The best “Mixture” for a sick heart is nine yards of calico, fine broadcloth, four armsful of humanity, a parson’s certificate of matrimony, a pair of canary birds and a bundle of green-house hollyhocks.
Nebraska Palladium (Bellvieu, Nebraska), November 15, 1854, page 1.
Might this home-spun advice hold the clue to the origin of the idiom, “the Whole Nine Yards”?
Everyone has heard the expression, “the Whole Nine Yards,” but, no one has been able to definitively determine the underlying meaning.
For decades the answer to that question has been the Bigfoot of word origins, chased around wild speculative corners by amateur word freaks, with exasperated lexicographers and debunkers of folk etymologies in hot pursuit.
Does the phrase derive from the length of ammunition belts in World War II aircraft? The contents of a standard concrete mixer? The amount of beer a British naval recruit was obligated to drink? Yardage in football? The length of fabric in a Scottish kilt (or sari, or kimono, or burial shroud)?
The Whole Nine Yards About a Phrase's Origin, Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times, December 26, 2012.
Until recently, the earliest known appearances of the word in print were from the early 1960s. That changed when Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Fred Shapiro found examples of the similar phrase, “the whole six yards,” in the 1910s and 1920s. The earliest known use of “the whole nine yards has since been pushed back to 1908, and “the full nine yards,” to 1907.[i] Although these antedatings conclusively dismissed the World War II ammunition belt theory, and likely the concrete mixer theory, the meaning remained inscrutable.
Many of the proposed origins relate to lengths of fabric or certain garments. At various times, people have suggested that the phrase was related to the length of burial shrouds, Scottish kilts, Indian saris, a three-piece suit, a nun’s habit, a sarong, a kimono, a bridal veil, or a Majarajah’s ceremonial sash. Those suggestions have generally been dismissed, for lack of concrete evidence, or based on the assertion that nine yards is not, and has not, been a standard length of a bolt of cloth.
Gerald Cohen recently found evidence that artists’ canvas rolls were sold in standard six-yard lengths in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He postulated that those six-yard rolls may have been the origin of, “the whole six yards,” which, in turn, may have given rise to “the whole nine yards,” by a form of “phrase inflation,” first suggested by Fred Shapiro.[ii]
Although all of those fabric suggestions smack of a folk-etymology, the mere fact that so many of the theories relate to fabric is enough to raise a few eyebrows.
A recent article appearing in Comments on Etymology may raise a few more eyebrows. As it turns out, fabric may actually have been sold in standard lengths that were multiples of three yards, most commonly nine-yards, at least in a retail setting.[iii] Although there is evidence of sales in other lengths, the sheer number of references to nine-yard (and three-yard and six-yard) lengths of fabric strongly suggests that lengths of fabric may well have been the inspiration for the idiom, “The Whole Nine Yards.”
Several advertisements for fabric give the price in dollars per nine-yards; numerous advertisements for cloth list the maximum length available as nine yards long; numerous advertisements for sewing patterns required nine yards of cloth for a dress or skirt; there were several stories describing disputes over nine yards of material; and several references mention that nine yards of cloth were generally needed to make a woman’s dress. Kilts, saris, scarves and bandages were nine yards long. The expression, “nine yards to the dollar,” attested from 1870, also suggests that nine yard was a standard length of cloth.
The fact that fabric was commonly, even if not exclusively, sold in lengths of multiples of three yards ties a neat bow around all of the various suggestions that six or nine yards of one or another of the various cloth items formed the basis of the expression, “whole six yards” and “whole nine yards.” Perhaps all of those various items used six or nine yards of cloth because six and nine yards of cloth were standard lengths.
[See more early "nine yards" references in my Whole Nine Yards Update.]
The Earliest Known, Literal Use of “the Whole Nine Yards” is Consistent with Nine Yards Being a Standard Length of Cloth
The earliest known use of the phrase, “the whole nine yards,” is from 1855. It appeared in a humorous story about a judge, who is out of town on business. He needs a new shirt for a dinner party, and arranges for the purchase of nine yards of material. Through a series of miscommunications, instead of three shirts, cut from three yards each, he gets one large shirt, cut from “the whole nine yards.” The Judge’s Big Shirt, Yankee Notions, volume 4, number 6, June, 1855, pages 166-167. In some retellings of the story, the punch line comes after the judge returns home; “Mrs Judge wanted to know what tremendous big woman’s ------ that was in his trunk?” Squatter Sovereign (Atchison, Kansas), May 8, 1855, page 1; True American (Steubenville, Ohio), March 22, 1855, page 4.
This early appearance of the phrase has generally been dismissed as a precursor to the idiom; in part, because it is literal, not figurative, and because it appeared a half-century before the idiom emerged, with no apparent link or intermediate step in between. The nine yards of cloth in The Judge’s Shirt appeared to have been coincidental.
Nine Yards for a Dollar
But the length of material in the story may not have been mere coincidence. In 1856, you could buy fabric priced at nine yards for the dollar in Massachusetts:
This Boston Store is on Main Street, four hundred and eleven,
Right next to Wilder’s Shoe Store, where good bargains now are given;
Then go to-day and buy a dress, - Prints, nine yards for a dollar, -
The Cottons, too, are very cheap, and custom’s sure to follow.
The Cambridge Chronicle, March 8, 1856, page 3.
In 1857, you could buy “American, English, and French CALICOES” for “Nine Yards for a Dollar.” The Ottawa Free Trader, October 10, 1857, page 3.
You could still get “Nine Yards of the best 12 ½ cent Calico for One Dollar” in West Virginia in 1877. The Democrat, March 27, 1871, page 4.
Nine yards seems to have been a common, if not standard, length of fabric available for retail purchase.
Humorous and Figurative Use of “Nine Yards”
The Judge’s Shirt was not the only humorous story to allude to nine yards of cloth. In 1902, an elephant joke asked, “if it takes nine yards of pink calico to make an apron for an elephant, how long will it take a mosquito with a wooden leg to bore a hole through a cake of sandsoap?” (Answer – No matter how thick the apple sauce is – remember she’s your mother.) The San Francisco Call, August 16, 1904, page 7.
In 1870, a humorous piece about the colorful language of an attorney refers to nine yards of material. In response to the high-toned language of opposing counsel (with references to Socrates, Romulus, Euripides, and Cantharides), an attorney brought the language down to the level of the jury:
“My client don’t need any of this fine talk. Look at him, gentlemen, and say, if you can, that he hasn’t done the honest thing by the plaintiff! From his youth up he has been as you now find him – A No. 1, extra inspected, scaled and screened, copper-fastened, free from scoots, silver-steel, buck-horn handle, nine yards to the dollar, thread thrown in!”
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 41, Number 241, June, 1870, page 158.
The story was reprinted in at least two newspapers (Fair Play, November 27, 1880, page 2, column 3; Ashtabula Telegraph, April 19, 1878, page 4, column 4) and included in two anthologies or collections of legal writing (Henry Frederic Reddall, Wit and Humor of the American Bar, Philadelphia, G. W. Jacobs & Co., 1905, pages 40; John Bernardine Dillon, Law, Lawyers and Honesty, Bridgport, Connecticut, Stevens Press, 1922, page 27).
Although I could not find any other example of that expression in print, I did find a number of examples of the expression, “the thread thrown in.” One of those references used the expression in a way that suggests that shorting customers of the measurement of cloth was a known practice that customers had to watch out for – perhaps it was that practice that may have been the impetus for the origin of the idiom, “the whole nine yards”:
Mr. Eugenius Augustus Van Scoik was a polite, good-natured, Miss-Nancy sort of a young gentleman, and of course soon acquired great popularity among the elderly ladies, to whom he always warranted his goods not to fade, tear, or wear out, and was certain to throw in the thread and little things, even if he had to thumb it a small amount in the measurement of the yards to make up for his generosity.
William Tappan Thopson, Chronicles of Pineville: Embracing Sketches of Georgia Scenes, Incidents, and Characters, Philadelphia, Getz, Buck & Co., 1853, page 87.
If some merchants “thumbed it a small amount” to increase their margins, perhaps going the “whole nine yards” referred to giving the whole amount requested. But why nine yards? Nine yards appears to have been a common, or standard, length available for purchase at retail, and a common amount used in dresses and skirts, and required for many sewing patterns.
Nine Yard Dresses, Skirts
The use “nine yards” in those early humor pieces may not have been a coincidence. Nine yards of material (as well as other multiples of three yards) seems to have been common, if not standard, length of material used in dresses or skirts, required for numerous sewing patters, and available for purchase at retail.
“Nine yards” of material is mentioned three times in a book written in 1887:
More than that, her appearance was one of the wheels in her father’s affairs. Any spiteful whisper that she was shabby, would be a injury to him that could be counted in dollars and cents. Yet a cent more, another yard of stuff, an inch of trimming of any sort, for the next three months would be for her as impossible as to add an hour to the day. Her stock in trade consisted of nine yards of brown cashmere, a wide brown hat, a brown ribbon, one pair of sixteen-button brown gloves, nine yards of white veiling, and a pair of thirty-button tan-colored gloves.
Czeika (Louise Furniss), An Operetta in Profile, Boston: Ticknor and Company (1887), page 220.
Still, that heroine possessed for her evening wear nine yards of stuff. I possessed nothing, unless I could subtract something from some member of the family.
Czeika (Louise Furniss), An Operetta in Profile, Boston: Ticknor and Company (1887), page 222.
The use of “nine yards” in that book may not have been coincidental. Nine yards of material was used to make many dresses during that period. A few years after that book was published, a newspaper reported that, “[n]ine yards of material – double width – is the usual quantity of stuff now used for an ordinary dress.” The Comet (Johnson City, Tennessee), June 6, 1895, page 2. And a book on the history of fashion, published in 1956, noted that, “[d]uring the [(eighteen-)]nineties, skirts attained a voluminous breadth, reaching in many instances seven to nine yards. Katherine Morris Lester, Historic Costume; a Resume of the Characteristic Types of Costume from the Most Remote Times to the Present Day, Peioria, Illinois, C. A. Bennett (1956), page 209.
A memoir of life during the Civil War also specified that nine yards of cloth were sufficient for a woman’s dress:
I was to card and spin eighteen yards of warp – nine yards of our wide heavy homespun being then ample enough for one plain dress.
Parthenia Antoinette Hague, A Blockaded Family, Life in Southern Alabama During the Civil War, Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin and Company (1888), page 81.
[W]e four had nine yards apiece cut off, paying twelve dollars per yard for it. It was something over a yard wide, and as we knew nothing of the ruffling, puffing, plaiting, tucking, or shirring of overskirts or polonaises outside the blockade, nine yards were amply sufficient for a dress.
Parthenia Antoinette Hague, A Blockaded Family, Life in Southern Alabama During the Civil War, Boston and New York, Houghton, Mifflin and Company (1888), page 92.
Nine Yards Patterns
Since dresses were known to use nine yards of material, it is not surprising that a number of sewing patterns advertised throughout the late 1800s, and into the early 1900s, called for nine yards of material. In 1875, for example, an newspaper described a:
. . . beautiful and becoming polonaise, designed for a cashmere toilet, is the ‘Jessica.’ It is adapted to all goods, excepting the heaviest, and is especially pretty, made in silk, cashmere, grenadine, batiste and similar materials. Nine yards of good, twenty-seven inches wide, will be required . . . .
The Burlington Weekly Free Press (Vermont), March 26, 1875, page 1
. . . goods made especially for tea-gowns is called ‘cut cashmere’ and comes with a deep border, to be used for the front of the gown or to edge the skirt. This material costs $1.25 a yard and nine yards is a full pattern.
The Climax (Richmond, Kentucky), September 26, 1888, page 4.
In 1890, an item about the importance of being able to do quick calculations while shopping, used an example in which a given pattern required twelve yards of material of one width, but only nine yards of wider material:
. . . when we stop to consider that the first is only thirty-six inches wide, and that it will require twelve yards, while the second piece is forty-four inches wide and only nine yards will be required, thus it is really cheaper to buy the better piece. – Good Housekeeping.
The Pullman Herald (Pullman, Washington), March 22, 1890, page 5.
In 1898, the nine-yard length was sufficiently standard, or common, that one store touted, “200 Full Nine-Yard Dress Patterns. . . 200 dress patterns of CHECKED WOOL GOODS, so stylish for skirts and waists, brown and white checks, black and white checks, navy blue and white checks, goods worth 25c a yard in 9 yard patterns – on sale at 98 c for the entire dress pattern.” Omaha Daily Bee, May 8, 1898, page 17.
In 1902, you could make a “home gown” from a pattern; “[t]he quantity of material required for the medium size is nine yards twenty-seven inches wide, or five yards forty-four inches wide.” The Indianapolis Journal, November 25, 1902, page 3.
In 1905, you could make a “tea jacket” from a pattern that required, “[a]bout nine yards accordion plaited silk . . . [and] about nine yards insertion, 18 yards embroider or lace.”Morgan County Democrat (Versaille, Missouri), September 22, 1905, page 3.
In 1909, you could make a dress with nine yards of material; “Nine yards of gingham will be needed.” The Caucasian, June 6, 1909, page 3.
In 1911, you could make a “graceful house gown” with “nine yards of of 27 inch material. The Ranch (Seattle, Washington), February 15, 1911, page 14.
Six Yard Dress Patterns
Patterns calling for six yards of material were also available:
The Bennington (Vermont) Banner, November 6, 1890, page 3.
The Evening Star (Washington DC), September 15, 1898, page 8.
The Evening Star (Washington DC), March 6, 1899, page 9.
The Marion (Ohio) Daily Mirror, December 9, 1907, page 4.
The Colville (Washington) Examiner, February 6, 1909, page 2.
Nine Yard Lengths of Material
With dresses and dress patterns needing nine yards of material, it is not surprising that nine yards was a common, if not standard, length of material available for retail purchase. It is unclear whether dresses were cut to that size because it was a standard length of cloth, or whether that length was available because nine yards was a desirable size. But in any case, lengths in multiples of three yards is a common thread running through many advertisements during the period; with nine yards often listed as the longest length available. Several advertisements for different types of materials, in different places, at different times, all suggest that nine yards was a common, if not standard, length in which material was available for purchase.
In Sacramento, in 1892, you could buy “remnants” in lengths from “one to nine yards.” The Record-Union (Sacramento, California), March 3, 1892, page 3.
In 1892, you could buy “remnants” in lengths from “two to nine yards” in Sacramento. The Record-Union (Sacramento, California), February 4, 1893, page 4.
In Michigan, in 1896, an advertisement offered material in lengths of six, seven or nine yards – but nine yards is the maximum length offered. The True Northerner (Paw Paw, Michigan), September 2, 1896, page 8.
In Kansas, in 1901, you could purchase “English Percales . . . none shorter than three or longer than nine yards”:
On next Tuesday morning at 9 o’clock we place on sale 3,000 yards of fine English Percale, 36 inches wide – short lengths of three to nine yards each, none shorter than three or longer than nine yards. But all new, clean Percales, fresh from the factory – in fact, they arrived before the full bolts of the same styles.
The Wichita Daily Eagle (Kansas), March 3, 1901, page 9.
Although the same advertisement refers to, “full bolts of the same styles,” suggesting that nine yards may not have been the maximum length available, the specific listing of lengths of three to nine yards is consistent with other sources that suggest nine yards may have been a standard, maximum length typically available at retail, and consistent with the recurrent theme of multiples of three.
In San Francisco, in 1903, you could buy remnants of “Windsor Cheviot Suitings . . . from four to nine yards long,” or “Remnants of Black Clay Serge. . . from three to nine yards long.” The San Francisco Call, July 19, 1903, page 26.
To be fair, the same advertisement also listed remnants of silk gloss mohairs “from two to ten yards long,” so nine yards was not the only length available. But the sheer number of references to three, six and nine yard lengths suggests that they may have been a common, or more common, standard length.
Nine yards was also the maximum length available in a remnants sale in New York City in 1909. The New York Tribune, June 20, 1909, part 8, page 1.
A comment in a book describing very fine silks available from India, suggests that “nine yards” may have been a standard length of material:
Silk stuff manufactured for trousering for home wear is said to be produced of the slightest texture, nine yards of some of which would scarcely weigh as many ounces.
George S. Cole, A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods and History of Silk, Cotton, Linen, Wool and other Fibrous Substances, Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company (1892), page 203.
Nine yards of material were at the center of three separate disputes, in three locations at three different times. The coincidence seems to suggest that nine-yard lengths of fabric were available in those shops, and that nine yards may have been a standard, or commonly available, length.
In 1901, a report, about a dispute involving the alleged improper measurement of a length of material, used the phrase, “full nine yards,” in the literal sense. The customer who had paid for nine yards of material, but received only eight, demanded their “full nine yards” of material:
I paid for nine yards of cloth and you gave me less than eight yards, I shall have to have an entirely new piece of cloth and I want it full nine yards.
Akron Daily Democrat (Ohio), November 14, 1901, page 4.
A woman in Minnesota was accused of stealing nine yards of material in 1882:
Carrie Morrison was up in the police court yesterday, charged with keeping a house of ill-fame, hearing upon which was continued. It seems, however, the charge was a blind. The arrest was made by Officer Hanft, at the instance of Georgia Minnick, who boarded with Morrisson, and who charged the madam with larceny from her of nine yards of dress goods, valued at $13.25. At the time Morrisson was arrested the stolen goods had not been found.
Daily Globe (St. Paul, Minnesota), December 20, 1882, page 8.
In 1915, a woman in Australia “pleaded guilty to a charge that, on August 18, she stole nine yards of dress material and a baby’s vest . . . . [A]n attendant in the shop observed defendant taking goods from the counter and placing them in her bag.” The Brisbane Courier, August 20, 1915, page 4.
In 1907, the material, “Vitrophane,” used to decorate window panes, was available in lengths up to “nine yards long.” The Evening Star, May 7, 1907, page 4.
Other Items Made with Nine Yards of Material (or other multiples of three)
If multiples of three yards were commonly available lengths of material, it could have influenced the lengths of goods made from the material.
In 1889, a dispute over possession of a “green sash” invoked the literal phrase, “the whole six yards”:
Belle Williams, however, explained the fact of the sash being in her possession, by asserting that her mother gave her six yards of the silk stuff in December last, when she bought it in a Kearney street store in San Francisco. She had the whole six yards made into a sash, but shortly afterward sat on some wine and grease and had to cut off about three yards of it and re-shape it.
Los Angeles Daily Herald, July 22 1889, page 2.
In 1878, a Tiffany scarf was nine yards long:
One of the curious articles exhibited at Tiffany’s is a scarf of gray Canton crape, which portrays the infernal regions, according to the Japanese idea. The scarf is nine yards long and a half a yard wide.
The Cambria Freeman, June 28, 1878, page 1.
A promotion for lace curtains in 1887 promised that with each six yards of curtain purchased, the customer would receive:
. . . a free cornice pole . . . worth nearly the price of the whole six yards of net.
Los Angeles Daily Herald, May 23, 1887, page 5.
Indian “scarfs” or saris were often nine yards long:
But a native woman can be very neatly dressed with scarcely a stich in her clothing. They all wear the sari, a cloth of any material from the coarsest cotton up to a fine muslin, silks, satins or brocade. It is nine yards long, and sufficiently wide to reach from the waist to the feet.
The New Orleans Daily Democrat, March 17, 1878, page 8.
More popular still are Indian scarfs of small figured, solid embroidery, from seven to nine yards long, and a yard and a quarter in width. They give an air of distinction to the Hindoos, about whose waists they are wound, and add beauty to any American garment.
The St. Louis Republic, November 23, 1902, Magazine Section, page 53.
In Scotland in 1907, a poem encouraging the use of kilts confirmed that some kilts used “nine yards” of material:
KILTS FOR MEN
(A doctor sets forth a plea for the kilt as a warm and hygienic garment.)
Kilts for men – we wives could make them;
Run them up with the machine;
Out of flannelette we’d fake them
Pretty plaids of red and green.
Daily life would grow romantic,
No ennui or boredom then;
With expectancey I’m frantic
For the fashion – kilts for men.
Kilts for men! Why, I should think so!
Nine yards round they’d take, I’m told,
And our dear ones need not shrink so
From the thought of chill and cold.
Kilts would suit both slim and tubby,
Homely men aplomb would gain,
And I’m certain with my hubby
I should fall in love again.
The Celtic Monthly: A Magazine for Highlanders, Volume 15, March, 1907, p. 110.
An article from 1887 described the length of cloth that a Tajik weaver could weave in one day as, “about nine yards a day.” Did the author use “nine yards” because that was a measured average (the author could have used a more precise measurement, or said “about twenty-five or thirty feet,” or “about ten yards”), or did the author use “nine yards” because it was close to average length, and was a standards length of fabric with which the reader would be expected to be familiar?:
The Tajiks weave both silk and cotton, but rarely hair or wool, except in the mountains. Among their products are striped glazed materials of cotton, of which a workman can weave about nine yards a day. For this he receives two and a half pence wages, though some weavers can earn as much as six-pence a day.
Harper’s Magazine, volume 17 (1887), page 581.
During the American Civil War, bandages could be up to nine yards long:
A few flannel bandages, two and a half inches wide and nine yards long, will be needed, and lint, scraped and raveled.
Nashville Union and American, October 18, 1861, page 2. A chart above this excerpt also listed bandages in lengths of 1, 3,4, 5, 6, and 9 yards in length – nine yards being the maximum length listed.
A cotton picking bag was described as a “nine-yard canvas cotton bag” (it is not clear whether it is nine yards long, or made from nine yards of material):
Let the fat ladies make themselves a nine-yard canvas cotton bag (holds about 65 pounds of cotton at one filling, packed in hard.) Pick that full two and three times a day and they’ll be reduced a plenty.
The Butte Daily Bulletin (Montana), February 4, 1920, page 2.
A widely reprinted piece of Christmas gift-wrapping advice, from the December, 1891 issue of the Ladies Home Journal, suggested to, “do it up in one of the colored tissue papers, tie it with the extremely narrow ribbon that can be bought for a few pennies, the whole twelve yards . . . .” The Helena Independent (Montana), November 26, 1891, Morning Edition, page 2.
The Whole Piece is Cheaper
As noted above, one of the reasons that the “whole” how-ever-many yards is desirable, is that it prevents a dishonest salesperson from shorting you on your purchase. A humorous look at the muddled math of a confused, cloth-buying customer, illustrates that the “whole ten yards” can be cheaper than cutting piece to size:
She was told that the piece, containing ten yards, would cost her 30 cents. Then a conversation something like the following ensued:
Customer – “O, I don’t want a whole piece. How much is it by the yard?”
Sales Woman – “We have to charge five cents a yard when we cut it.”
C. – “Five cents? Well, I guess seven yards will be enough.” [Here the stuff is measured.]
S. W. – “Thirty-five cents, please.”
C. – “How much is there left?”
S. W. – “Three yards.”
C. (presumably mentally reckoning that ten times five are fifty) – “How much for the whole ten yards?”
S. W. (demurely, but with an eye to business) – “O, you could have the ten yards for 45 cents.”
C. – “Very well. I guess I’ll take ten yards.” [Planks down 45 cents and departs satisfied.]
St. Johnsbury Caledonian (St. Johnsbury Vermont), May 10, 1888, page 2.
Nine yards appears to have been a common, if not standard, length in which fabric was sold, or desired, in the late-1800s and early 1900s. If it is true that the six and nine yards were common lengths in which fabric was sold, it might explain why so many different items made from fabric (funeral shrouds, kilts, nuns’ habits, three piece suits, wedding veils, and artists’ canvases) are said to have been nine or six yards long.
Completely unrelated (probably) nine-yard comics from baseball and football:
|The Review (High Point, North Carolina, July 12, 1917, page 8.|
|The Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia), April 11, 1920, page 63|
[i] Gerald Cohen, Reflections on ‘the whole six yards’ (1912), ‘the full nine yards’ (1907), and ‘the whole nine yards’ (1908), Comments on Etymology, Volume 43, number 8, May 2014, page 24.
[ii] Gerald Cohen, The whole six yards’ (possible precursor to ‘the whole nine yards’) may derive from artists’ canvas rolls six yards in length, Comments on Etymology, Volume 43, page 24, May 2014.
[iii] Peter Reitan, Origin of The Whole Three/Six/Nine Yards: The Sale of Cloth in Multiples of Threes Was Common in the 1800s and Early 1900s, Comments on Etymology, Volume 44, number 4, January 2015.