando, arrested Saturday for playing craps on a train from the Tanforan racetrack, appeared before Judge Conlan yesterday.  The charges against Gallagher and Fernando were dismissed and the others were continued till to-day.  Special Officers Kindelon and Madden, who made the arrests, testified that they saw the game being played, but instead of saying “Come seven; come eleven,” they said, “Baby needs a pair of new shoes,” “If I win I’ll eat chicken to-night” and “The attorney’s fees must be paid.”  About sixteen of the players jumped off the train to escape arrest, although it was running at the rate of sixteen miles an hour.

The San Francisco Call, March 27, 1900, page 4.  The phrase, "[i]f I win I'll eat chicken to-night," may also presage another ubiquitous gambling phrase; "winner, winner, chicken dinner!"

But the phrase did not spring from gambling in a vacuum.  Since at least the mid-1850s, children’s shoes, often in conjunction with calico dresses, had been a stock example of a typical, necessary expense.  The phrase, “Johnny needs a new pair of shoes” (1873), and “Baby needs a new pair of shoes” (1884), emerged later, but not necessarily in relation to gambling.  By 1920, “baby needs a new pair of shoes,” was a very common phrase used almost exclusively in relation to craps or gambling.   

But apart from the one, isolated example on the train in 1900, I could not find any other use of the phrase, in its gambling sense, until 1917. 

What happened between 1917 and 1920 to cause the explosive growth of both the game of craps and its signature catch-phrase?

World War I.

The History of “Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes

The Expense of Shoes

Shoes were an expensive and necessary expense.  An article from 1912, critical of the poor inventory management by some country merchants, may illustrate the burden children’s shoes placed on household budgets of the time:

Didn’t he know that a pleased customer returns, and that a baby needs new shoes about every six months until it creeps, and then oftener?  He should have had my name down on a memorandum for a pair of number twos six months before, as we were regular customers of his, and as mine was almost the only baby of the countryside that year.

The Prairie Farmer, volume 84, number 12, June 15, 1912, page 4.

The Sun (New York), May 10, 1885

Woe-is-Me Newspaper Editors

Although shoes were a significant expense for everyone with several children and limited means, newspaper editors may have put the shoe-as-household-expense imagery on the map.  Not merely by printing the concerns of others, but in trumpeting their own needs in an effort to inspire their readers and advertising clients to pay their bills:

Where is money coming from to pay for paper for our next issue?  We cannot get a quire without the cash in advance.  We have borrowed until our credit is gone.  We have worked two years for nothing and boarded ourselves – or rather our wife has boarded us, “free, gratis, for nothing.”  Our compositors want their wages.  Our landlord wants his rent.  Our children want shoes and our wife wants a new calico dress.

Grand River Times (Grand Haven, Michigan), December 5, 1855, page 1.  Similar items, using largely identical text, appeared in other newspapers within the following weeks.[i]

Such woe-is-me, printer poverty pieces appear regularly, in numerous newspapers, across the entire United States, throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth century.  Children’s shoes and calico dresses figured prominently:

Our wife want’s a new calico dress, our baby want’s shoes, our hands want’s money, and we are hard up ourself, and a little bit of the “collateral” now, would come as handy as a “pocket in a shirt.”  We know times are hard and money scarce, but if you can’t pay all, pay part, and thereby you will be laying up treasure in Heaven, and enable the Editor to get a new coat, attend church, and try to get there too.

Preble County Democrat (Eaton, Ohio), March 4, 1858, page 2;

Yea, verily, a printer’s life is full of changes, but very little “change.”  He goeth forth in the morning, blithe as a lark, with an empty stomach, and a lack of funds. . . .  He goeth to his office and maketh out statements for $817.75 due him and goeth forth to collect the wherewith to pay the draft, and his rent . . . , and, incidentally, to get his wife a new calico dress, and a pair of copper-toed shoes for each of his children, and a thousand and one other little items, not forgetting his weekly pay roll.

Fair Play (Ste. Genevieve, Missouri), October 26, 1895, page 3 (reprinted in several other sources);

Figure it . . . . devote half a column, 60 lines, to the write-up of old man Skinflint’s daughter, when he is so darned stingy he has never paid one dime for the paper, but borrows it, and then tell your devoted, self-sacrificing wife she has to do without the poor $3 pair of shoes she needs; blow a mangy politician who never subscribes for the paper except for three months when he is a candidate, and give him $5 worth of space and then make your wife wear the same calico dress because you lack the $5 to buy her a Sunday’s best said candidate’s wife would not wear to do a day’s washing in . . . .

The Farmington Times (Farminton, Missouri), March 16, 1917, page 3.

The shoe-calico dyad also became a common image in non-printer-related items, whenever household needs, thrift, or earnings were at issue:

Let me make it plainer.  It is “a public gathering” – say Court week.  You come to Court as a juror or a witness.  You must stay a week.  You will have much leisure to look around.  Your wife tells you that she needs a calico dress, and Johnny must have shoes.  You bring along money enough to buy these necessaries, in addition to paying your tavern bill.  You find the merchants here selling calico at 15 cents per yard, and Johnny’s size of shoes at $3.25.

The Jackson Standard (Jackson, Ohio), September 9, 1869, page 2.

Carlisle Mercury: “If you had been near the patent medicine man Monday you would have felt satisfied that the hard times were over, for he took in money with both hands, and for an article that was hardly worth the paper it was wrapped in.  We were astonished to see what you term ‘good citizen’ crowding up to his carriage to deposit their dollars, when if their wife had wanted a calico dress or the babe a new pair of shoes, they would have said, ‘times are too hard, I can’t spare the money;’ . . .

The Evening Bulletin ( Maysville, Kentucky), March 16, 1894, page 3. 

A nickel is to the summer boarder simply a nickel, which might otherwise buy a Sunday paper or some cigarettes.  To the farmer it is five cents, one-twentieth part of a dollar, and a dollar will buy his youngest a pair of shoes, or his wife a calico gown.

The Times (Washington DC), June 2, 1901, page 6.

Johnny Needs a New Pair of Shoes

1873 brought the first baby steps towards the standardization of the phrase, “baby needs a new pair of shoes.”  But it wasn’t “baby” who needed the shoes:

A Wise Woman.

Her Little Memorandum for a Forgetful Husband
[From the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier.]

. . . . Don’t forget the coal oil and the demijohn, and be sure to keep them separate.  Go to Cheever’s and get a bottle of sirup of blackberry and ginger.  Get a pint of congniac brandy.  Keep away from those nasty ponds until they are filled up.  If you see any good disinfectant, bring some home.  Get a few pounds of crackers and rice, and some oatmeal.  If you see the doctor ask him to give you a prescription to cure cholera.  Be careful and don’t break the demijohn.  Johnny needs a new pair of shoes. . . .

The Weekly Caucasion (Lexington, Missouri), August 30, 1873.

Johnny needed shoes for many years.  A “viral” (by 19th Century standards) joke featuring the phrase “Johnny needs a new pair of shoes,” circulated in 1892, and again in 1898:

Mrs. Scrimp: Johnny needs a new pair of shoes, Silas.
Mr. Scrimp: Good gracious! One would think that that boy was a quadruped!

Public Opinion, volume 12, number 17, January 30, 1892, page vi (attributed to Brooklyn Life); The Globe Republican (Dodge City, Kansas), February 11, 1892, page 3; The Roanoke Times (Virginia), March 17, 1892, page 7 (and others); The Bourbon News (Paris, Kentucky), March 1, 1898, page 6; The Worthington Advance (Worthington, Minnesota), March 3, 1898, page 2 (and others).

And while Johnny needed shoes, little Mary and Sue needed dresses or ribbons for their hair:

If Johnny needs a new pair of shoes, dad goes down in his dip and comes up with the price of a new pair and a hard day’s sweat.  If Mary needs a new ribbon for her hair and babe howls for a rattle, down goes dad again and up comes the coin.  But if he buys a new pipe for a quarter because the old one was getting a bit strong, look out.

Adams County News (Ritzville, Washington), December 24, 1902, page 2. 

Perhaps you think you would like to live in such a palace, especially along about rent time when Johnny needs a new pair of shoes and little Sue’s dress is getting to the point where it can’t be turned again.

The Tacoma Times, January 27, 1911, page 4. 

Another “viral” joke appeared in 1914, just a few years before “baby needs a new pair of shoes” and craps became ubiquitous and inseparable:

She – Johnnie needs a new pair of shoes. 

He – Why, saints alive! I brought home a pair for him last night! 

She – Yes, you did.  But as it took you fully six weeks to remember to get them, it might be well to start in now on the next pair. – Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Omaha Daily Bee, July 4, 1914, page 4 (reprinted in many other papers). 

Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes

The earliest example of, “baby needs a new pair of shoes,” that I found is from 1884, about ten years after “Johnny” first needed shoes.  The new phrase appeared in a widely circulated “humor” piece about a woman’s worries about her husband’s gambling, and his evasive excuses:

A Trusting Wife.

“I don’t mind your going out of an evening occasionally with your friends to play poker, dear,” she said.  “You work hard all day and need some recreation, but do you think we can afford to lose money just now?  Baby needs a new pair of shoes, and – ”

“Oh, I can’t lose any money to speak of,” he interrupted.  “It’s just a friendly little game for amusement, you know.  It’s limited to two dollars.”

“Oh, if your loss is limited to two dollars during the evening it is not a serious matter.  I thought, perhaps, you might lose more.”

“No, it’s a two-dollar-limit game,” he replied, looking fixedly at a picture on the wall, “just a little game for amusement, you know.”

“Well, good by.  You’ll be home early, won’t you?”

“Oh, yes; I’ll be home early.”

And he was home early – early in the morning.  And what the lady doesn’t know about a two-dollar-limit game of poker would make a very bulky package.

The Sun (New York), July 13, 1884, page 6; The Louisiana Democrat (Alexandria, Louisiana), August 16, 1884, page 1.

The phrase appeared in another, widely reprinted “viral” joke that made the rounds in 1887; the joke was also credited to the New York Sun:

Husband – I was in great luck to-day.  I found a silver dollar on the street.

Wife – I wish you would give it to me, John.  Baby needs a new pair of shoes.

Husband – Give it to you! Why I spent it, and another dollar with it, celebrating the event. – New York Sun.

Burlington Weekly Free Press, May 6, 1887, page 6; The Hawaiian Gazette, February 28, 1888, page 7, Travelers’ [Insurance] Record, Volume 23, Number 5, Hartford, Connectucut, August, 1887, page 8; Orchard and Garden Magazine, volume 10, number 8, August, 1888, page 165.

The phrase also appeared in the Ladies Home Journal in 1887, in an article recommending that men give their wives a household account, instead dealing with repeated requests for money throughout the week, as each incidental expense is incurred:

If Julia says to you, “My dear, Mary’s wages are due to-night,” the oil has come,” “Baby needs a new pair of shoes,” at various times through the week, you give her the money and cheerfully.  Now, would it cost you any more to hand her that money at the beginning of the week and let her spend it as necessity offers!

Ladies Home Journal, volume 9, number 10, page 20.

Although “baby needs a new pair of shoes” was generally used to admonish men for their spending habits, women were not immune:

“Well, I suppose we may be able to make use of some of this stuff some day, but where are the shoes you said baby needed?”

Mrs. Wiggins – “Bless my heart, I forgot them! I spent all day at the bargain counter, you know.” – Texas Siftings.

Sacramento Daily Record Union, April 20, 1889, page 3.

In 1900, when the phrase is first known to have been used with regard to craps, “Johnny needs a new pair of shoes” had been around for nearly thirty years, and “Baby needs a new pair of shoes” had co-existed with “Johnny” for nearly twenty years.  Except for the allusion to losing money gambling, in the original, “baby needs a new pair of shoes” joke of 1884, the two phrases do not seem to have been specifically related to gambling.  The concern over preserving household funds inherent in the phrases, however, was certainly amenable to use in the world of gambling.  Its association with craps, however, was not an obvious leap.  Although craps had enjoyed a period of popularity among the upper-crust of English society in the 1700s, it had fallen into disrepute in white-America and was not well-known, outside of black-American circles.


The game that we now know as “Craps” was not always “Craps.” And no, the name is not related to the scatological sense of that word.  “Craps” appears to be derived from the English word “crabs,” via New Orleans French-Creole.  

In the late 1700s, the game of “Hazard” was a well-known dice game among the English leisure class.  The rules of the game seem, to my limited understanding, to be nearly identical to the modern game of craps.  Of course my understanding of craps is very limited.  Seven – you win/seven – you lose – that’s about all I know. 

But a knowledgeable player might recognize the outlines of the game of craps in the rules of Hazard; rolling a two or three was considered – “crabs”:

The person who takes the Box and Dice throws a Main, that is to say, a Chance for the Company, which must be above four, and not exceed nine, otherwise it is no Main, consequently he must keep throwing till he brings five, six, seven, eight, or nine; this done, he must throw his own Chance, which may be any above three, and not exceeding ten; if he throws two Aces or Trois-ace (commonly called Crabs) he loses his Stakes, let the Company’s Chance, which we call the Main, be what it will.  If the Main should be seven, and seven or eleven is thrown immediately after, it is what is called a Nick, and the Caster (the present Player) wins out his Stakes.  If eight be the Main, and eight or twelve is thrown immediately after, it is also called a Nick, and the Caster wins his Stakes.  The Caster throwing any other Number for the Main, such as are admitted, and brings the same Number directly afterwards, it is likewise termed a Nick, and he also wins whatever Stakes he has made.  Every three successive Mains the Caster wins, he pays half a Guinea to the Box or Furnisher of the Dice.

Hoyle’s Games Improved, 1775, page 223.

Yeah, I don’t understand it either; but calling the two and three “crabs,” and the prominent role of sevens and elevens hint at a close relationship between the two games. 

In 18th Century England, the game of Hazard was considered a “Gentleman’s” game, played by well-to-do playboys and men of means.  The French nobleman, Bernard de Marigny, an early New Orleans land developer and President of the Louisiana Senate from 1822 to 1823, is thought to have brought the game to New Orleans.  Marigny, a native-born Louisianan, was reportedly sent to England in the early 1800s in an effort to reform his unrestrained spending habits.[ii] I guess the trip was a failure:

He had immense wealth, and when he laid out his Faubourg Marigny he called two of its streets Craps and Bagatelle.  This was in honor of the two games of chance over which he lost a fortune.

Southern Magazine, volume 5, number 28, January 1895, page 382.

The game did not survive in “polite” society in the United States, what with its deeply ingrained puritanical streak and rejection of English nobility, in favor democratic ideals. 

But the game survived, although in what some viewed as a less savory milieu.  In 1895, a Southern writer, writing about News Orleans, lamented:

As an example of ignoble decadence, it is noteworthy that the game of craps, in which princes and nobles once threw dice, has now sunk to the gutter level.  Only the negro deck hands and the habitués of low groggeries play craps now.


Craps spread throughout the South.  It may have been played in North Carolina in the 1840s, when slave laws sought to suppress fun of any kind:

Slaves are forbidden, likewise, to play at any game of cards, dice, nine-pins, or any game of hazard or chance.

The North Carolina Standard (Raleigh), September 7, 1842.  But the mere fact that they took the time to forbid it suggests that the game may have thrived there.

The earliest references to “craps,” by that name, that I could find are from Memphis, Tennessee in 1880.  The articles suggest that the game had only recently been introduced to Memphis, in the late 1870s, and also reflect the prejudices and fears of the (presumably white) writer:

The Game of Craps.

An Amusement of Doubtful Character which has Captured the Memphis Darky.

During the last few years a game has been introduced among the negroes here which seems to possess an irresistible attraction for young and old.  It is known as “craps,” and many a quart of gore has been spilled on its account.

The Memphis Daily Appeal, February 24, 1880, page 4.

It is said that at least ten per cent of the negroes arrested and searched at the station-house are found to have “crap” dice in their possession.  The “greaser” whose fondness for gambling is so well known, could not be more deeply fascinated in his favorite game of “monte” than the Memphis chromo is in “craps.”

Public Ledger (Memphis, Tennessee), October 22, 1880, page 1.

The article, likely written by a white writer, may have been mistaken about how long the game had been played in Memphis.  The year 1880 was barely fifteen years removed from the end of slavery, and only a couple years after the end of Federal Reconstruction.  It seems plausible that craps could have been played for many years outside the purview of the white city officials and newspaper editors, who dealt with and reported on craps in 1880.  But in either case, the game seems to have been largely played by black gamblers. 

African Golf

In the mid-1910s, when craps became well-known outside the black community, the association of craps with African-Americans gave rise to a new nickname for the game.  The earliest indication of the new name that I found is from an announcement of the joint outing of a florists’ club from New York, hosted by the “Washington Florists’ Club at Great Falls, Va.” An invitation to the outing listed silly club officers’ positions, including, “Wm. Earnest, chairman humepatopcharox” and “Geo. Cooke, chairman African golf.” The American Florist, volume 47, number 1468, July 22, 1916, page 28.  Assuming that the florists were not, for the most part, black, the announcement of craps games in a florists’ magazine suggests that the game may no longer have been confined, exclusively, to the black community. 

New York Times, February 7, 1918

As the game of craps reached a larger audience when American soldiers prepared for World War I in early 1917, news items about soldiers playing craps generally suggest that the game was new to many of the white soldiers, and that they learned the game, for the most part, from black soldiers:

Murray is just telling us the news from the front, just having returned from the city, where he was an onlooker at a game of African golf.

The Marines Magazine, Volume 2, Number 4, April 1917, page 32 (Newsletter from Fort Mifflin, PA., by “Hablarias”, dated March 3). 

Col. William Hayward, former public service commissioner of New York, is preparing his regiment of negro troops for service in the trenches.  Every man in the regiment save Col. Hayward is colored.

The other day one of the petty officers approached Col. Hayward, “Colonel,” he said, “I is jest wonderin’ if over in Yurrup there will be any chance for us n--gahs to play any African golf.”

“African golf?” said Col. Hayward.  “Just what is African golf?”
To make a short story still shorter it was explained that African golf in the vernacular is shooting craps.

The Washington [DC] Herald, November 17, 1917, page 6. 

I forgot to state that we have better officers in our company than any company.  Our first lieutenant is a preacher and a fine man, for he will not allow gambling, swearing or cursing.  But they have a game here what they call the African golf, which they played down here recently.  Ever heard of African golf?  It’s a great gambling game.  It was originated by the Greeks, but is associated chiefly by the negroes.  The common name for it is dice, while at times it is vulgarly known as “craps.”  But in the army it’s African golf.

Warren Sheaf (Waren, Minnesota), January 9, 1918, page 1. 

‘African Golf’ At Front. 
Colonel Hayward’s Negro Troops Introduce Craps. 

The arrival in France of Colonel William Hayward, formerly a member of the Public Service Commission and now head of the 15th New York Infantry, is noted in a letter received from him yesterday by a friend, R. D. Lillibridge, of 111 Broadway.  In his letter Colonel Hayward says:

“Cold, cold, cold.  Commodore Peary and ‘Doc.’ Cook would have had chilblains on our sixteen-hour rail journey.  But my 2,000 singing, laughing, black, brave children don’t mind anything, and are anxious to get at the Huns.  They have introduced African golf (the American game of craps) over here, and the French soldiers like it.”

The New York Times, February 7, 1918.

Soldiers who first learned the game of craps in World War I, also learned the appropriate lingo:

     Come Yo’ Sev’n! Baby Needs New Shoes!

Logan Elsworth Ruggles, The Navy Explained, New York, E. N. Appleton, Inc., 1918, page 149.

Never was lost sight of the axiom that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and there were baseball, basketball, football, volleyball teams, boxing bouts, wrestling bouts galore – also a curious game played with two ivory squares called “Baby needs a new pair of shoes.”  At Peuvillers and Heippes and Orquevaux, “L.,” “M.,” Headquarters – and maybe others – were still intent on seeing that this particularly beloved infant didn’t go barefoot.  Who does that child belong to, anyhow?

Carl Edward Glock, History of the 316th Regiment of Infantry in the World War, 1918, publisher unknown, date unknown (between 1919 and 1925), Page 14.

Cards and dice, the old favorites, claimed considerable attention tho it was “agin’ the rules.” The negro is generally pointed out as being a natural gambler, especially at dice, but many of our boys take to the game with as much enthusiasm.  This twin-vice is a National Liability.

Four decks below over in the extreme corner, in the worst sort of light, would gather the gamblers, and a lookout.  I have overheard many dice games which run in this fashion:

. . . . If four was his point to make the player would lean over and shout (or whisper in this instance to conceal the secrecy of the game) “come, little Joe,” or “ma baby needs a new pair of shoes,” or “talk fo yo daddy,” or “dice, be nice,” ad finem.

Ernest Stone, Battery BThru the Fires of France, Los Angeles, Wayside Press, 1919, page 46.

The boys have been teaching me to roll dice.  Robert says when I learn a little more the other players had better look out for the gold fillings in their teeth.  I already known “snake eyes,” “little Joe,” “box cars,” “fever,” “talk to mama,” “big six,” “baby needs a new pair of shoes,” and a lot of the good terms.

Anonymous, One Woman’s War, New York, The Macaulay Company, 1930, page 119.

But despite its new, widespread acceptance, gambling, and craps, in particular, were still, generally, taboo:

Manager McGraw [(of the New York Giants)] caused it to be announced last night that hereafter African golf would be taboo in his club.  African golf, as we have painstakingly described, is played with small cubes.  The possessor of the cubes calls upon the gods on high to witness that the baby needs a new pair of shoes and implores certain numbers, particularly the seven and eleven, to disport themselves in public. 

Manager McGraw thinks so little of African golf that he is going to collect $100 from the first golfer he finds trying to flirt with Phoebe, Little Joe and Hudson Super, which is the latest sobriquet for six.

The Giants’ manager has a higher regard for poker.  It may be played safely until 11 o’clock at night, but after that it must be stopped, which is the first protection that has been offered the newspaper men on this trip.

New York Tribune, April 12, 1918, page 15.

Did Baby Get the Shoes?
“Seben” Arrested at McBaine for Shooting Craps.

“Come on you ‘seben’, baby needs a new pair of shoes.” Deputy Fred Brown raided a crap game in a shed at McBaine Saturday night and arrested seven negroes busily engaged in rolling the galloping dominoes.  Seven came but not on the dice and from the fines assessed it is doubtful if baby gets a new pair of shoes.

The Evening Missourian, August 4, 1919, page 1.

Iron County Record (Cedar City, UT), February 13, 1920

But even as the game faced legal challenges, it inched its way, full-circle, to legitimacy.  It may not have become a “gentleman’s” game, exactly, but it was practiced and approved by university men and women:

“Crap Shooting” Gets Big Boost

Society Advocates Its Substitution for Dancing; Would Greet by “Rattling Their Bones.”

University of Chicago to teach craps. 

Should the skillful shooting of the merry bones, the rolling of the six-faced ivories become a part of the higher curricula of the country’s great educational centers? . . .

Our favorite contributor reports that a movement is on foot among a group of enthusiastic undergrads to establish a course in crapshooting at the University of Chicago. . . .

“Craps,” he stated, “is one of the most ancient and honorable pastimes.  It originated among the Africans and has thus since the beginning been a gentleman’s game.  No one need lower himself to play craps.” . . . .

“Craps is fundamentally a democratic game, and as such is worthy of support from the University of Chicago, which is notorious for its Jeffersonian tendencies.  The game of craps was the mainstay, both at home and abroad of America’s fighting army.  At the roll of dice, or the rallying cry of ‘Come, you ‘leven,’ the ex-service men will gather again to support of the game. . . .

“The originators of the idea will not selfishly limit the pleasure of the game to their own sex.  Members will instruct their best girls in the art, and we expect to soon hear from the woman’s dormitory the steady drone of the dice and the enticing feminine plea, ‘Baby needs a new pair of shoes, co-o-me, yo’ seven.’

Iron County Record (Cedar City, Utah), February 13, 1920, page 8.

And a judge in Texas played craps with a convicted gambler to let him win back his fine:

My Baby Needs A New Pair of Shoes
By The Associated Press.
Dallas, Texas.

. . . “I see you understand the game thoroughly,” Judge Harnett said, “so I will just sentence you to pay a fine of $100, but I will give you a chance to get yourself out.  Take these dice and show me what you can do.  Here are ten matches. I will keep eight and give you two; each match representing $10.  Now try your luck and see if you go to jail or go free.”

He won, and went free. The Corpus Christi Caller, March 9, 1920, page 7.

After 1918, the phrase “baby needs a new pair of shoes” became a very common expression, usually associated with gambling, generally, or craps, specifically.  The Jazz Age started in about 1917, and the Prohibition Amendment to the United States Constitution went into effect in 1920.  Speakeasies, fast music, mobsters, and gambling went hand-in-hand.

Rogue River Courier (Oregon), September 21, 1917

Today, craps is played in the swankiest casinos by the highest high-rollers.


The price of shoes, and the frequent need for new shoes, seems to have been a constant concern in the 1800s, at least among people with limited means.  Although it is unclear whether some newspaper editor created the shoe-calico imagery, the regular appearance of woe-is-me editorials may have helped spread the familiarity with needing shoes and needing dresses as the twin pillars of thrift.  
It is also unclear whether the writer, or writers, at the New York Sun, who wrote the two early, viral “baby needs a new pair of shoes” jokes, used a phrase that had already gained currency, or whether they coined the expression themselves.  The earlier use of “Johnny needs a new pair of shoes” may have been inspired, “baby needs a new pair of shoes,” or may merely be derived from a common oral tradition. 

In either case, the phrases had legs, if not shoes.  They were put to comedic use, editorial use, advertising use, and used in general reporting.  Eventually, the phrase was picked up by craps players as a humorous way of invoking Lady Luck.  It is also possible that the phrase originated among craps players before the 1870s, and was borrowed by newspaper writers; perhaps they tried to win the money that their subscribers refused to pay.  But whatever the origin of the phrase, one thing remains the same . . .

Baby, needs a new pair of shoes! Come on, seven!

See the Trailer

[i] See, e.g., Raftsman’s Journal (Clearfield, Pennsylvania), December 19, 1855, page 2; Weekly North Carolina Standard (Raleigh), January 16, 1856, page 3.
[ii] Wikipedia (citing Tinker, Edward Larocque, The Palingenesis of Craps (1933), pp. 1-3.

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