Iowa Farmers, Wooden Shoes, and French Silk Weavers – a Laborious History and Etymology of
|The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York), October 5, 1896, page 7.|
A Monkey Wrench can be alternatively helpful or disruptive:
Monkey Wrench (Merriam Webster's Online)
1: a wrench with one fixed and one adjustable jaw at right angles to a straight handle
2: something that disrupts – threw a monkey wrench into the peace negotiations.
The origin of the first sense of the word is uncertain. It dates to at least 1829 and the word monkey may refer to the motion of the movable jaw up and down the shaft – like a monkey on a tree. For a comprehensive review of the early history of the tool and its name, see my earlier piece, Charles Monk, Monkey Wrenches and a “Monkey on a Stick” – a Gripping History and Etymology of “Monkey Wrench”.
And sorry Charlie, the boxer Jack Johnson did not invent the “monkey wrench” and the name is not a racist slur (“fake news” accounts to the contrary notwithstanding).
The origin of the second sense of the word, on the other hand, can be traced to a particular person at a particular time. Surprisingly, perhaps, the expression did not emerge from industrial sabotage of the early-twentieth century, despite the fact that one online word origin site traces the origin of the expression to 1907,[i] which is coincidentally the same year in which the word sabotage entered the English language. The expression can be traced to the Republican candidate for Governor of Iowa in 1897. Coincidentally, and perhaps appropriately, 1897 is the same year in which the word sabotage (in this sense of the word) was first recorded in French.
The French word sabotage has long been said to be derived from silk weavers in Lyon, France who purportedly threw their sabots (wooden shoes or wooden-soled shoes) into their looms to damage the machinery. Although the French silk industry experienced a series of violent revolts in the 1830s and ‘40s, the shoe story may refer to more recent history, the Lyon silk weavers’ strikes of 1894 that followed shortly after an Italian anarchist murdered the President of France in Lyon, arguably sparking the modern French labor movement. But the story, while good, may not be true in any case.
Iowa Farmers –
A Monkey Wrench in the Threshing Machine
In 1982, the sitting Republican Governor of Iowa, Robert Ray, announced that he would not seek another term. A few weeks later, his Republican Lieutenant Governor, Terry Branstad, announced his candidacy for the office. Branstad addressed the Iowa voters in folksy, plain-spoken language:
The big thing hanging over our head is the economy. It could really put a monkey wrench in things if it went to hell in a handbasket.
The Des Moines Register, March 14, 1982, page 15.
In 1897, the sitting Republican Governor of Iowa, Francis Drake, announced that he would not seek another term. In his stead, Leslie M. Shaw took the Republican banner and won the election. Shortly after election day, a newspaper recorded some of the rhetoric that helped him win the hearts of the voters – the expression was “worthy of Lincoln” – it is the earliest known appearance of the “throw a monkey wrench” idiom in print:
Hon. L. M. Shaw, the Vermont boy who has just been elected governor of Iowa, used an illustration worthy of Lincoln in addressing the voters. He asked them if they meant to go to the polls and deliberately drop a monkey wrench into the threshing machine just as we are starting at a new setting. They could see the point easily enough.
Herald and News (West Randolph, Vermont), November 18, 1897, page 2.
|Leslie M. Shaw|
Shaw was a first-time politician who grew up in Vermont before attending Cornell College in Iowa. After law school, he moved to Denison, Iowa where he started a thriving law practice.[ii] But when his clients experienced difficulty in obtaining loans to expand their business, he went into banking and mined his East Coast connections for an infusion of capital that helped the region thrive.[iii]
Shaw gained statewide notoriety during the 1896 Presidential campaign as a vocal and persuasive critic of the Democratic Party’s “free silver” policy. “Mr. Shaw’s opportunity came when he was asked to reply to an address delivered by [Democratic candidate for President] William J. Bryan. His grasp of the whole financial subject, his resistless arguments, and his convincing manner of presenting them caused him to be in great demand for public addresses all over the state.”[iv]
Shaw’s “convincing manner” of speech was on display the following year during his successful campaign for Governor when he uttered the first known appearance of a new idiom in print. The expression appears to have quickly caught on in Iowa. The second oldest example of the idiom I could find in print is also from Iowa:
Some wicked democrat must have dropped a monkey wrench or other entangling implement into the Republican editorial machine on Saturday. All its wheels, cranks, cams and gears went off in a splutter of grammar and rhetoric as confused as a broken down printing machine.
Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 9, 1899, page 4.
Governor Shaw was still using the expression in 1900, and newspaper writers still found it novel enough to record in minute detail:
Governor Shaw of Iowa, at a recent gathering of farmers in that state painted the following vivid picture of prosperity:
“You get up early these fall mornings: fog and mist and drizzle hang over everything; it is cold, belts slip, shocks are damp, men are cross, the engine don’t steam, it seems as if you would never get started. Presently the sun rises, the mist vanishes, things warm up, the men are cheerful, the horses prick up their ears, the machine hums, the golden grain fairly boils into the measure, the men on the stack begin a song, and a good day’s work is in prospect, when just then some fool drops a monkey wrench into the cylinder! My friends, prosperity has just begun to work nicely; don’t for mercy’s sake throw a monkey wrench into the thrashing machine.”
Norfolk Weekly News (Norfolk, NE), October 25, 1900, page 4.
In January 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt tapped Shaw and his banking expertise to serve as Secretary of the Treasury. An article in The Saturday Review introduced Shaw and his pet expression to a national audience:
Friends of the newly appointed Secretary say that he has many Lincoln-like qualities, not the least of which is his ability to weave homespun illustrations and metaphors into his public addresses.
Mr. George E. Roberts, Director of the Mint, who, at the time of Mr. Shaw’s emergence into prominence, years ago, was a newspaper editor in Iowa, delights to recall these speeches, which, as is generally conceded, had much to do with effecting the general triumph of the “sound money” movement. . . . .
“The one saying of his that most effectively checked the efforts of the silver leaders occurred in a speech in which he had been dwelling upon Iowa’s growth into prosperity, and on how, in his opinion, that prosperity would be ruined by a disturbance of the monetary standard.
“’You have plowed and planted,’ he said to the farmers, ‘and you are about to see your years of effort crowned with abundant success. And now, as you are about to reap your harvest, I plead with you as good and patriotic citizens, and as sensible farmers, not to drop a monkey-wrench into the threshing-machine!’
“The effect of this,” added Mr. Roberts, “was instantaneous. Every wheat grower in his audience had experienced the exasperating delay and expense caused by a wrench or hammer or other implement falling into the grain separator, and the expression, ‘Don’t drop a monkey-wrench into the threshing machine,’ became a shibboleth of the campaign throughout Iowa.
“And when the next year the people came to choose a Governor, Shaw was the man selected, although he had never before held office of any character.”
“Good Stories of Secretary Shaw,” Saturday Evening Post, January 18, 1902, page 15.
Years later, his hometown newspaper in Denison, Iowa credited him with coining what had by then become widely known expression:
Very many will remember Gov. Shaw’s old story about the advisability of throwing a monkey wrench into the threshing machine. The defeat of the state ticket would well nigh wrench republicanism and all the good that would be accomplished would be the venting of a little petty spite.[v] 
To use the well-known illustration originated by Governor Shaw, if ever a man was deliberately planning to “throw a monkey wrench in the cylinder,” that man is Third Term Teddy.[vi] 
I could not find any examples of the expression in print before the article in The Saturday Review that did not refer to Shaw or were not from Iowa, and the expression appeared regularly in print beginning in 1902, and in several instances specifically gave credit to Shaw.
The political origin of the expression is reflected by the fact that it was generally used almost exclusively in reference to political campaigns or policy debates during its early years. But the type of machine the increasingly proverbial “monkey wrench” was thrown In addition to threshing machines, monkey wrenches were thrown expanded beyond threshing machines to include cylinders, cog-wheels, machinery and works:
Now that the third district organization has named its candidate for congress, will it support the state ticket? If not, would it have any kick coming if some naughty Van Sant man should “throw a monkey wrench in the cylinder?”
The Minneapolis Journal, September 19, 1902, page 4.
The Republicans had the votes, they knew it, and they did not propose to let Percy throw a monkey-wrench into the cog-wheels.
Herald and News (West Randolph, Vermont), October 9, 1902, page 2.
Mr. Sherrick said he did not believe the people of Indiana, of their own volition, will put a rublock [(rub-lock; a wagon wheel brake)] on the wheel of progress. In the words of Secretary Shaw, “Will they deliberately throw a monkey wrench in the cylinder wheel?
The Indianapolis Journal (Indiana), November 1, 1902, page 6.
Collier’s Weekly continues to throw monkey wrenches in Charles Warren Fairbanks’ campaign machinery.
The Lake County Times (Hammond, Indiana), July 10, 1907, page 4.
[T]hus spake Candidate Warren G. Harding at Clarksburg: “I want all kinds of Republicans to get under the banner this year. I want the Taft Republicans, Roosevelt Republicans, Dick Republicans, Foraker Republicans, Garfield Republicans, Burton Republicans and Cox Republicans. There are going to be no monkey wrenches thrown into the machine by anybody.” Senator Dick will be there. He will throw no monkey wrenches – not even at himself – at the machine that paved the way for Mr. Harding’s enunciation of perfect stand-pat principles.
The Democratic Banner (Mt. Vernon, Ohio), October 14, 1910, page 6.
As late as 1921, one writer still considered the expression to be primarily associated with politics:
The judgment of astute politicians is that the American people, as a whole, are so universally hopeful of a favorable outcome of the [arms] conference, that they will not look with tolerance on anything in the nature of what politicians call “throwing a monkey wrench into the works.”
The Washington Times (DC), September 11, 1921, page 2.
But while it may have been closely associated with politics, the expression had long been used in other fields:
But at the opening of the present season someone threw a monkey wrench into the works and the old machine buckled up. In other words, the members of the team allowed spite and jealousies to creep in and the smooth running harmony, essential to a pennant race, was gone.
The Salt Lake Tribune, August 17, 1913, Sporting Section, page 4.
The only possible way in which these hotels [in Yellowstone Park] can make money – or in which they can possibly keep open – is by a highly specialized system of scheduled transportation. The machine has to advance so many tourists so many miles each day or there is a monkey wrench in the works.
The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 187, Number 49, page 57.
Pre-Shaw / Free-Silver Monkey Wrench
I mentioned earlier that I could not find any pre-Shaw examples of the expression in print. But Bill Mullin of the American Dialect Society Discussion List found one from 1892. Interestingly, it appeared in a story that refers to an Iowa politician and the “free silver” debate.
In the summer of 1892, the United States Congress wrestled with the pro-free silver “Stewart Bill,” which had been introduced in the Senate by William Morris Stewart, a pro-silver “Silver Republican” from Nevada. Richard Bland, a pro-silver Democratic congressman from Missouri, introduced an amendment to the bill. Some members criticized the move as an unnecessary impediment to moving the bill through Congress:
Bland’s action in insisting upon amending the Stewart bill has been severely criticized. He is charged with occupying the position of the man who threw a monkey-wrench into a threshing machine because he was not allowed to feed it. The trouble with Bland seems to be that it is Stewart’s bill and not his. He wants all the fame, even if he jeopardizes the cause in which he proposes to lead.
San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 1892, page 3.
One of the few Congressmen prominently mentioned in the article was pro-free silver Democratic Congressman from Iowa, Walter Butler. He was quoted in the article as being critical of the delay, so it is possible that he could have been the one who “charged” Bland with throwing the monkey wrench.
But despite all of the hand wringing, the bill went down in flames one week later.
|Pittsburgh Dispatch, July 14, 1892, page 1.|
But the expression lives on.
Dangerous Monkey Wrenches
Monkey wrenches were (perhaps still are) more than just proverbially dangerous – they were actually dangerous. Interestingly, one of the earliest accounts of a monkey-wrench-related industrial accident I could find happened in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and was reported in a Des Moines newspaper. Future Governor Leslie M. Shaw may well have read this story before coining of his now-famous expression:
Winfield Wickham, foreman in the box making department of a Cedar Rapids creamery and dairy supply house, met with a fearful accident. While at work he dropped a wrench on a moving pulley which was revolving at the rate of 2,500 times a minute. The high speed broke the wrench, and the pieces flew in different directions, the large, heavy end striking Wickham in the face. His nose was crushed flat, and a deep cut was made in the right cheek just below the eye.
Iowa State Bystander (Des Moines, Iowa), June 22, 1894, page 2.
Poor Mr. Wickham’s incident was not the first – and would not be the last such incident. As early as 1880, leaving a monkey wrench inside of a steam cylinder was representative of mistakes made by blundering mechanics:
He will leave a monkey wrench inside of a steam cylinder when he puts the head on, but he won’t leave any small stuff in there. He will do one of these outrageous things two or three times a year, and one of these blunders never teaches him to guard against the next.
James W. See, Extracts from Chordal’s Letters, New York, American Machinist Publishing Company, 1880, page 231.
Threshers were also at risk:
You may stick a bundle of wheat into a good thresher and it will go through with a zip and come out wheat in the sack and straw on the rick. It was intelligently calculated and constructed to do that. But drop a big monkey-wrench in it, and it goes through with a rip, the machine is broken, the monkey-wrench comes out scrap iron, and, if you don’t mind, somebody gets killed.
Blue-grass Blade (Lexington, Kentucky), November 21, 1891, page 4.
The sound of a monkey wrench in the cylinder of a threshing machine was so familiar by 1894 that one paper used the sound figuratively to describe the sound of lightning transmitted over telephone lines:
Early this morning there was a thunder shower in the mountains east of this city about thirty miles, during which the heavens were rent by electrical currents. So strong were they that they were carried over the telephone wires to this city and in the central office made such quick, sharp, rattling sounds that the young lady operator had to abandon the switchboard for a short time. The sound was very much like that made by the throwing of a monkey-wrench into the cylinders of a threshing-machine when in full operation.
The Los Angeles Times, August 26, 1894, page 11.
In an 1897 satirical piece about fraud, waste, abuse and incompetency in the United States Navy, “Bill Barnacle” related the story of the steamship Ranger which he said cut short her Aleutian cruise because of a monkey wrench left in the main cylinder of the ship’s steam engine:
She gets under way and is 17 days making Port Townshend, Wash. All this time her vitals is thumping fearful day and night. Nobody can sleep, and the engineers roasts their blooming ears listening at hot steam chests and iron bulkheads to locate this here pounding. Just as she crawls into port the Ranger breaks down. They over hauls the engines and finds a eight pound monkey wrench in the main cylinder, left there by the brainy bosses at Mare island. . . . – Charles Dryden in New York Journal.
The Topeka State Journal, March 3, 1897, page 6.
The funny thing is, the story may have been true.[xiii]
|The Paducah Sun (Paducah, Kentucky), February 13, 1903, page 7.|
It is essential to use a great deal of care in working the knife on the stave machine – especially instructing the machinist not to drop his wrench in the machine, but to keep it in the tool box, where it belongs when not in use, as a wrench won’t work well on the edge of a good knife . . . .
Barrel and Box Magazine (Chicago), Volume 14, Number 3, May 1909, page 34.
An old fashioned hand engine constitutes the village equipment, and that was put out of commission at the start by one of the firemen dropping a wrench into the valve.
New York Tribune, January 29, 1906, page 3.
Link Wilson had an accident Sunday. He was trying to tighten the brake bands in his Ford when he dropped the wrench in his engine. Consequently he was forced to walk to town.
Pullman Herald (Pullman, WA), April 22, 1921, page 3.
And of course, a monkey wrench might be used intentionally by a union saboteur (allegedly).
The Gospel of Sabotage
. . . Sabotage has been politely described by some of the militant socialists as “withdrawing efficiency” on the part of the worker. In plainer language it means spoiling the work you are paid to do, throwing a monkey wrench in the boss’s machine, ruining his business while pretending to build it up, and slipping a few sticks of dynamite under his office, or under his front porch, where his children play.
The Open Shop Review (Chicago), July 1913, page 29.
The throwing of a monkey-wrench into a piece of running machinery, the weaving of rotten threads into fabrics, the poisoning of wells and the like are things this country, including intelligent organized labor will not stand for.
The Day Book (Chicago), December 10, 1913, page 27.
‘Tis sweet to waken in the morn
With nature turning green
And throw a great big monkey wrench
In Townley’s own machine.
The Nonpartisan Leader (Fargo, ND), April 20, 1916, page 12.
“It’s about time for the hamstringers who are lurking in the grass, and the sabotagists who are trying to throw monkey wrenches into the war machinery to shut up or look for unpleasant consequences,” declares the Chicago Herald.
The Seattle Star, June 12, 1917, page 6.
That is why, the propaganda points out, that sabotage, both the European method of throwing monkey wrenches in the machinery and even destroying a plant or the “gentler sabotage” of “doping the soup” – poisoning – does not appear to an I. W. W. as a moral wrong.
South Bend News-Times (South Bend, Indiana), July 22, 1917, page 4.
The expression and the actual act of throwing monkey wrenches were so closely associated with labor unrest during the 1910s that some people assumed the word “Sabotage” was French for “throwing a monkey wrench.” Victor Luitpold Berger, a founding member of the Socialist Party of America, described the misconception during his trial for violation of the Espionage Act:
Some will say the word “sabotage” means throwing a monkey wrench, if you could translate it.[vii]
Victor Luitpold, on the other hand, believed that the true origin of sabotage in French was a reference to workers who threw shoes – not wrenches – into the machinery:
The word “sabot” means a wooden shoe. The French trade-unionists, originally being dissatisfied with new machinery that was introduced, tried to stop it, and in trying to stop it they would throw their wooden shoe (their sabot) into the machinery, and destroying things, then, in hindering the machinery, which they called “sabotage.” [viii]
Sabot Shop of a Sabotier, Mende, Lozere France, 1902.
|La France, Volume 2, Number 2, February 1902, page 120.|
If Luitpold was mistaken about the origin of sabotage, he was not alone. The wooden-shoe-in-the-machinery story is as old as the word sabotage in the English language. Harvard historian David H. Montgomery included the story in his 1903 edition of The Leading Facts of French History (Boston, Ginn & Company, 1903), which may also be the earliest example of the word in print anywhere in English.[ix] But Montgomery did not associate wooden-shoe throwing to French workers, generally, he associated it specifically with silk weavers whose strike in 1894 helped usher in the modern French labor movement, and who, a generation earlier, performed what may have been the first act of industrial sabotage, even if under a different name.
French Silk Weavers
In his 1911 book Sabotage, Emile Pouget, the French anarcho-communist (as opposed to an anarcho-syndacalist or even an anarcho-syndicalist commune), wrote, “Sabotage as a form of revolt is as old as human exploitation.” He traced the origins of organized French sabotage (under a different name) to the silk spinners of Lyon who, upon returning to work following three days of bloody riots and hundreds of casualties in 1831, rubbed oil on their fingers and spindles to artificially increase the weight of the silk they produced (weight being a measure of production), which flooded the market with stained, defective silk.[x]
Lyon was once again in the vanguard of the modern French labor movement when an Italian anarchist murdered the President of France there in 1894:
|The Evening World (New York), June 25, 1894, Brooklyn Last Edition, Page 1.|
Shortly after the murder, a prominent New York City anarchist named Mme. Marie Louise commented:
Lyons, you see . . . is the hotbed of revolutionary Anarchy. It is the headquarters of the silk-weavers – the most desperate sufferers in the world. . . . The silk weavers of Lyons – oh, they have a most beautiful mind, as may be seen in the lovely designs of silk they manufacture. But suffering has made monsters of them, and Carnot was their most immediate and conspicuous victim.
The Evening World (New York), June 25, 1894, Brooklyn Last Edition, Page 1.
Six months later, the silk weavers of Lyon went on strike:
The Union Times (Union, South Carolina), December 14, 1894, page 1.
The brief reports of the strike in American papers did not mention the wooden shoes or the broken looms. Anyone have access to local French newspaper archives?
The word sabotage first appeared in print a few years later when a French trade union officially sanctioned the practice[xi]:
“Sabotage” first found its way into print in October, 1897, when a trade union congress at Toulouse approved of its use as a form of direct action against employers. Since that time many labor congresses have recommended it.
The Sun (New York), April 28, 1907, 3rd Section, page 4.
In 1903, Montgomery attributed the origin of the French word sabotage to the silk weavers of Lyon:
Labor Questions; Syndicalists and Socialists. - Again, the nation has been called to deal with labor troubles which threatened, at times, to disorganize the industry of the whole country. The silk weavers of Lyons started a formidable movement in a new direction. Not satisfied with stopping work, they threw their wooden-soled shoes into their looms and broke the machinery. From that time different bodies of strikers have followed their example. They did so much destruction to mechanical plants that the word sabotage was coined to express it. FN 5.
5. Sabotage, from sabot (sahbo’), a shoe made entirely of wood, such as French peasants usually wear; also a wooden-soled shoe with leather uppers, such as factory operatives not infrequently wear.
David H. Montgomery, The Leading Facts of French History (Revised Edition), Boston, Ginn & Company, 1903, page 326.
|A Silk Worker in Lyon France – 1902 – she looks innocent enough. Omaha Daily Bee (Nebraska), October 26, 1902, page 30.|
The story seems plausible. The author was a serious Harvard historian who wrote several books on English, French and American history, and the detail of the shoes perhaps being “wooden-soled” shoes, as opposed to Dutch Boy-style wooden clogs, makes the story more believable to me. What could go wrong?
Was this Harvard historian mistaken? – did he repeat a folk-etymology that had already surfaced regarding a nearly unknown (in English) foreign word? – did he conflate his understanding of the footwear habits and political leanings of the French peasantry and industrial workers with the new expression of “throwing monkey wrenches” into machines? – or was there some truth to the story, even if there was a simpler explanation available? We may never know. Montgomery did not leave any breadcrumbs behind in the form of detailed footnotes, references or sources.
But there is a simpler explanation.
In 1911, Emile Pouget wrote:
Up to fifteen years ago the term Sabotage was nothing but a slang word, not meaning “to make wooden shoes” as it may be imagined but, in a figurative way, to work clumsily as if by sabot blows. Since then the word was transformed into a new form of social warfare and at the Congress of Toulouse of the General Confederation of labor in 1897 received at last its syndical baptism. [xii]
Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siecle, Volume 14 (published before 1895) includes at least two entries consistent with Pouget’s slang definition.
Larousse defined the noun, sabotage, variously as the process of making wooden shoes or making wooden railroad ties (wooden shoes for railroad tracks). The definition of the related verb saboter included the corresponding senses of making wooden shoes and making wooden railroad ties, but also included two additional senses that appear to be precursors of the modern word, sabotage:
Jouer au sabot: Un enfant qui SABOTER au lieu d'aller a l'ecole.
Faire vite et mal: Saboter de l'ouvrage.
[Playing the sabot: A child who SABOTER instead of going to school.]
[Do it fast and badly: Saboter the work.]
So, to saboter was to play hooky or work inefficiently. It was a small, logical step to apply the noun form sabotage to workers’ direct-action involving leaving work or working badly.
[ii] Merrill Edwards Gates, Men of Mark in America, Men of Mark Publishing Company, 1905-1906, pages 27-28.
[iii] “Good Stories of Secretary Shaw,” Saturday Evening Post, January 18, 1902, page 15.
[iv] Merrill Edwards Gates, Men of Mark in America, Men of Mark Publishing Company, 1905-1906, page 27.
[v] The Denison Review (Denison, Iowa), October 12, 1910, page 2.
[vi] The Denison Review (Denison, Iowa), Agust 7, 1912, page 5.
[vii] Certified Copy of the Testimony of Victor L. Berger at the trial of the case of the United States vs. Berger et al., Washington, Government Printing Office, 1919, page 51.
[viii] Certified Copy of the Testimony of Victor L. Berger at the trial of the case of the United States vs. Berger et al., Washington, Government Printing Office, 1919, page 51.
[ix] Etyomonline.com dates the earliest appearance of “sabotage,” as a foreign word in English, to 1903. It dates its first use as an English word to 1907.
[x] Emile Pouget, Sabotage (translated from the original French), Chicago, C. H. Kerr & Company, 1913, pages 37-40.
[xii] Emile Pouget, Sabotage (translated from the original French), Chicago, C. H. Kerr & Company, 1913, page 37.
[xiii] In May of 1892, the United States gunship Ranger made it half-way to Sitka before turning back to Port Townsend for repairs to her engine. See The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 29, 1892, page 7. Several weeks later, it was announced that a court of inquiry would meet to “ascertain why the Ranger was permitted to start for Bering sea with her machinery in such bad shape.” See The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 15, 1892, page 1.