Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Cracker Barrels, Hot Stoves and Soap Boxes – Going Deep on the Origins of Monday Morning Quarterback

 

The idiom, “Monday morning quarterback,” meaning “one who second-guesses,” [i] dates to at least December 1931, when it appeared in widely circulated reports of a speech by Harvard’s star quarterback, Barry Wood[ii] (at the time, Harvard was a football powerhouse).  The expression alludes to football fans taking time on Monday to analyze the weekend’s games. 

“Monday morning quarterback” may have been new in 1931, but it was not cut from whole cloth.  It was merely the latest in a group of second-guessing “[blank] quarterback” idioms, the three earliest of which all appeared in print for the first time within a two week span in 1927; “grandstand quarterback” (October 17, 1927), “cigar store quarterback” (October 22, 1927), and “Sunday morning quarterback” (October 27, 1927); “bleacher quarterback” followed in 1930 and “drugstore quarterback” in November 1931.[iii]

 

“Bleacher Quarterbacks,” San Francisco Examiner, November 3, 1930, page 27.

These predecessor “quarterback” idioms were also not entirely novel.  They built on a tradition of similar idioms in which any number of decision makers might be second-guessed from any number of places far removed from the action. 

Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist for the Wall Street Journals’ “Word on the Street” column, has noted connections between “Monday Morning quarterback” and several predecessor idioms, including “armchair critic/strategist/general”[iv] and “armchair warriors.”[v] But the full history of similar idioms is much richer.  There is a panoply of similar, precursor expressions, each following the general template of “[place] [decision maker],” in which the first term is a place from which the second-guesser second-guesses, and the second term is a responsible decision maker whose decisions are being second-guessed, and in whose shoes the second-guesser is metaphorically placed. 

The place might be an armchair or easy-chair, a small town crossroads or curbstone, the grandstands or bleachers of a sports stadium, a cracker barrel, soapbox or hot stove in an old-fashioned general store, or behind the plate-glass in the viewing area of a curling rink.  The decision maker at issue might be a politician or philosopher, a military general or strategist, an umpire, manager or coach, or the “skip” on a curling team.

An excerpt from an article about Scottish curlers touring Canada three decades earlier, for example, includes two such expressions; one of the more colorful or obscure ones, “plate-glass skips,”[vi] from the sport of curling, and the most venerable one, “armchair politician,” which dates to at least 1820. 

 

Edinburgh, Scotsman. “Plate-glass skips” is a phrase with which the Scottish curlers have become familiar in their progress through Canada.  These are the curling equivalents of arm-chair politicians.  When the matches are being played in the covered rinks out here these gentlemen seat themselves in the comfortable parlors which overlook the rinks, and are protected from the cold by plate-glass fronts.

Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Canada), March 14, 1903, page 17.

 

[Blank] Politicians

 Early examples of such idioms differ from “Monday morning quarterback” in that the subject of the idiom was in fact the decision maker named in the idiom, not merely a physically-removed spectator metaphorically placed in the position of the decision maker.  An “armchair politician” (chiefly British) or “cross-roads politician” (chiefly American) for example, generally referred to actual politicians, politicians criticized for being poor or unreliable decision makers.  

 “Armchair politicians” were all talk and no action, or followed the prevailing political winds, as opposed to sticking their neck out with independent thought or action.  

 

 [William] Butcher was a disciple of Thomas Paine; he had been bred up in a country village, where the clergyman . . . had instilled into his mind all the principles of Paine, both political and theological . . . .  Butcher was a famous great arm-chair politician; over the bottle he would be as valiant as any man, yet he would never act.

 Henry Hunt, Memoirs of Henry Hunt, Esq., Written By Himself, in His Majesty’s Jail at Ilchester, Volume 1, London, T. Dolby, 1820, page 504.

 Lord Melbourne may be characterized as being a sort of “Sybarite” in politics. . . .  He has ever been a down-cushion and stuffed arm-chair politician . . . .

 Northern Liberator (Newcastle upon Tyne, England), June 23, 1838, page 4.

 

And what might be done, or done poorly, sitting in an armchair could just as easily be done from an easy chair.

 The petty nibbling of our easy chair politicians will not suffice.  The system ([Monarchy)] is inherently false and unjust.

“Monarchy,” The Democratic Review of British and Foreign Politics, Volume 1, July 1849, page 71.


“Armchair politician” remained chiefly British throughout the rest of the 19th Century, but fell into relative disuse in the early 20th.  Its frequency of use (as noted in online newspaper archives searches), picked up in the early days of World War II, when it came into general use in the United States as everyone and his brother shared opinions about the world politics and the war.

But the fact that “armchair politician” remained chiefly British for more than a century does not mean that Americans did not have their own politicians with similar failings.  Americans simply came up with their own expression, drawn from their own, unique, democratic traditions and geographic circumstances.

“Cross-roads politicians” were small town or backwoods politicians or functionaries who aspired to, or obtained statewide or federal elective office or political appointments; bringing with them, presumably, their limited, na├»ve, and provincial worldview.

He [(Colonel Michael Hoke)] observed that in 1841, at the commencement of the whig administration, the city of Washington was besieged by a multitude of office seekers, numerous as the frogs of Egypt that came up into the houses and the kneading troughs. - The cross-roads politicians of the day, who spouted long and loud about the disgrace of holding offices under Government, were there with eager faces and open mouths, - and when the Fox was skinned and quartered, the long, lean, impudent, noisy dogs got the most.

 The Greensboro Patriot (Greensboro, North Carolina), June 29, 1844, page 2.

 

He said he would not submit to the dictation of little village and cross-roads politicians, but would run as an independent Democratic candidate, and leave it with the people to determine on their own course.

 The Weekly Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina), May 19, 1847, page 2.

 

Small-town politicians might also share their opinions at a curbstone. 

 We do hope the incoming administration will take men for office – men in every sense of the word as contradistinguished from curbstone politicians who are only known within a county and can never give a public place any greater comparative character.

The Weekly Republican (Plymouth, Indiana), December 27, 1860, page 2.

 


The curbstone politician is generally an office-seeker.  He is in politics for revenue only.  He cannot understand that there is principle involved in politics and that some people may engage in practical work from patriotic motives.  “What is he after?” is the first and last inquirey of the curbstone politician when a citizen takes prominent or unusual part in a political meeting.

 

The curbstone politician is always anxious to “do somebody up.” He has continually a knife up his sleeve.  He never allows any difference of opinion.  If you do not think as he does politically you must be slaughtered.  The curbstone politician thinks he is a great political leader.  He is – in his own estimation.

 Mexico Weekly Ledger (Mexico, Missouri), December 9, 1897, page 1 (reprinted from The Columbia Herald).

 

[Blank] Critics

 A similar line of idioms referred to people who might second-guess the politicians, or anyone else in a decision making role.  These idioms differed from the “[place] [decision maker]” idioms in that they referred to the second-guessers literally as “critics,” instead of placing them metaphorically in the position of the decision maker. 

 “Easy chair critic” appeared in print as early as 1832; armchair critic by the 1860s. 

 

 [W]e should be surprised to hear that the most somnolent of easy-chair critics had ever turned over two at once.

 Book review of Zohrab the Hostage, James Morier (the author of Hajj Baba),  The Quarterly Review, Volume 48, Number 96, 1832, page 392.

 An early example of “armchair critic” appeared in a British discussion of European critics of Generals Grant and Johnstone of the Confederate Army in the American Civil War.

 Let the arm-chair critics of London and Paris, who measure the operations of Generals Lee and Johnston by the rules of the art of war as they understand it, bear this material fact in mind.

 The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), June 1, 1864, page 6.

 Critics might also be found on the curbstone. 

 The fact that Gen. McClellan announced his ability to hold the position to which he had retreated, was only one satisfactory incident connected with what appeared to be a terrible disaster. . . . Hitherto it had been sacrilege for a civilian to comment upon or criticize the young General Commanding.  But that sanctuary was invaded by uncircumcised tongues for once – people gave vent to their feelings, to their faith in our Generals as well as to their want of faith.  Of course curb-stone critics can neither save nor destroy their country, but these waifs on the sea of current opinion are significant as showing whence the current tends.

The Fall River Daily Evening News (Fall River, Massachusetts), July 5, 1862, page 2.

 

[Blank] Generals (real)

There were also generals who (like some politicians) carried out their functions from the safety of a writing desk, far removed from field of battle.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, a government board met to determine which honorary generals who had been brevetted to their rank should be officially promoted to their new rank.  It caused a minor stir when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton promoted his pet “writing generals,” or “easy chair generals,” over arguably more deserving “fighting generals.”


 When Secretary Stanton found that the board had ignored the claim of his easy chair general, breveted by himself for faithful clerical duty in Washington during the entire war, he quietly sent their names to the Senate, and, taking advantage of the second veto excitement, rushed them through the Military Committee and had them confirmed. 

 Evening Telegraph , April 9, 1866, page 1.

 

[Blank] Generals (metaphoric)

With critics second-guessing generals from the safety of their chairs, and actual politicians and generals taking the easy road seated behind their desks, metaphoric generals second-guessing actual generals were not far behind; taking us one step closer to the proverbial “Monday morning quarterback.”  Those who would second-guess soldiers, generals or warriors might offer their criticism from some backwoods cross roads, a comfortable piece of furniture, or a curbstone.

Hence, we shall be unable to tell other information we might have had to show up the foolish and contemptible course of such sofa and arm chair warriors as Mister Ficklin of Illinois, and Mister Thompson of Mississippi. . . .  We regret this because it was but right from the moment these sofa-soldiers began their attacks upon Gen. Taylor, that he himself should tell why he could not immediately pass the Rio Grande after the battle of the 9th and 9th of May, as well as why he acted as he did at Monterey.

The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), February 15, 1847, page 2.


This is history written by one who was a theoretical soldier rather than a participant in the great conflict he pretends to describe impartially . . . It sounds more like the fury of a backwoods editor or a stay-at-home cross-roads general than the sober thought of a disinterested foreigner.

 Public Ledger (Memphis, Tennessee), February 17, 1876, page 2.

 

It was the arm-chair generals who kept carefully in the rear of the war that defamed and belittled both [General Lee and General Grant].

 Knoxville Daily Chronicle, July 25, 1885, page 8

 

The sidewalks are full of Generals and Admirals who would wipe up Spain in two weeks, to hear them toot.  We have been at war a little over four weeks, have captured a country of 7,500,000 people, destroyed and captured about thirty ships, and still we are not moving fast enough to satisfy our curbstone Generals.

 Evening Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California), May 28, 1898, page 4.

 

The rocking chair generals and the curbstone umpires of the war are very busy just now pointing out the mistakes of our officers in the field, and wisely explaining just exactly how the war should be conducted.

 The Journal and Tribune (Knoxville, Tennessee), July 10, 1898, page 12.

 

 

Cracker Barrel [Blank]

During the same period, a similarly metaphoric, second-guessing idiom came into use, in which the location was another uniquely American location – the cracker barrel in an old-fashioned general store, a common gathering spot for local gossip across the early United States.


An advertisement from later competition for the Uneeda Biscuit shows an old-time cracker barrel up close.  Bennington Herald (Bennington, Nebraska), September 26, 1913, page 7.

 

 During the 1880s, crackers were sold in bulk, from large wooden barrels. [vii]  Like the proverbial “water cooler” today, cracker barrels were a social focal point in a general store, where it might serve as a chair, stool or a table around which a crowd of locals might gather to exchange news or gossip. 

 

This advertisement for the Uneeda Biscuit in the “air tight, sanitary package” (now called a Nabisco Saltine) illustrates the crowd gathered around a soon-to-be obsoltete cracker barrel in an old-fashioned general store. Topeka State Journal (Topeka, Kansas), July 29, 1904, page 3.

 Cracker barrels were ultimately put out of business around the turn of the 20th Century by advancements in cracker-wrapping technology.  As recalled in Meredith Wilson’s stage musical, The Music Man, the demise of the cracker barrel made it more difficult for travelling salesmen to do their jobs, presumably because it removed a place where they might sit, chat, and foster relationships with potential customers (although you still “gotta know the territory”).

 . . . it’s the Uneeda biscuit made the trouble, Uneeda, Uneeda, put the crackers in a package, in a package, the Uneeda biscuit in an airtight sanitary package, made the cracker barrel obsolete!

Meredith Williams, Lyrics, “Rock Island,” the opening number in The Music Man.  https://youtu.be/dwdA8eCno_0?t=98

An anecdote from the life of baseball Hall-of-Famer, Rube Waddell, illustrates the connection between travelling salesmen and cracker barrels.  “Rube” Waddell, who it is said was prone to “gloomy and introspective moods,” went off by himself one night and wound up in a “small cracker-barrel grocery store in North Philadelphia.  “As he was sitting there contemplating the rottenness of terrestrial existence, a dry goods drummer came in started exhibiting his samples to the proprietor.”[viii]

 When cracker barrels disappeared, the sense of loss was palpable, even outside the travelling sales business.  A nostalgic ode to the cracker barrel received wide distribution about a decade after the introduction of the Uneeda Biscuit.

 

. . .

The old cracker barrel that stood in the

store.

 

The old cracker barrel,

The worn cracker barrel

The undusted barrel that stood in the

Store.

 The Grenada Sentinel (Grenada, Mississippi), January 13, 1906, page 4 (reprinted from The Judge).

 

The full poem, Railroad Trainmen’s Journal, Volume 23, Number 8, August, 1906, page 690.

 

With the “cracker barrel” firmly established as a common place for Americans to gather and share opinions, it was incorporated as the place in several second-guessing idioms.  “Cracker-barrel politician” dates to at least 1879, “cracker-barrel critic” to 1888.

 Our floral editor says that plants should always be watered with a sponge.  What a vast field of usefulness this opens to the cracker-barrel politician!

 The Placer Herald (Rocklin, California), November 22, 1879, page 3.

 

A Rat Who Can Sing.

 

Mystic, Conn., has a singing rat that attracts a good deal of attention.  He is a small, brown active fellow, of social disposition, and is prepossessing in mien and manner.  He sings to the cracker-barrel critics nightly, and there is a let up in the local transaction of national business while he is performing.

 Dawson County Pioneer (Lexington, Nebraska), April 20, 1888, page 7.

Decades later, at about the same time “Monday Morning Quarterback” first appeared in print, “cracker barrel [BLANK]” was still in use, sometimes with respect to football and baseball.

 As the hectic season of 1929 wore to a close some critics found in Sir Bull Floyd [(Texas A&M)] outstanding defensive fullback of the conference.  To say that he is a strong interference runner [(downfield blocker)] will certainly cause no argument among the cracker barrel critics.

The Shreveport Journal (Shreveport, Louisiana), September 17, 1930, page 10.

 

In addition to literal critics, the cracker barrel was a place where second-guessers might play the role of philosophers, strategists or generals.

Abstinence is the mother of competence, and the workmen of this hour who are to become the millionaires of the next generation are not the speechmakers and cracker barrel philosophers, but the quiet men who work steadily and always spend a little less than they earn.

The Daily Commonwealth (Topeka, Kansas), May 23, 1886, page 3.

 

It was a low down trick for the emperor and Kaiser to meet on a yacht at sea.  Think of all the worry they have caused the cracker barrel strategists and cross roads diplomats.

Wilkes-Barre News (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), July 28, 1905, page 4.

“[T]oo often critics, particularly the cracker barrel generals, try to create a feeling that all is bad in things agricultural.

Times Huron (Port Huron, Michigan), July 22, 1915, page 6.

Cincinnati Enquirer, September 22, 1930, page 3.

  

 Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), November 17, 1941, page 8.

 

Even after the Uneeda Biscuit made the cracker barrel obsolete, they remained a pop-cultural touchstone associated with old-fashioned stores.


“Herm Doolittle, champeen whittler of the north side of Main Street, sprained his wrist while carving a fancy letter “H”, on the cracker barrel in Baxter’s cash store.” “The Old Home Town,” by Stanley, The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, New York), February 7, 1923, page 11.

 

Eventually, the expression “cracker barrel” became a generic descriptor of the old-fashioned country stores, and remained so for decades.  An advertisement for the Safeway grocery store chain distinguishes its modern, sanitary conditions from the “’cracker barrel’ type” store of days gone by.

 

“The old style “cracker barrel” type store is gone – Modern, clean, “up-to-the-minute” stores now take their place. La Grande Observer (La Grande, Oregon), May 31, 1934, page 5.


 

 Muskogee Daily Phoenix and Times Democrat, (Muskogee, Oklahoma), June 16, 1963, page 15.


And later, as the underlying meaning of the expression faded further into oblivion, it was picked up as the tradename of a replica old-fashioned “country store” in Lebanon, Tennessee; the first of what would grow into a chain of more than 600 locations nationwide – Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.[ix]

 

Sports-Specific Second-Guessers

Of all of the various combinations and permutations of second-guessing idioms, “armchair critic” was by far the most common, at least until being quickly outpaced (as measured by “hits” in searches of an online newspaper database) by “Monday morning quarterback” in the years following its first appearance in print in 1931. 

The earliest sports-specific variants also included the word “critic,” as opposed to a metaphoric decision maker.  “Grandstand critic” dates to at least 1886, and “bleacher board critic” (or simply, “bleacher critic”) to 1896.

 


 An early example of “grandstand critic” related to baseball.

 How a man can expect to get any force into a hit when he cannot give his right arm more than two inches’ swing, is a puzzler to grand-stand critics.

 The Critic (Washington DC), August 5, 1886, page 4.

 

An early example of “bleacher board critic” related to football.

 [H]e made his first appearance in a public exhibition game and the bleacher board critics at the football park began to make curious inquiries.

The Butte Miner (Butte, Montana), October 26, 1896, page 5.

 

Grandstand Players

 

A similar idiom, with an unrelated meaning, was in common use in baseball during the same period.  “Grandstand players” (sometimes specifically “grandstand pitchers”) were showy players who were perceived as playing to the crowd.

[The Chicago White Stockings] rarely go to pieces; they don’t play for a record; they know how to take advantage of weakness in their opponents; they are not grand stand players; they play ball all the time, and these are some of the reasons that they got the championship in 1885 and will come very near it in 1886.

 The Meriden Daily Republican (Meriden, Connecticut), May 8, 1886, page 4.

 

There is too much droning between innings.  Then, too, there were not as many grand-stand pitchers as there are now.  Then the twirlers didn’t have to hold the ball in their hand from eight to ten seconds before getting in position.  Then after they got in position they didn’t have to pose eight or ten seconds more before delivering the ball.  In those good old days the pitcher didn’t have to walk half way to the catcher to receive the ball on the return.  He just went about his business.

 The Cincinnati Enquirer, July 18, 1897, page 22. 

 

But not everyone hated the grandstand players.

This talk about grand-stand players, so often used to disparage a good play by a member of a team, ought to be shelved.  A player who puts forth his best effort to effect a difficult catch, or makes a grand slide to reach a base, or, in fact, does anything else to advance the interests of his side, deserves applause.  He may work for the benefit of the grand stand, but the spectators like him just as long as he helps his side.

 Public Ledger (Memphis, Tennessee), September 6, 1887, page 2.

 

The expression was also used more figuratively outside of baseball.

 “How do you like your new teacher, Henry?” asked mamma.  Henry, who was a good boy three years ago: “Aw, she’s a grand-stand player, she is.  She lets us do like we please only when a director is visitin’ de school, and then she’s on de coach lines all de time.  What’s went wid my grammar, sa-ay?”

Buffalo Weekly Express (Buffalo, New York), September 29, 1887, page 8.

 

Grandstand/Bleacher Managers

A matching pair of grandstand/bleacher idioms became the earliest, sports-specific, second-guessing idioms to follow the “[place] [decision maker]” template later followed by “plate-glass skip,” “Monday morning quarterback” and other variants.  

That fact was clearly demonstrated in the case of Jordan, who was signed while the club was away on a trip, but who in the first game did not come up to the expectations of some of the “grand-stand managers.”

 Allentown Leader (Allentown, Pennsylvania), December 9, 1893, page 1.

 

The Brooklyn club also appears to be blessed with a few grandstand managers, who are anxious to have certain layers in different positions.

 The Pittsburgh Press, June 19, 1895, page 5.

 And if there were critics in the grandstands, there were also critics in the bleachers.

Another player whose release has been demanded by the bleacher managers is Bobby Lowe, who covers sack No. 2 for Boston.

 The Sandusky Star-Journal (Sandusky, Ohio), July 17, 1898, page 1.

 

Winnie French, whom the New Orleans anvil chorus has been using as a mark, won another pretty game yesterday.  Looks like Don Carlos knew what he was doing, despite the remarks of the bleacher managers.

 The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), May 21, 1904, page 8.

 A similar pair of idioms used imagery borrowed from horseracing to suggest the same meaning.  “Grandstand jockeys” and “bleacher jockeys” would “ride” the players and managers, in the sense of trying to control them and give them direction, as a jockey would a horse in a horserace. 

The spurs of the bleacher jockeys may sting, at times, but teams can run better without them.

 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 11, 1912, page 17.

 

The “grand stand jockeys” had a fine time riding Harris and his men until the heavy artillery was swung into action in the fifth, but after that not a peep was heard out of them.

 Evening Star (Washington DC), April 28, 1924, page 18.

                                                                                                                   

Time-Specific Criticism

“Monday morning” and “Sunday morning” quarterbacks also differ from nearly all of the precursor idioms in that it refers to a time for second guessing, as opposed to a location.  There were, however, at least two predecessor idioms from baseball that referred expressly or obliquely to a specific time or period of time after the game.

In 1917, for example, the Chicago Cubs’ manager, Fred Mitchell, criticized the critics who wanted to talk over the day’s game later in the evening.

  

Too many 9 o’clock managers around there,” was his comment.

 

“Nine o’clock managers,” he explained, “are the fellows who sit around the lobby and play the game over every evening.  When the game is over I want to forget it.  But those fellows are always on the arm of your chair telling you what pitcher you should have sent in to win the game.

 

Nine o’clock managers are the same the world over.  There are a lot of them in Boston and I suspect they’re in Chicago, too.  I like to do all my ball playing on the field and forget it in the lobby.

 The Lincoln Star (Lincoln, Nebraska), March 20, 1917, page 9.

 

Hot Stove [Blank]

A second example of time-specific second-guessers referred to a location, which in turn alluded to a time period.  In baseball parlance, the “hot stove season” refers to the cold baseball off-season, when baseball managers, players and fans sit around a hot stove rehashing the season past and planning the season ahead.

 

THE HOT STOVE LEAGUE

The howl of the frenzied thousands as

            The home team ties the score,

Is a thing of the past for the season;

            The outdoor race is o’er.

 

But, pal, don’t get discouraged, there’s

            News in this dope for you;

The zing of the bat in the belfry is go-

            Ing to be heard anew,

For – the Hot Stove Season’s Open.

 

Arizona Daily Star (Tuscon, Arizona), November 3, 1914, page 5.

 

It’s around the Hot Stove League circuit that the public learns its baseball.  In the midst of the playing season you will recall it’s in the good old winter time, when you grab your chaw o’ terbaccer firmly in the left cheek pouch, perch your legs on the edge of the woodbox and hear the plays of the last summer discussed and analyzed and gone all over again that you get your real knowledge of the game.

 Shreveport Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), May 23, 1915, Magazine Section.

 

As the days grow keen and chilly, and the winds all murmur low,

They gather ‘round the old hot stove and muse upon its glow.

A briar pipe between their teeth, smoke rings up above,

Oh, the winning plays that are pulled these days – around the old hot stove.

 Philadelphia Inquirer, November 15, 1910, page 10.

 

The second-guessers and critics spent the off-season sharing their opinions around the hot stove.

Larry Lajoie, who has been given a place with three major league clubs by the Hot Stove critics, now is touted to join the Cubs.

 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 15, 1918, page 16.

 

“Hot stove manager” appeared a decade later, a couple months before the three earliest “[place/time] quarterback” idioms first appeared in print.

At the beginning of the season, ‘those who knew,’ predicted that the Monarchs this season were a weak club.  The players, the hot stove managers declared, were too young.

 The News Palladium (Benton Harbor, Michigan), August 11, 1927, page 7.

 

The hot stove league season of 1934 brought several particularly colorful combinations and permutations in rapid succession, inspired by the Dizzy and Daffy Dean, the brothers who were coming off a successful season pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals.

 

 The biggest season the Stove league has ever had is under way.  Never before has that ancient circuit, composed of cracker barrel diamond oracles and easy chair baseball managers, had such a meaty subject – or subjects – to discuss as the Dean brothers.

 “Spying on Sports,” Bill Braucher (Central Press Sports Writer), The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Alabama), October 13, 1934, page 8.

 

The fact that they were brothers offers the greatest point for discussion.  Other pitchers have done as much and more than any of them.  The individual records while outstanding were nothing to gape at.

 

However, it will provide one the grandest points that the Hot Stove league has had for several years.  That circle of cracker barrel managers and soap box prognosticators should have a merry time.

 

“Spots of Sports,” Ted Northington, The Leaf-Chronicle (Clarksville, Tennessee), October 15, 1934, page 2.

 

Soap Box [Blank]

 “Soap box prognosticators” alludes to another, once ubiquitous fixture of pop culture which, like cracker barrels and hot stoves, is closely associated with old-fashioned general stores, and which was also incorporated as the place of second-guessing in several second-guessing idioms, including “soap-box politician,” “soap box philosopher,” soap box critic,” “soap-box general,” and “soap box strategists.” 

Do we not know that an ordinary soap-box politician, without any qualification for the office, would bet the scholar three to one?

 The Topeka Daily Capital (Topeka, Kansas), June 25, 1882, page 4.

 

Some of the best soap-box “generals” in Dodge are encountering unexpected obstacles in this European war; they not only can’t agree on the pronunciation of some of the foreign battlefields, but disagree also on mobilization, decimate and others.

The Dodge City Daily Globe (Dodge City, Kansas), August 13, 1914, page 4.

 

In the days before cardboard packaging, soap was shipped in wooden crates which, when empty, would pile up around the store and be borrowed for other uses, including notably as a podium, a seat or a ballot box. 

The intended meaning of the imagery in various “soapbox [blank]” idioms is a little muddled.  Depending on the context and particular combination of words employed, it is not always clear whether it refers to standing on a soapbox, sitting on a soapbox, or soliciting votes or working the ballot box in a “soap box election.”

The most familiar imagery relates to using a soapbox as a podium to preach, sell, lecture, speechify or otherwise pontificate; the inspiration for the expressions, “to be on a soapboax” or “get off of one’s soapbox.”

A man stood on a soap box in front of the court house last night, and attracted a small crowd by singing hymns in a loud voice.  When a few had collected, he commenced to preach, but exactly the doctrine he advocated it was not easy to determine.  He was frequently interrupted by shouts of “Hire a hall,” “Freeze your teeth,” and similar intellectual observations, but he continued to the end peacefully and well.

 Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), July 24, 1880, page 4.  

 

It was a proud moment for the first citizen of the town when he mounted a soap box and delivered himself of a speech, the preparation of which had caused him a sleepless night.  Assuming the attitude of the painting of Andrew Jackson, which hung on the bar-room wall, represented to be that stateman’s favorite posture, with one hand hid beneath his vest and the resting on his coat-tails, he commenced:

 

“Fellow citizens: Veni, vidi, vici – we came, we saw, and we conquered.

 St. Paul Daily Globe, March 1, 1885, page 7.

 

New York Tribune, November 19, 1916, section 5, page 8.


There is one spot in London where sooner or later hundreds of Americans are sure to foregather in the course of a week’s visit to the British metropolis.  It is the soap box arena in Hyde park, otherwise the Mecca of orators with all sorts of grievances.

The Spokesman Review (Spokane, Washington), August 15, 1920, section D, page 8.


 “American Looks Mighty Good After You’ve Seen Europe.”  A European Bolshevist on a soap box, lecturing an American about what’s wrong in America; the American counters that he, “wouldn’t trade a log hut on a swamp in America for the whole of Europe!” New York Tribune, February 22, 1919, page 8.

 

In the United States, soap box oratory was frequently practiced by socialists.  After a period of decline during World War I, political soap box orators, many of them socialists, returned with a vengeance in the summer of 1921.

 

. . . This summer soap box oratory is something of a novelty after a long period of absence.  During the war, the gentle art was monopolized entirely by war charities of one kind and another which used the street as a stage for their varied drives. . . .  Some said that soap box socialism had disappeared forever

 

They were wrong, however.  It is back again this year, as vehement and as picturesque as before  the long hair and soiled collar included. . . . Along the streets of New York our American democracy is coming for all the old pre-war criticixm in addition to a brand new supply created as a result of the war.  It is more entertaining than it used to be.  Poor Woodrow Wilson, for instance, seems to have contributed a great deal to the soap box socialistic cause. . . . 

 

Sometimes, however, former President Wilson escapes and the blame for everything is suddenly thrust upon the proletariat, as was the case the other night when one histrionic soap boxer in the Bronx saved his arms excitedly in the air, and thundered, “Ah, when it comes to placing the blame for the present intolerable conditions – unemployment, slashed wages, slow starvation – I want you, gentlemen, to think –  . . . . It is we – the working people – who are to blame,” he announced bitterly.  “We have the numbers, we have the strength to smash this rotten system and get a fair deal.  It c rushes us because we let it.  Yet, mark me, the time will come when we will rise up as one man – “

 “The Haskin Daily Letter, Back on the old Soap Box,” Frederic J. Haskin, The South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Indiana), August 17, 1921, page 8 (syndicated column).

 

Albequerque Journal (New Mexico), February 6, 1921, page 5.


Soap box socialists were not confined to the big cities on the coast.  In faraway Racine, Wisconsin, an organization called the Constitutional Defense League organized a “Soap Box University,” for the “express purpose of teaching loyal Americans how to debate and confute Socialists” (think Turning Point USA or Prager University).  One of their first outings was to see ex-Socialist Harold Lord Varney (said to have been an associate of Trotsky’s during the Revolution) speak on “Why I left the Revolution.”[x]

 In addition to standing on soap boxes, people might also sit on soapboxes, sometimes in general stores, sometimes around a hot stove, and sometimes amongst barrels (cracker or otherwise).  Presumably the imagery employed by “soap box [blank]” idioms may have occasionally alluded to idle conversation while sitting on a box, as opposed to public lecturing from atop an informal podium.

 Four veracious farmers of Kenosha County sat around a wood fire in a grocery store in this city last night. . . . “Talkin’ about freaks in the veg’table kingdom,” said a grizzled old granger who sat on a soap box, before the crackling fire, “the [pumpkin] up on Charley Shupe’s farm, near Racine County, sort o’ knocks me out of time.

The Lawrence Gazette (Lawrence, Kansas), February 11, 1886, page 4.

 

Nat Blossom, justice of the peace, sat on a soap box on the counter of Admire’s general store, and frowned in a way that promised no mercy to the two small offenders leaning tremblingly against the hominy barrels.  Around the room, seated on the counter, on boxes and butter buckets, were almost the entire male population of Metropolis [Illinois].

The Lincoln Republican (Lincoln, Kansas), May 31, 1888, page 3.

 

And I had to work under most uncomfortable conditions sometimes. . . . Once I sat on a soap box and used the top of a flour barrel as a desk.

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), November 17, 1912, Editorial Section.

Soap boxes were also used at times as ballot boxes, so that “soap box politicians” and such might also have alluded, on occasion, to local political operatives trying to influence the vote.  The popular perception of soap boxes as informal ballot boxes was so strong that “soap box elections” became an idiom used to refer to local primary elections.

 

Soap Box Elections

The earlies example of a “soap box election,” by that name, was not a primary, but the vote to select the county seat for Seward County, Kansas.  The booming metropolises of Springfield and Fargo Springs vied for the title.


  . . . This election has been famous ever since as the “Soap Box Election.”

 The Liberal News (Liberal, Kansas), May 1, 1919, The News Victory Section, page 3.

 Before the day of the election, the county had been divided into three voting precincts – Fargo, Cimarron and Liberal, with citizens of Springfield voting in Fargo.  But the civic rivalry being what it was, the citizens of Fargo Springs and Springfield could not, or at least would not, cooperate with one another to run the precinct polling place. 

Springfield wanted to appoint some of its citizens as election judges and clerks to the election board to help supervise the tally.  But on the morning of the election, the people of Fargo Springs blocked the doors of the polling place during the selection of the board, ensuring that all of the election judges and clerks were from Fargo Springs. 

Without any of their own people on the board, the people from Springfield who had come to Fargo Springs to cast their vote opened up their own informal precinct polling place out of the back of a wagon – a soap box for a ballot box.

 Election of their Own.

 A wagon standing near and a convenient soap box served as an office and ballot box respectively.  Officers were elected and voting was indulged in and thus ended the only demonstration of the day.

 The Daily Sentinel (Garden City, Kansas), Augsut 7, 1886, page 4.

 The final tally gave 278 votes to Fargo Springs, 275 of which were cast at one of the three official precincts, and 300 votes for Springfield, 265 of which were cast in the soap box on the wagon.  Springfield won the election, by a tally of 300-278 from all four precincts, but only after a trip to the Supreme Court of Kansas.  The aftermath of the election was described months later in the first edition of Springfield’s new newspaper, as a means of explaining the origin of the paper’s name – The Springfield Soap-Box.

But, as two of our commissioners were Fargo men, they refused to canvass the votes of the soap-box, declaring it an illegal action; but the Supreme court of the State of Kansas convinced them otherwise when she ordered them to count the votes of the soap-box and declare Springfield the permanent County seat, hence, the name of The Springfield Soap-Box.

 The Springfield Soap-Box, May 5, 1887, page 4.

 Seward County was not the only place soap boxes were pressed into service as ballot boxes.  Over the following decades, reports of them pop up in several elections, particularly in primaries, where the voting systems were generally less regulated and more informal.

 Unsurprisingly, perhaps, many such reports came out of Chicago politics.

At 6:40 p. m. a fight took place in the alley in the rear of No. 195 North Clark street, where one of the polling places was located. . .  One of the intruders took possession of the ballot box, which was made of a soap-box, and broke it open.  Its contents were taken out and scattered along the alley, and it is supposed many of the tickets were carried away.  The breaking of the ballot-box and the stealing of its contents was done within a few feet of where the officers were standing, but they were unable to determine who were the men who did the job.

 

The judges of election were not able to count the ballots, they having been scattered along the alley or carried away, but they were satisfied that the Griesheimer delegates had been elected and they issued the necessary certificates.

 The Inter-Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), March 14, 1894, page 2.

Again in Chicago the following year, “curbstone politicians” used of a “soap box” as an ersatz ballot box when the precinct closed early.  It was only one of many irregularities on the day of the primary.

 



“Nailing Up the Election Officials on Wentworth Avenue.”

 “A Scene on Van Buren Street.”

“Tim Hogan is Violent.” 

 Chicago Chronicle, October 3, 1895, page 3.

 

 Chicago was not the only city with soap-box ballot boxes.

The Baltimore Sun, August 27, 1898, page 7.


Although Seward County’s “soap box election” had received national attention, and soap boxes were used regularly as soap boxes over the next few decades, the expression, “soap box election,” does not appear to have come into more widespread use until President Taft came out against the expansion of the Presidential primary system during the 1912 election cycle.

In 1912, the incumbent President Taft was in a tight, three way race for the Republican nomination against former President Theodore Roosevelt and Wisconsin Senator Robert Lafollette.  At the time, the delegate selection process for the national party conventions was done primarily through state conventions, not by direct vote by party members at a primary. 

State laws enacted on a state-by-state basis governed whether a particular state conducted a primary election or a state convention controlled by party leadership.  It was believed that a primary would be more likely to show increased popular support for a populist like Roosevelt, whereas a state convention system would give an advantage to President Taft, through his influence over party leadership.

During the nomination process, Roosevelt had apparently endorsed expansion of the primary system to states that had not yet enacted enabling legislation.  Taft opposed the expansion, characterizing any ad hoc primary system as a “soap box” election, a dismissive reference to the presumed unreliability of elections in which soap boxes were used as ballot boxes.

As is the case today, two different sources could report the same facts but characterize them in two vastly different ways.  Depending on the source, Taft was either for or against primaries.  In actual fact, however, he supported legal primaries and opposed illegal primaries.


 

BOSTON, Mass., Mar. 18. – Denouncing a “soap box” Presidential primary as an “open avenue for fraud and violence” unless properly safe guarded by legal regulations, President Taft today gave his reasons for opposing a primary unless ample legal machinery is provided.

 The Daily Courier (Connellsville, Pennsylvania), March 18, 1912, page 1.

 

The Journal (Meriden, Connecticut), March 20, 1912, page 6.

The dispute mirrors, to some degree, efforts to alter mail-in ballot rules during the final months of the 2020 Presidential campaign; some argue that the changes are necessary, while others argue that such radical changes, without more security measures, might be susceptible to mishandling or fraud.  In California, for example, Governor Newsom initially ordered universal mail-in voting by executive order, which would have run afoul of Taft’s position that such changes should be done legislatively.  In the end, the California legislature convened and passed a bill that did the same thing, thereby putting the change on at least a solid legal basis.  In late September, several states announced that they would change their rules to accept late ballots and permit so-called “ballot harvesting.” 

In 1912, Roosevelt would win a clear majority of delegates selected through state primaries, whereas Taft took the majority of those selected through state conventions.  Since a larger share of delegates was selected through state conventions, Taft won the nomination.  Roosevelt, however, was not daunted.  He mounted a third-party campaign as the candidate of the Progressive, or “Bull Moose,” Party, splitting the Republican vote and ensuring a win for the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson.   As of this writing (September 2020), only time will tell what effect, if any, changes in mail-in balloting will have on election day.

 

Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), March 8, 1917, page 1.

Soapboxes were also put to other uses, unrelated to second guessing.  Children used them to make small wagons or cart; a tradition that continues today, at least nominally, with the annual Soapbox Derby in Akron, Ohio.

Rusty ten-penny nails will make excellent linch-pins, and an old soap-box is a “body” to be proud of, especially if the band on it was stenciled with red paint.

Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel (Santa Cruz, California), August 23, 1879, page 2.

 

The Future of Second-Guessing

Over the past two centuries, second-guessing idioms have evolved regularly, from armchair politician to easy-chair critic, cross-roads strategist to cracker barrel general and soap box philosopher, grandstand critic to bleacher jockey and bleacher quarterback, and from 9 o’clock manager to Sunday morning quarterback to Monday morning quarterback, and even plate glass skip, which raises the question, what will be the next generation of second-guessing idiom?”

 I have previously suggested (without success) Twitterback, for someone who second-guesses on social media.

 Perhaps something more generic might work – “Twitter  critic” or “Twittic”?

 



[ii] See my earlier pos, “The History and Origin of ‘Monday Morning Quarterback,’” July 21, 2014. https://esnpc.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-history-and-origin-of-monday.html

[iii] See my earlier post, “Grandstands, Armchairs and Drugstores – Second-Guessing the History and Origin of ‘Monday Morning Quarterback,” December 7, 2016. https://esnpc.blogspot.com/2016/12/grandstands-armchairs-and-drugstores.html 

[iv] American Dialect Society listserv mailing list discussion board post, December 8, 2016. http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2016-December/145513.html

[v] “An Expert in the Second-Guessing Game,” Ben Zimmer, “Word on the Street” column, The Wall Street Journal, September 7-8 2019. https://twitter.com/bgzimmer/status/1170510007110119426 

[vi] The “skip” or “skipper” is the captain of a curling team.

[vii] “Vintage Ads: Uneeda Biscuit Takes Crackers Out of the Barrel,” SaturdayEveningPost.com, February 16, 2018. https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2018/02/vintage-advertising-uneeda-biscuit-takes-crackers-barrel/

[viii] The Hamilton Evening Journal (Hamilton, Ohio), December 26, 1925, page 11.

[x] The Journal Times (Racine, Wisconsin), January 21, 1921, page 6.