Saturday, March 30, 2019

Shipping News and Starlets - a Revealing History of Cheesecake

The expression, “Cheesecake. . . a photographic display of shapely and scantily clothed female figures”[i] was coined by a ship news photographer at a time when a bare knee was about as scanty as the clothing went.

Newspaper photographers early discovered the “cheesecake,” that photograph peculiar to front pages which shows an attractive young woman perched on a ship’s railing with her legs crossed.[ii]

On September 30, 1915, noted Russian baritone, George Baklanoff, arrived in New York City on the French steamer Espagne enroute to Boston for a return engagement with the Boston Grand Opera Company.  By his side for the first time was a young singer on her first trip to the United States, Elvira Amazar.

She caught the eye of a ship news photographer, hiked her skirt up just the teensyest-weensyest bit for a few “revealing” (by 1915 standards) photographs, believed to be the very first “Cheesecake” pictures by that name and inspiration for a new idiom.

Philadelphia Inquirer, October 2, 1915, page 2.

The apparent source of the origin story was published years later, in 1953, in a one-off magazine-style pictorial with Marilyn Monroe on the cover, Cheesecake: An American Phenomenon.

Legend has it that an enterprising New York ship news photographer once asked a beautiful woman to lift her skirt ever so little to make a better picture.  The beautiful woman complied.  When the editor, something of a gourmet, saw the picture on his desk, he exclaimed, “Why this is better than cheesecake!”  The photograph above, taken by ship news cameraman George Miller of the Bain News Service on September 30, 1915, may be the first “cheesecake” photo published in the American press.  The beautiful woman who pleased the cameraman was Elvira Amazar, a Russian diva, just arrived by ship in New York, to sing in the Boston Opera Company.

Cheesecake: An American Phenomenon, Dunellen, New Jersey, Hillman Periodicals, 1953.

While it may be impossible to prove these specific claims beyond a shadow of a doubt, several elements of the story are supported by documentary evidence.  The stated date of arrival is verified by contemporary reports.  The name of the news organization, Bain News Service, appeared in print in some of the contemporary examples of the published photos, and the name can be seen written on what appears to be a surviving original print, and the image number hand-printed on another image corresponds to similar numbering on the one marked “© Bain.”     

Although the identity of the photographer cannot be conclusively determined, there was in fact a well-known, experienced news photographer named George Miller who joined the Hearst organization in the mid-1920s.

Urbane George Miller, a veteran of the Hearst service, is in charge of the squad of “still” men from the American and Journal . . . .  Benny Aumuller has been with the Hearst papers twenty-five years, George Miller eleven years.  You have seen their sports pictures in The American and Journal many times.

The Evening News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), January 7, 1935, page 12.

George Miller was still taking the occasional “cheesecake” pics in the 1960s.

And although “cheesecake” does not appear in print before 1930, the practice of taking hiked-skirt shots aboard arriving ships was a well-established trope before 1930.
New York Daily News, July 31, 1921, page 30.

This morning Miss Adele Lollipop was on the list of steamer arrivals.  The ship news photographerdid you ever meet a ship news photographer?lit on her like butterflies on a rose.  That isn't the simile I'd like to use, but it must serve:

Cross your legs, said the S. N. P.s. Show more leg.

Precisely in those words.  However, they use the same command on every woman whoseerunderpinnings seem worthy of an extensive revelation, no matter what her position in society.  And she always does.

The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), July 25, 1925, page 4.

When the ship news photographers discovered Paramount’s pet, she was ready for them in the shortest skirt extant and wearing high novelty white boots, and as pliant as molasses taffy.

She crossed her knees, exhibiting a long length of limb for a five-foot actress, she worked earnestly with them to uphold the tradition of all those other Hungarian, French and Russian dancers and actresses who have posed on so many ship railings for so many years for so many cynical ship news photographers.

The Boston Globe, March 30, 1926, page

Lya de Putti in the “shortest skirt extant and wearing high novelty white boots.”

The practice was stale enough by the late-1920s that at least one writer hoped for a little variety.

There seems to be room, however, for originality among ship news photographers.  We are tuning up for a full-throated Gloria in Excelsis for the one who poses a returning actress aboard ship with her skirts covering her knees.

Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, July 16, 1928, page 24.

 And even if it wasn’t George Miller, in particular, who took the first “cheesecake” photo or his editor at the Bain News Service who coined the expression, it was likely coined by someone similarly situated.  The earliest known example of “cheesecake” in print specifically identifies ship news photographers as the source of the expression.

Dorothy Mackaill, blondely attractive, posing for press photographers . . . . . They skidded in their intentions to get a “cheese-cake picture” . . . .  In case you’re a bit rusty in ship news vernacular a cheese-cake picture is one in which the subject exposes her legs . . . . The tabs eat ‘em up . . . .

The Film Daily, September 11, 1930, page 5.

Another early example provided a similar, though slightly narrower definition.  It also illustrated that not all young starlets were as cooperative as others.

No Cheesecake

Wendy Hiller, pretty, 20, and arriving in the Cunard White Star liner Berengaria to play here in “Love On the Dole”, in which she appeared for a year in London, was too much afraid of the frigid American weather prevailing to go on deck to pose for the ship news photographers while the ship lay off the New York Quarantine station, at Rosebank, Staten Island, and asked that the pictures be made in her stateroom.

Thither the photographers went.

“Young and pretty”, observed one of the lens knights.

“Yes”, mused another; “We’ll have to get some cheesecake.”

“Cheesecake”, by the way is the ship news name for a photograph showing a girl sitting on the ship’s rail with her legs crossed, her right arm held aloft and her skirt pulled high enough to show her knees. 

Such pictures have long been one of the principal attractions for the ship news photographers on arrival day.

But Miss Hiller wouldn’t go up to the ship’s rail; she would have to be photographed in her room.

Undaunted, the photographers sat her on a small bureau, and arranged her very neatly.

Then one of them suggested that she show a bit of knee, as this was a great American custom.

“Young man”, she said with a smile and a certain among of British positiveness, “I came here to show my talents, not my knees.”

So there was no cheesecake.

Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), February 23, 1936, page 2.

Nope. No cheesecake here.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 15, 1936, page 2.

One of the reasons Wendy Hiller may have been taken aback when asked to provide some “cheesecake” upon her arrival in the States, is that the custom was uniquely American and unfamiliar to her.  When the British actress Anna Neagle first arrived in the United States on the Aquitania in 1937, ship news photographers posed her for some traditional, American “cheesecake,” precisely as it was defined in the report of Wendy Hiller’s arrival, “sitting on the ship’s rail with her legs crossed, her right arm held aloft and her skirt pulled high enough to show her knees” – well, perhaps not all of her knee, she being a modest Brit, after all. She’s on the right.

New York Daily News, October 13, 1937, Manhattan Section, page 4.

Anna Neagle wrote about the experience two years later before returning to England to help with the war effort.

Naturally, I realized there would be some difference in making pictures between the two places.  But I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were.  I began getting a bit of an idea the day we landed in New York!

. . . I was still in a slight fog, still lost in those early-war days, when the reporters came on the ship.  “Okay, Miss Neagle,” said a photographer, “now let’s have a little cheese cake, please.”

I blinked.  Cheese cake?  “I’ll call the steward to see if we can get some,” I said.  How those men laughed! “We don’t want to eat it,” they informed me.  “cheese cake means that we’d like you to sit on the rail, cross your knees, and turn on the glamour for a picture.!”

“What I Found Out About Hollywood,” Anna Neagle, Silver Screen, Volume 9, Number 12, October, 1931, page 44.

The expression does not appear to have gone mainstream until the early 1940s, at about the same time GIs started collecting “pin-up girls” during World War II.  There was, however, at least one early example of “cheesecake” in popular fiction, suggesting that the expression had started to expand from its ship-and-knee-specific meaning into something more general by the early-1930s.  Ironically, perhaps (for something so racy), it was in a book about the wholesome Iowa State Fair.  In Phil Stong’s book, “State Fair,” later adapted for the screen as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, a photographer for the Des Moines Register asks Mrs. Frake and her daughter Margy to stop and pose for a few pictures after Mrs. Frake won first prize in three categories of pickles.

“Stand still a minute, will you, lady? Both of you stand still.  I want to take your pictures for the Register. . . .

Without going into the matter farther, Mrs. Frake posed. “Wish you had a jar of pickles,” the photographer said, “but this is going to be an exclusive, any way you look at it.  Just smile the way you did, will you?  Oh, that’s fine! Put your hand on your hip to hold up your dress a little – no! – I’ve got to get a little cheesecake in this picture!”

“Cheesecake,” said Margy. “What’s that?”

“Don’t be stupid.  It’s display of the female figure.  It’s just a word us cameramen use.  Meaning something it’s always a soft job to photograph – well, anyway – stand quiet – there’s one – two – three. Thanks!”

Phil Stong, State Fair, as serialized in The Des Moines Register, August 21, 1932, Section 10, page 3.

But whatever the source, “cheesecake” became a permanent piece of American pop-culture and a new word in the –“legsicon.”  
News-Palladium (Benton Harbor, Michigan), November 11, 1939, page 4.

In the interest of gender equity, let us not forget the male equivalent, “beefcake.”  It dates to about 1949, and may have been coined by the publicity department at Universal-International Studios.  The first “beefcake” picture to be known by that name may have been an image of the reluctant sex-symbol and British film actor, Philip Friend.

That charming young British actor, Philip Friend, whom you’ll see opposite Yvonne De Carlo in “Buccaneer’s Girl,” has a fan who’s persistent, to put it mildly.  She wrote asking for a picture of him in bathing trunks and when he replied politely that he wasn’t the outdoor type, didn’t own a pair, she just up and sent him some nifty swimming shorts.  Yep, she got the picture and U-I invented a new word for male pulchritude in the abbreviated costume.  The word – “beefcake.”

Screenland, Volume 54, Number 3, January, 1950, page 52.

The earliest example I could find in print appeared just a few months earlier.

Sioux City Journal, October 10, 1949, page 5.

Photoplay, Volume 49, Number 6, June 1956, page 60.

Bon Voyage!!!

[ii] The Pittsburgh Press, March 24, 1939, page 36.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Sweet, Elite Madness - an Alliterative History of March Madness, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Cinderella at the Big Dance

Indianapolis News, March 28, 1936, page 1.

It’s MARCH MADNESS!!!  Time for a CINDERELLA team to go to the BIG DANCE!!!

Time to winnow the field down to the SWEET SIXTEEN!!! and the ELITE EIGHT!!!

In American pop-culture, all of these expressions are widely associated with NCAA Division I championship basketball tournament, where they were popularized by television basketball analysts like Al McGuire, Brent Musburger and Dick Vitale during the late-1970s and early 1980s.  

Most of these expressions, however, are much older.  “March Madness” and “Sweet Sixteen,” for example, were firmly entrenched high school basketball idioms in Indiana during the 1930s, “Cinderella” was commonplace by the 1940s, and “Elite Eight” was standard in Illinois high school basketball during the 1950s.  “March Madness” and “Sweet Sixteen” both had long histories as non-basketball idioms before James Naismith wrote the rules of basketball in 1891.

March Madness
Before Basketball

“March Madness” is older than the NCAA men’s basketball tournament – and older than basketball itself.  It was derived from the old expression, “as mad as a March hare” which has “been around since at least the mid-1500s,” originally as a reference to “the phenomenon of hares becoming very aggressive during breeding season in March.”[i] 

Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, playwright contemporaries of William Shakespeare whose fame rivaled the Bard’s during his lifetime, used the adjectival precursor, “March mad,” several times in the early 1600s.

The noun version, “March Madness,” appeared in print as early as 1825, in a criticism of a rival newspaper’s positions on tariffs and foreign affairs.

The Spring Fever.

“Mad as a March hare,” is an old adage, and applies with great force to the condition of the Courant about these days.  As often as the year comes round, and just about the time of the breaking up of the ice, the Courant is seized with a strange nervousness on the subject of “Protection,” a sort of sexual phrenzy which never shows itself at any other season.

This propensity to go crazy about the tariff, once in twelve months, is a very proper matter for medical inquiry, and if looked into as it deserves to be, might suggest some useful hints for the medical jurisprudence of the country.

. . . To conquer Cuba is the mild dictate of common sense, while to protect American Industry is ‘March’ madness!

By the late-1800s the expression was regularly used to describe March weather.

-- Sunday night's severe snow storm, blustering, blow and wild wind was a let loose of old-fashioned March madness without method or merit.  A friend suggested that it was next winter.

The Clarion Democrat (Clarion, Pennsylvania) March 20, 1869, page 3.


New York, March 28. -- New York experienced a somewhat topsy-turvy early morning to-day, due to a heavy wind, blinding snow and frozen sidewalks and streets.  Cars collided with each other or with automobiles, signs and fences were blown down and trees uprooted, pedestrians were knocked over by trolley or motorcars or by mail trucks, one woman was blown into the East river, but was rescued, a frozen rail caused a short circuit which set fire to an elevated train and the rush hour traffic generally was hampered.  A dozen persons were injured, several being removed to hospitals.

Harrisburg Telegraph (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), March 28, 1919, page 1.

During the early decades of the 1900s, the expression was used in a several weather-related poems.

Des Moines Register, March 8, 1923, page 12.

Chicago Tribune, March 18, 1923, page 21.

Chicago Tribune, March 26, 1929, page 12.

A third poem mixed its weather and spring courtship metaphors.

March Madness.
By S. E. Kiser.

In the wild and windy month of March I met her.
I was merry, with the spirit of the Spring;
Her beauty made me wish that I could get her
To learn to look to me for everything. . . .

In the gusty month when winds become the maddest
I settled for the hearty lunch she ate;
Of all the people there, I was the gladdest;
How daintily she scooped things from her plate! . . .

In the month of March we took a ride together;
The taxi man drove wisely – to the park;
I told him that we didn’t mind the weather
And had no dread of riding after dark; . . .

It was in the month of March that, snuggling near me,
She told me of the husband that she had;
“Come out,” she said, “and help to make him fear me;
He has walloped both my brother and my dad!
Come out and give him chase,
And I’ll promise you his place;
You shall wed me when his hateful claim expires –
There was mist upon her hair
When I paid the taxi fare-
I am not at home, if any one inquires.

Pittsburgh Press, March 17, 1921, page 12.

In 1921, Babe Ruth broke Roger Conner’s career homerun record while setting a new single-season record with 59 homeruns, setting off fan frenzy in spring training the following season.  One baseball scribe dubbed the intense interest in the Babe’s meaningless, pre-season homeruns a form of madness – “March Madness.”


The rooters raise a mighty shout
   And make the well-known welkin ring
When Ruth achieves a four-base clout,
   Although it doesn’t mean a thing.

Spring training may have been interesting for Yankees’ fans in 1922, but it was generally (then as now) a relatively hum-drum affair.  High-school basketball, on the other hand, provided excitement on an annual basis. 

In Indiana in particular, the high school basketball tournament became a form of madness – “basketball madness.”

Lansing State Journal (Lansing, Michigan), March 21, 1925, page 17.


The night before Christmas may intrigue a number of little folk and those who minister to their desires.  For those who have ceased to believe in Santa Claus, however, it scarcely can compete with the all-important date which marks the opening of the annual state high school basketball tournament. 

To say that the fans are agog would be putting it mildly.  All the enthusiasm which has been accumulating during the last twelve months scarcely diminished by the occasional effervescence of the playing season, is not ready to burst forth in a frenzy of basketball madness.

The Indianapolis Star, March 1, 1929, page 8.

Coming as it did in March every year, “March Madness” was a natural fit.  The expression was first used no later than 1931.[ii]  The earliest known example played off the conventional March madness-as-weather usage.

March Madness

The elimination of Anderson Tech, Columbus and Shelbyville were only mere flurries of what is to follow this week at the various basketball conventions in sixteen regional cities.  – Newcastle Courier-Times.

Rushville Republican (Rushville, Indiana), March 11, 1931, page 2

This early use may have been a one-off.  The next-earliest example of “March Madness” in reference to a basketball tournament appeared in 1937.  In any case, it was certainly not yet standard in 1931.  A report of the Indiana state finals that same year used “basketball madness,” not “March Madness.”

Butler Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, March 21. – Indiana’s basketball madness reached its peak here to-night as Muncie’s Bear Cats and Greencastle’s Cubs tore into each other for the state high school championship.  They were the survivors of a total of 766 quintets whch three weeks aago began play for the title.

The South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Indiana), March 22, 1931, page 8.

“Basketball madness,” and not “March Madness,” appeared regularly, if infrequently, through 1936.

[A]ll eyes were on the Jefferson-West Side encounter this afternoon.  “Basketball madness” at its best!

Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), March 2, 1935, page 9.

Muncie Evening Press (Muncie, Indiana), March 18, 1935, page 4.

In 1936, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Indiana State High Basketball Tournament, an Associated Press item appearing in several newspapers used the expression, “basketball madness.”

Crawfordsville, Ind., Feb. 19. J- Indiana, now in the throes of its annual basketball madness will stop cheering the 1936 teams long enough on Feb. 22 to honor the nine men who, as members of the Crawforsville High school team, won the first state interscholastic tournament back in 1911.

South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Indiana), February 19, 1936, Section 3, page 2.

In 1937, an Associated Press appearing in several newspapers used the expression, “March Madness.”

Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), January 5, 1937, page 13.

But the expression may have been in regular use before 1937, even outside of Indiana, as suggested by its use in the neighboring state of Michigan that same year:

High school basketball tournament time, oft referred to as March Madness, is with us in full force.

The Escanaba Daily Press (Escanaba, Michigan), March 7, 1937, page 36.

Within a few years, “March Madness” would be in regular and frequent use throughout the Midwest, including in Illinois (1940), Iowa (1941), Ohio (1944) and Wisconsin (1947).

Other states also had basketball tournaments, but without the attendant “madness.”  In Nevada, for example, one newspaper used “March Madness,” without any hint of irony or humor, to describe tax season on the same page as it reported the results of a local conference basketball tournament:

Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada), March 1, 1939, page 1.

But not all basketball tournaments were equally “mad.”  A distinguishing element of what made Midwestern “March Madness” particularly crazy was the fact that every team in the state took part in the tournament, providing a longer tournament season, more games, more hope, more risk, and paving the way for more crazy, maddening upsets. 

In 1945, a region of New York adopted a similar format.  An article announcing the new format explained the difference between a conventional tournament and what was then understood as “March Madness.”

Called ‘March Madness’

Preliminary plans for tournament play are well under way, it was said today by Kurt Beyer of Norwich, sectional chairman.

Tournament basketball, under the sponsorship of the state association, will be the feature athletic attraction of the month of March.  Known in the Midwest as “March Madness, the sport will be available for each of the 85 schools in Section-Four.

The tournament plan for the section is comparable to that employed in the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and others where all schools are permitted to enter the play for championships.  Contrasted to this is the plan prevalent in other sections of this state where only league winners meet in eliminations for championships in various classes of schools.

Press and Sun-Bulletin (Binghamton, New York), February 1, 1945, page 15.

Even though every team in Indiana could participate in the early rounds of the state high school basketball tournament, only a select few were invited to Indianapolis for the last few rounds; sixteen teams – the “Sweet Sixteen.” 

Sweet Sixteen

Like “March Madness,” “Sweet Sixteen” had a long history as an unrelated idiom before it was picked up in basketball.  And even then, the earliest examples of it in basketball referred to pre-season or pre-tournament rankings, and not the final sixteen teams remaining in a tournament. 

          Before Basketball
Los Angeles Sunday Herald, April 3, 1910, Section 4, page 4.

Then, as now, “Sweet Sixteen” was used to describe young girls in the flower of youth as they bloomed into adulthood. The expression is found in the poem, Wyoming, by an American poet named Fitz-Greene Halleck, said to have been written in 1821.


Thou com’st, in beauty, on my gaze at last,
“On Susquehannah’s side fair Wyoming!”
Image of many a dream in hours long past,
When life was in its bud and blossoming,
And waters gushing from the fountain spring . . .

. . .
 There’s one in the next field – of sweet sixteen, –
Singing, and summoning thoughts of beauty born
In heaven, with her jacket of light green,
“Love-darting eyes, and tresses like the morn,” . . .

June, 1821.               F. G. H.

New York Evening Post, February 10, 1827, page 2.

Another American poet, William B. Tappan, used the expression in 1822.

To a Lady of Sixteen
By W. B. Tappan.

Lady! While gaily opes on you
The world’s alluring, witching smile;
While flowers of every form and hue
Spring forth, your pathway to beguile –
O Lady, in the bursting dawn
Of hope, may real bliss be seen,
May bland contentment gild your morn,
And peace be yours at fond SIXTEEN.

. . .

Though cloudless suns for thee may rise,
And bright the joys that for thee shine;
O who may tell these beauteous skies,
These cloudless suns shall long be thine;
Yet long may these your day illume,
And may not storms, with rigor keen,
Assail the flower that loves to bloom
On the fair cheek of sweet SIXTEEN.

American Repertory and Advertiser (Burlington, Vermont), September 3, 1822, page 4.

“Sweet Sixteen” was used as a trademark for beauty products as early as 1884.[iii]

A “sweet sixteen birthday party” or “sweet sixteen party” was a “thing” by the 1880s.

Miss Blanche Loriomr gave a “sweet sixteen” birthday party on Saturday evening to a number of the “sweet sixteens” of the town.

Jackson County Banner (Brownstown, Indiana), February 11, 1886, page 1.

“Sweet Sixteen and never been kissed” appeared several decades later.

Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Inquire of W. Duland for free samples.

The Marion Star (Marion, Ohio), December 21, 1892, page 5.

“Of course I went, I was a little country girl, ‘Sweet-sixteen-and-never-been-kissed’ kind of one you know.”

Juniata Sentinel and Republican (Mifflintown, Pennsylvania), April 12, 1893, page 4.

In the early 1900s,there were several “Sweet Sixteen” songs and stage acts.

The Austin American (Texas), November 30, 1919, Section C, page 3.

In 1917, the White automobile company sold a car with a four-cylinder, sixteen-valve engine as, “The Sweet Sixteen.”

Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1917, Part 6, page 4.

In a report of an automobile race in Los Angeles in 1923, “Sweet Sixteen” took on a meaning more closely related to the later basketball usage.

With every one of the sixteen racing cars entered for next Sunday’s big championship motor event at the Los Angeles Speedway so fast that speed qualification elimination tests have been abandoned as needless, there will be no “scratches” of entrants.

This announcement . . . was made after it became known that not a car of the “sweet sixteen” has done less than 107 to 108 miles per hour in last week’s informal practice laps.

Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1923, Sports News, page 1.

“Sweet Sixteen” was still in regular use in its conventional sense as well.

The Post-Star (Glens Falls, New York), March 25, 1926, page 6.
Minneapolis Star, July 14, 1926, page 1.


The earliest examples of “Sweet Sixteen,” as applied to high school basketball tournaments in Indiana, did not refer to the sixteen teams playing in the final rounds of a tournament, as is generally the case today.   Instead, they referred to pre-season or pre-tournament predictions of the best teams in the county or state, or the teams expected to make it to the final weekend of the tournament in Indianapolis.

In 1927, a sports columnist in Muncie, Indiana invited readers to send in their lists of the best teams in their respective counties.  Three readers submitted lists with varying numbers of teams, each one cribbing the name of their list from some other source. 

Dan from Muncie, for example, submitted his “Big Ten” in the state, likely a reference to the collegiate athletic conference known by that name since the 1917 season.  Bob from Yorktown submitted his “Natural Eleven” of Delaware County, a nod to the game of Craps.  And finally, Bolivar and Jushua of Randolph County submitted their “Sweet Sixteen” of that county.

Star Press (Muncie, Indiana), March 3, 1927, page 10.

A few weeks later, an Associated Press article used the same expression to refer to the sixteen teams playing for the championship in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS, March 18. – Sixteen high school basketball teams entered the exposition building at the state fair grounds today, each quintet hopeful of wearing home tomorrow night the crown emblematic of the Indiana interscholastic championship.

The sweet sixteen were survivors of the starting field of 731 that dwindled to sixty-four two weeks ago in the sectional tournaments and shrunk to 16 in the regionals last week.

Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), March 18, 1927, page 1.

By 1928, the new expression was idiomatic.

“Sweet sixteen” also applies to the contestants in the high school basketball finals.

The Indianapolis Star, March 14, 1928; The Star Press (Muncie, Indiana), March 16, 1928, page 6.

INDIANAPOLIS, March 9 – (AP) – A few more hours and well will know who will be the Sweet Sixteen.

Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), March 9, 1929, page 11.

Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), March 20, 1931, page 12.


The Indianapolis News, March 14, 1935, page 18.

By 1935, Illinois joined Indiana in hosting a “Sweet Sixteen” in its state capital to wind up the state high school basketball championship tournament.

Champaign. March 20. – (AP) – The “Sweet Sixteen” of Illinois high school basketball, last of a field of 860, will pair off here tomorrow for the opening round of the state tournament.

The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois), March 20, 1935, page 18.

It was in Illinois, a decade later, that “Elite Eight” would become idiomatic in basketball tournament lingo.

Elite Eight

As was the case with “March Madness” and “Sweet Sixteen,” there were a few, random examples of its use in basketball and other sports became a common basketball tournament idiom.  William Mullins posted several early examples of “Elite Eight” on an online discussion board hosted by the American Dialect Society, each of which appear to be one-off, literal, pre-idiomatic uses of the expression.

"A week ago the qualifying round of this competition was played and the elite eight to emerge into the match play tourney were:  R. M. Eyre, David Duncan, Wilberforce Williams, Leslie Comyn, D. Hardy, A. S. Lilley, R. J. Davis and Dr. Tufts." [golf tournament]

San Francisco Chronicle, August 7, 1913, page 9.

"Home clubs that go into the race rather hopelessly are going to be surprised to find themselves among the elite eight.  Eight teams are to continue in match play after the qualifying round." [golf tournament]

Cleveland Plain Dealer (Ohio), May 26, 1926, page 23.

"Ottumwa's record is slightly better, the "mystery" five having scored an average of 30 points per game in tourney competition while holding its opponents to a bare 14 tallies, the lowest of any of the elite eight." [Iowa state basketball tournament]

Daily Nonpareil (Council Bluffs, Iowa), March 15, 1928, page 8.

On at least one occasion, the survivors of the first round of the “Sweet Sixteen” in Indiana were referred to as the “elite eight,”[iv] but it does not appear to have been idiomatic, as I could not find any other examples in print during the period.

 “Elite Eight” first appears regularly in Ohio during the early 1950s.  But in Ohio, which had abandoned the traditional “March Madness” format for a two-class system with big schools and smaller schools competing in separate tournaments, the “Elite Eight” of 1951 were the eight teams, four from Class A and four from Class B, competing in the semi-finals – not the final eight teams in a single tournament. 

When “Elite Eight” came into its own in Illinois in the mid-1950s, it wasn’t without controversy.  In 1954, the state of Illinois floated the idea of reducing the number of teams it invited to Champaign for the last few rounds of the championship tournament.

AN UNFOUNDED RUMOR has the “Sweet 16” doomed for a couple of years at least. . . .  If the tourney goes to eight teams (and it will) . . . it will be referred to as the “Elite Eight.” . . . A four-team affair would be called . . . “Fortunate Four.”

Galesburg Register-Mail (Galesburg, Illinois), April 30, 1954, page 21.

Two years later, the prediction came to pass – at least as to the number of teams in the tournament, if not the name.  Like the Big 10, which clings to its well-known, numerical trademark despite a fluid number of members, the powers-that-be of the Illinois basketball bureaucracy fought logic and human nature to hang on to the tried-and-true “Sweet Sixteen,” even in the face of overwhelming resistance.  “Elite Eight” would win the day, but there were plenty of alternatives.

SPRINGFIELD – UP – The Illinois High School Assn., meeting Wednesday to arrange its new eight-team basketball tournament finals, said the meet will still be called the “Sweet Sixteen.”

. . . It was pointed out sports writers and announcers are already talking of the “Elite Eight,” and the “V for victory Eight,” and the IHSA had better name the tournament while it had a chance.

“It’s still the ‘Sweet Sixteen’”, an IHSA member insisted.

. . . They have opened the floodgates to what may develop into one of the biggest name-calling contests ever to hit the state’s sports pages.

They have declared open season on the “______ Eight.”

When thousands of fans are setting battered and dazed in the wake of adjectives flowing from the typewriters and lips of sports writers, then perhaps they will strive to bring order.  It will be too late.

So if this tournament is to be named, for the coeds, we suggest “Embraceable, Endearing or Enchanting Eight.”

Coaches may like the “Enormous Eight,” educators the “Enlightened Eight” or “Educated Eight,” winners the “Invincible Eight,” losers the “Erratic Eight” or “Exasperating Eight.”

Fans my like the “Expert,” “Evasive” or “Errorless Eight.”

In the locker rooms on victory night they will be the “Elated Eight,” while to other schoos they may be the “Envied Eight.”

And to those who wanted the “Sweet Sixteen” forever, they now can look forward only to the “Endless or perhaps Eternal eight.”

The Daily Chronicle (De Kalb, Illinois), November 17, 1955, page 20.

Thankfully, in the end, logic prevailed.

Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, Illinois), March 17, 1956, page 13.


The proverbial “Cinderella” team has been a regular feature of basketball reportage since at least 1936.  The name might easily have been simply borrowed from the well-known fairytale, but given the timing of several early examples, it seems likely that the new use of the word was as much, if not more, by the nickname of boxer James J. Braddock, the “Cinderella man,” who rose from obscurity to win the heavyweight title from Max Baer in 1935 (Braddock would lose the title to Joe Louis in 1937).
Chillicothe Gazette, March 23, 1936, page 9.
Carroll Daily Herald (Carroll, Iowa), December 31, 1937, page 4.

“Cinderellas” were a dime-a-dozen in high school basketball tournaments by the early 1940s.  But the two earliest examples “Cinderella” teams in a high-profile, major college basketball tournaments I found are both from 1944, when the “Cinderella Team” from St. John’s University, champions of the National Invitational Tournament (N. I. T.), squared off against the “Cinderella Kids” from the University of Utah, champions of the NCAA national championship tournament, for the “Mythical” national championship, at a time when the N. I. T. and NCAA tournaments had equal stature.

Rapid City Journal (Rapid City, South Dakota), March 27, 1944, page 6.
Daily Herald (Provo, Utah), March 29, 1944, page 4.

Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, Colorado), March 31, 1944, page 10.

Big Dance

The title character in the classic fairytale Cinderella was famously invited to a royal ball.  And since a royal ball is nothing more than a big dance, “Big Dance” was a natural fit to describe “March Madness,” with its endless possibilities of “Cinderellas” sneaking into the “Sweet Sixteen” or “Elite Eight.”  It may have been a natural fit, but it was apparently not immediately obvious.  The earliest example I could find is from 1976, and it did not become a popular expression until the 1980 NCAA basketball tournament.

One writer in Illinois, however, nearly connected the dots in 1951.

This week Cinderella will continue polishing the woodwork, taking time out only for non-league dances with Chicago Teachers and Carroll College.  She plans to do a quick Charleston with Chicago tonight on the Teachers’ own dance floor in the Windy City, and has invited Carroll to DeKalb for a cake walk next Saturday.

The Daily Chronicle, February 20, 1951, page 14.

In 1976, Depaul University’s athletic director, Gene Sullivan, likened his team to Cinderella and the NCAA tournament to a ball.

“We’re the last ones invited to the ball, but, like Cinderella, we hope to have a good time,” said Sullivan.  “Meyer should be coach of the year.  We lost three regulars from last year and took on a suicide schedule. 

Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1976, Section 4, page 1.

A few weeks later, a newspaper in Tampa, Florida, referred to the Florida state high school basketball tournament as a “big dance” in a piece bemoaning the drop-off in talent following the graduation of several recent stars of the tournament, including future NBA superstars Darryl Dawkins, Otis Birdsong, and Michael Thompson.

Perhaps it was befitting that the 1976 tournament was not such a great one.  It might have been fitting that the attendance was poor.

For indeed, it was good old Jacksonville’s last year for the big dance.

It was coming to an end.

The tournament will move to Lakeland’s Civic Center for at least the next three years.

The Tampa Tribune, March 16, 1976, page 2 C.

By 1980, and increasingly afterward, the “Big Dance” became a common euphemism for the Final Four of the NCAA Division I National Basketball Tournament.

 If Billy Tubbs is thinkin’ about dustin’ off his dancin’ shoes, he’s gonna have to hot-foot it past Clemson tonight.

“We sure would like to go to the prom,” Tubbs, Lamar University’s coach, says.  That, of course, is the Final Four, the next-to-last step to the NCAA basketball championship.

Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pennsylvania), March 13 1980 page 32.

For a good time, Al Wood likes to lace up his dancin’ shoes and head for the nearest disco.  He’s no two-left-footed stumblebum off the streets, either.  His teammates on last year’s touring Olympics team report that the silky senior forward on North Carolina could git down, boogie and shake his booty with the best of them.

Wood wore sneakers to The Big Dance, a popular euphemism for the NCAA Final four . . . .

Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida), March 29, 1981, page 11C.

Today, grade-inflation being what it is, the “Big Dance” frequently refers to the entire tournament.

Darryl Dawkins, Otis Birdsong and Michael Thompson all playing in the same high school tournament???

That was a Big Dance.

[iii] Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, August 15, 1916, page 931 (Sweet Sixteen trademark, alleging use since 1884 on “face or complexion powders.”
[iv] Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), December 29, 1938, page 16 (“Lebanon once lost something like 16 games during the regular schedule, yet won its way to the elite eight in the state finals . . . .”).