Monday, April 26, 2021

Knickerbocker Dudes - a Window into the History and Origin of "Dude"


The word “Dude” made its debut in the English Language in January 1883, in a poem entitled “The True Origin and History of ‘the Dude,’”[i]  written by an Irish-born Englishman living in New York City named Robert Sale Hill (or Sale-Hill).  The poem skewered the frivolous, idle sons of Gilded Age millionaires who had more money than sense, labeling them “Dudes,” the “first cousin to the ‘Dodo.’”  The original “Dudes” were Anglophiles who wore monocles, affected an English accent, and dressed in the latest, ridiculous fashions – tight pants, high collar, and pointy shoes.  

 “Dudes” were also members of exclusive social clubs.  Among men’s clubs in New York at the time, the Knickerbocker Club enjoyed the reputation of being perhaps the most exclusive, and of having the most frivolous and most idle young men among its members.

The word “Knickerbocker” generally refers to the early settlers of Dutch Manhattan, and membership in the Knickerbocker Club was supposedly limited to “descendants of the original Dutch settlers of Manhattan Island.”[ii]  Just as the Knickerbockers of old “New Amsterdam” (the original name of New York City) were known for their own distinctive fashions, their descendants in the Knickerbocker Club of “modern” New York in 1883 were known for affecting their own distinctive look.  Their peculiar sense of fashion may have even inspired the word “Dude,” and a specific member, August Belmont, Jr., may have been the trend-setter who introduced those fashions to the club.

 

“Swells of the Past,” Lawrence Tribune (Lawrence, Kansas), March 4, 1887, page 1.

 

A New Style

Several months before the publication of Robert Sale Hill’s poem, the “New York Letter to the Washington Post” described the scene at the Knickerbocker Club when August Belmont Jr.[iii] created a sensation walking by their clubhouse windows on Fifth Avenue, in his “latest imported clothes.”

Cover art from Robert Sale-Hill’s The True Origin and History of “The Dude,”  (1883).

He has just returned from England with an entirely new and absolutely correct wardrobe, and has already begun to exhibit it.  He is short[iv], but fairly well formed, and he constantly wears the single glass, while his accent astonishes Americans – and Englishmen, too, I fear.  When I saw him he was coming around the corner of Twenty-eighth street into Fifth avenue, and the windows of the swell little Knickerbocker Club were alive with weak-looking faces, convulsively holding the single eye-glass, and gazing eagerly at the latest imported clothes.

 The young man (he is about 30) did not walk easily.  He had on a pair of dead black shoes, with untanned leather tops.  They were decorated by fancy stripes along the side of the foot and over the tow, and were so absurdly narrow that they looked like deformed feet, and rendered the movements of the young man far from graceful, though he struggled hard to preserve appearances.  His legs were covered by a pair of trousers that were simply amazing, so tight were they cut.  It would be almost impossible to sit down without splitting them across the knee, as far as can be judged from appearances.  They were as tight as eel skin all the way down, fitting around the ankles as snugly as a stocking.  This remarkable expose of a man’s developments is not advisable when his legs are not up to the standard.  The trousers in question were a very light green with dark stripes.  Above them was a vest that stretched from the chin to a line just even with the hip bones, and was cut straight across.  The vest was of light material, and looked odd, it was so extremely short.  The cutaway coat was bottle green, and fitted like a jersey.  It was indeed a trial of the tailor’s art in one sense, but it is far too tight to be becoming. . . . He wore a collar that lapped over in front, and was certainly higher than any other collar I ever saw in America. . . . Above it all was one of the huge English Derby hats with a great curling brim and heavy crown. He wore yellow gloves, and carried a stick with a twisted handle by its lower end, so that the handle dropped nearly to his feet.

Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1882, page 5.

Sunday Ledger (Topeka, Kansas), July 1, 1888, page 2.


 

If the anecdote is true, August Belmont Jr. may have been the original “Dude,” although he was quickly joined by his admirers at the Knicerbocker Club who emulated his style.  A few months after they reportedly gazed at Belmont’s imported clothes through their club window, a New York gossip columnist identified the Knickerbocker Club and its members as the inspiration for word “Dude.”

 

A New Word

In February 1883, about six weeks after Robert Sale-Hill’s The True Origin and History of “The Dude,”  appeared in print, W. A. Croffut[v] sent one of the earliest detailed descriptions of the “Dude” to his readers in Chicago.   “An Englishman of athletic habits . . . named Hill”[vi] introduced the word, “a corruption of dodo,” “after visiting the Knickerbocker Club.”

 


New York, Feb. 22. – [Special Correspondence.] – Do you have Dudes in Chicago?  Do you know what a Dude is?  We have a good many here.  They make no end of fun.  A Dude is not necessarily a “masher,” not generally a snob, not exactly a fop – but a sort of compound of all three, with a delicious dash of simplicity and feeble-mindedness added which makes him a very amusing creature indeed.  He is never a profligate; in fact, he is occasionally a bashful Sunday-school habitué.  The chief characteristic of his personal architecture is a very empty garret.

The word “Dude,” which seems to be passing into the vernacular of the street, is an importation.  An Englishman of athletic habits and stalwart frame, named Hill, after visiting the Knickerbocker Club lately, was so struck with the listless appearance of most of the members that he wrote to the World and classified them as “Dudes.”  It may have been a breach of his privileges as a guest; I am not discussing that.  But it is a fact that since that time Dudes have been discovered thick upon the street, and the genus is coming into vogue.  The Dude generally scorns personal exertion and activity.  He has a rich father.  He wears a long Newmarket overcoat reaching to the tops of his shoes, and turning up around his head, and on the summit of this woolen cylinder sits a shiny hat with a tremendous bell crown.  They do no business to tire their flaccid intellects withal, and they carefully avoid conversation.  “Dude” is a corruption of dodo.

“New York Gossip.  The Genus “Dude” in All His Manifestations of Gorgeous Idiocy,” Chicago Tribune, February 25, 1883, page 9. (reprinted in The Shreveport Times, March 2, 1883).

Croffut’s detailed description of the “dude” appears to be the source of a comment in a later, widely reprinted account of the word’s coinage that first appeared in the Springfield Republican.  In early March 1883, the Des Moines Register reprinted an article from the Springfield Republican entitled, “The ‘Dude’ in Corsets,” which speculated that young, fashionable men in New York wore corsets to achieve their characteristic slender physique.[vii]  That article included the full paragraph from Croffut’s letter about the origin of the word.  Beginning about one month later, numerous newspapers across the country reprinted another article from the Springfield Republican, suggesting that the word “dude” (two syllables) had been in use for two decades in Salem, New Hampshire, and that its “revival at New York is credited to a disgusted Englishman, who remarked, after visiting a rich club, that the young men were all ‘dudes.’”

The characterization of a “Dude” as listless and idle may have been misplaced as applied to August Belmont Jr., who played polo, participated in fox hunts and is said to have introduced spiked shoes while on the track team at Harvard.  But the image, if not the reality, struck a chord with the public, who would continue to associate those characteristics with “Dudes” generally, and members of the Knickerbocker Club, specifically.

 

The “Dude Club”

The Knickerbocker Club members quickly acquired a reputation for being “Dudes” and the Knickerbocker Club became known as the “’Dude’ Club.”  The reputation and name stuck with the club for years.  The continued association of the club with the word, “Dude,” does not prove that the members (or a particular member) of the club were the original “Dudes,” but it is at least consistent with the early suggestions that they were.

An early reference to the club as the “Dude Club” published far from New York City also included a brief definition of the word, which was not yet universally familiar.

The Knickerbocker Club, of New York, is now called the “Dude” Club, ‘Dude’ means snob.

The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), March 8, 1883, page 2.

An early example in a magazine written and published in New York City did not limit “Dudes” to the Knickerbocker Club, but did designate the neighborhood of the club as the “principle” habitat of the recently named “creature,” the “Dude.”

[(Read as though spoken in a mock wanna-be-English dialect)] “Ya-as,” I bwoke in, aftah I had listened attentively: “I entirely compwehend.  I know the species of cweachah you allude to.  He is pwincipally to be found in the Fifth Avenue, in the neighborwhood of the Knickerbocker Club.  It is almost impossible to be in erway wegarding him; faw if his dwess is not too pwononce, there is an air of consciousness about him and an aw affectation of speech that at once pwoclaim him a “dude.”  Poor fellows, I think of them maw in sorwow than in angah aw.

Puck, Volume 13, Number 315, March 21, 1883, page 38. Fitznoodle in America:  Dudes. 

Across the river in Brooklyn (then still its own city), members of the Knickerbocker Club embodied the “sort of swell” now called a “dude.”

It seems to me there is something bland and uncommonly superior about the complaint of some of the swell young members of the Knickerbocker Club that they really cannot endure Delmonico’s and the Café Brunswick any more because the resorts are becoming too common. . . .  The only thing we can do for them is to put them on an island by themselves, where they can commune with each other and know nothing of the common herd.  It won’t be long before there is a revolt against this sort of swell or “dude,” as he is now called from all sides. . . .  The result will be an uprising on all hands before long, and the “dude” will be unceremoniously kicked out of the best clubs and hooted at when he shows his head in the theaters and concert halls.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 25, 1883, page 2. 

And even when the word “Dude” was not used, a description of the clothes worn by a Knickerbocker Club man matched the clothes then commonly associated with a “Dude.”

You can tell a Knickerbocker Club man as far as you can see him.  He affects the English to an appalling degree, wears collars that reach to his ears, skin tight trousers, a single glass, a bell crowned hat and toothpick shoes.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 15, 1883, page 1.

Months and years later, the reputation and name were still frequently associated with the Knickerbocker Club.

To the Knickerbocker dudes without sense enough to take care of the fortunes left them by the tanners, shoemakers, butchers and soap-boilers who kindly consented to act as their grandfathers, having been “in trade” is just too horrible to contemplate.

Daily Arkansas Gazette, November 4, 1883, page 4.

When Chauncey De Pew was making a little speech at the Nineteenth Century club the other night, he told a story of having asked a young member of the Knickerbocker club, the dude club of New York, which he would rather be General Sherman or General Grant or a member of the Cotillion [(a club that hosted formal dance parties)], whereupon the prompt reply was that he would rather take the latter horn of the dilemma.

The Kansas City Times, December 28, 1884, page 1.

High standing in society is a condition precedent to membership.  For this reason much fun has been poked at it.  The members are said to sit of an afternoon in the bow window on the Fifth avenue side of the club-house sipping tea, and it has also been called the Dude Club. . . .

The Times (Philadelphia), June 14, 1885. 

The Knickerbocker is hardly as representative a club as the Union, because in the latter there is a larger number of distinguished men drawn from various ranks.  It is, however, the swell club of New York, in the sense that it is the most exclusive.  One has to have high standing in New York society to become a member of it.  Much fun has been passed at it.  The “dude club” is one of its names, and it has also been said that its members sin in the bow windows on the Fifth avenue side of the club house and drink tea, and they have been pleasantly referred to as “stuffed dudes.”  But, after all, the fact remains that it is exclusive from a society point of view. . . . The limit of its membership is 300 – that of the Union, 1000.

Memphis Daily Appeal, May 22, 1887, page 10.

 

Stuffed Dudes

The reference to “stuffed dudes” sitting in the window was in keeping with their listless image, but also started a rumor that the club actually kept “stuffed dudes” in the window.  The rumor took on a life of its own and became a running joke for years.  One of the earliest accounts of the rumor, from The New York Times, suggested that the club’s reputation for listlessness was misplaced.

The children of the neighborhood who play on the sidewalks believe a story that has been told them by some jocular servant to the effect that there are “stuffed dudes” displayed in the windows of the Knickerbocker Club, from the fact that the members of the club who sit in the windows and gaze on the passing pageant of youth and beauty appear to be inanimate.  No reasoning can dissuade the children from this idea, and one member has promised to take his little girl into the club some morning so that she can see for herself that there is no truth in the story.  It may be added that the dude abounds in the Knickerbocker, which is notwithstanding one of the cheeriest and pleasantest clubs in the city, with an excellent cuisine.  Inside as well as outside the club house is one of the handsomest in the city.

The New York Times, January 23, 1887, page 4.

The spate of negative publicity may have caused the club members may have taken a break from window-sitting.

Since the “stuffed dudes” vacated the windows there is no visible signs of occupancy about the Knickerbocker Club.

The New York Times, March 6, 1887, page 14. 

But the notion of “stuffed dudes” persisted for years, spawning jokes and imitators.

I examined with especial attention the collection of stuffed animals on exhibition in the National Museum.  It is better than a menagerie, without the smell, as a visitor remarked.  The keeper states that the collection will be very nearly complete when they shall have succeeded in putting a stuffed dude in the collection.

The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), February 16, 1888, page 3.

DUDES FROM THE CLUBS.

How They Look on Dress Parade – A Brief Interchange of Words – The Oglers.

Fifth avenue is all alive in the brisk movement of a gay winter afternoon.  Up and down the driveway rolls an endless procession of vehicles, whose trappings fill the air with frosty music.  Up and down the footways pass an endless chain of pedestrians, stepping smartly and with heads well up.  The display of winter toilets [(fashion)], pet dogs and pretty faces is a sight to be remembered among the experiences of the town.  One can hardly blame the members of the Knickerbocker club, therefore, for gathering at the windows of the club house, but one can surely wonder how it was that in the face of this vital and moving scene they can preserve the stolid, cane sucking immobility on which the club seems to have a patent.  If there is anything more imperturbable in the world than a Knickerbocker club man on dress parade I should like to know of it as a matter of curiosity.  The children of the neighborhood are said to call them stuffed dudes, and there is reason in the childish conceit.  As they pose at their places of vantage and squint at the smart girls and modish matrons going by through their single eye glasses, there is, apparently, nothing alive about them.  They might be tailors’ dummies or the wax figures at the Eden Musee.  Even when they speak to one another it is a monosyllable, without opening their mouths more than enough to let the words escape.

“Fine gel, old fel.”

“Dem fine.”

“Ged! Heah’s Syypes’ gel.”

“Dem fine gel, Syypes’ gel.”

“Dem fine.”

And so on to the end f the club vocabulary, which is all similarly adjusted.

Sterling Daily Gazette (Sterling, Illinois), March 26, 1888, page 2.

GIRLS SCARED BY A STUFFED DUDE.

Students Put a Scarecrow in a Secret Society Lodge Room.

Several Northwestern University students entered the sacred domain of one of the secret societies of young women of the university last week and placed therein a man of straw.  Dressed in faultless attire and placed in such an attitude as to denote a state of beastly intoxication, his discovery was followed by feminine screams and a wild scramble.                                   

Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1895, page 7.

It was a standing joke for some years that there was an agreement among certain of the younger members that they should take turns at sitting at the front windows so as to prove to the world at large that there was at least one solitary soul within its precincts.

Kansas City Star, February 24, 1897, page 5.

 

“Rough Rider” Dudes

Despite the long-running reputation of Knickerbocker Club  members as listless “Dudes,” the stereotype may have been misplaced, at least for some of its members.  During the Spanish-American War, for example, future President Theodore Roosevelt recruited a regiment of volunteer cavalry, primarily “rough riders” and cowboys of the American Southwest (Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas) but supplemented by about fifty “Fifth Avenue Dudes,” some of them members of the Knickerbocker Club.


The “Dudes” caused disappointment among the cowboys as soon as they swung off the train.  The cowboys expected to see Saratoga trunk, but instead every man carried his entire paraphernalia in one hand.  As soon as the men arrived at the regimental camp, one of them selected a bucking claybank horse for a ride into town.  The cowboys expected to see him go flying into the air, but after a few jumps and plunges the bucker had all he could manage, for his rider was Craig S. Wadsworth, one of the best polo players in America.

Among the “Dudes,” as the cowboys insist upon calling the new recruits, are Basil Ricketts, son of the late General Ricketts, who served a two years apprenticeship on the Colorado cattle ranch; Hamilton Fish, Jr., another noted polo player; Horace Deveraux of Colorado Springs, one of Princeton’s foot ball team; William Tiffany of New York, a social favorite and a leader of cotillions in exclusive circles; Kenneth Robinson, of the Knickerbocker club; Reginald Ronalds, half back of Yale’s foot ball team; and Hollister, the Harvard sprinter.  There are about fifty of these college bred clubmen, but their wealth and influence will secure them no special consideration in the regiment.  They are all chummy with the far westerners this morning.

El Paso Herald, May 11, 1898, page 1.

 

Knickerbocker Club member, “Kenneth Robinson Making Soup for his Fellow Fifth Ave Dudes and the Cowboys.” The Boston Globe, May 30, 1898, page 3.

Given the high profile of their leader, Colonel Roosevelt, the high social standing of many of the New York recruits, and the spectacle of the presumably soft society swells mixing it up with Wild West he-man types, the press gave the regiment a lot of attention even before they saw combat.  Some of the coverage was critical of the suitability of the city “Dudes” for Army life or combat.

A correspondent of the New York Herald ridiculed the “valets,” “golf sticks” and “polo sticks” brought into camp by Roosevelt’s “Fifth Avenue dudes,” comparing them unfavorably to the “genuine Simon Pure cowboys and plainsmen” of a regiment of volunteer cavalry from Montana.

 


One of the most spectacular incidents of the war with Spain has been provided by “Teddy” Roosevelt and his band of “rough riders.”  Dispatches from the South teem with the doings of the strange conglomeration of Fifth avenue dudes and so-called cowboys until one grows heartily sick of it all.  When Colonel Roosevelt resigned his responsible post as assistant secretary of the navy to raise his band of terrible warriors, the more conservative of his friends did not hesitate to indulge in hostile criticism.  They argued, and not without good grounds, that it was, to use a bit of expressive slang, a “grand stand play.”

And we in New York have grown quite hysterical over the doings of the redoubtable “Teddy” and his kid-gloved cohorts, unless, perchance, we have been gifted with a sense of humor, in which event we have been quietly amused. . . .

There are no valets in the camp of Colonel Grigsby’s Third regiment at Chickamauga.  There are no golf sticks and polo clubs to be kept in order. . . .  There are no pampered sons of the  rich in this outfit.  These men do not look upon their enlistment as a holiday jaunt.

The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), June 20, 1898, page 10 (from The New York Herald).

When they performed well under fire, a supporter called for those who had published the jokes about the golf clubs and valets should retract their statements.  And despite the fact that only a few of the Rough Riders may have been members of the Knickerbocker Club, the name of their club appeared in the request.

Some of the comic paragraphers who wrote of the Knickerbocker Club dudes and the college swells of the Rough Riders organization, and their imaginary valets and golf clubs, ought, in decency, since the fight at Guasimas, to go out and hang themselves with remorse.

“The Rough Riders’ Fight at Guasimas,” Richard Harding Davis, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 24, Number 3, September 1898, page 267.

 

An Early Suggestion for the Etymology of “Dude”

The notion of New York clubmen looking out the Knickerbocker Club’s Fifth Avenue windows was a common thread in the early reference to August Belmont Jr. passing by in his “latest imported” clothes to the legend of the immobile “stuffed dudes” staring out the windows.  An early suggestion of the etymology of “Dude” included a similar anecdote, but at a different club. 

In 1889, a contributor to American Notes and Queries claimed that Hermann Oelrichs coined the word at the Union Club when an “overdressed youth” pass by their Fifth Avenue window after hearing another member of the club hum, “du, da, de du-du, de, du,” in time with the youth’s “mincing gait.” 

“It is stated that Mr. Hermann Oelrichs invented this word, or else the traditions of the Union Club are way off.  The simple fact is that Mr. Oelrichs, who is distinguished by a deep contempt for effeminancy in either dress or manner, sat one day at a window gazing out on Fifth avenue.  Along came a very much overdressed youth, with so mincing a gait, that involuntarily one of the clubmen with Mr. Oelrichs began humming an accompaniment to the step, thus: ‘Du, da, de, du-du, du, de, du.’ ‘That’s good!’ said Mr. Oelrichs; ‘it ought to be called a dude.’ And dude it has been called ever since.” C. L. F. Newark, N.J.”

American Notes and Queries, Volume 2, Nov. – Apr. 1888-1889 (January 19, 1889), page 143.

The traditions of the Union Club may be way off, but it is interesting to note the thematic similarity between Mr. Oelrichs sitting “at a window gazing out on Fifth avenue,” and the Knickerbocker Club “gazing eagerly at the latest imported clothes” worn by August Belmont Jr. 

If W. A. Croffut’s suggestion that Robert Sale Hill was specifically influenced by the members of the Knickerbocker Club when writing “The True Origin and History of ‘the Dude’” were true, the members of the Knickerbocker Club in 1883 may have been the original “Dudes.”  And if the earlier story about the Knickerbocker Club “gazing eagerly at the latest imported clothes” were also true, August Belmont Jr. could be considered the first “Dude.”

 

August Belmont, Jr., "First Dude" (?) Library of Congress, Item #2001696742

 

 



[i] For the poem, see, “The True Origin and History of ‘the Dude,’” A-Dude-a-Day.blogspot.com.  https://a-dude-a-day.blogspot.com/2015/07/dude-1-true-origin-and-history-of-dude.html .  For an in-depth discussion of the history and etymology of the word, “Dude,” see, “Dudes, Dodos and Fopdoodles – a History and Etymology of ‘Dude’!!!,” Early Sports ‘n’ Pop-Culture History Blog. https://esnpc.blogspot.com/2015/02/dudes-dodos-and-fopdoodles-history-and.html               

[ii] Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee), April 22, 1883, page 2.

[iii] Clues in the letter identify the person wearing the imported clothes as the 30-year old brother of Congressman Perry Belmont.   “I don’t suppose he would care if his name was published, as he is used to seeing it in all of the society papers, and is the acknowledged leader of the more exclusive society men of New York, but I won’t give it this time.  His brother, who is in Washington during the session of congress, never achieved distinction as a society man, or in any other way indeed, except in fighting a former secretary of state who tried to corner Peru.”  Congressman Perry Belmont was then in a public spat with James Blain over the acquisition and use of guano deposits in chile and Peru.  Based on the stated age, this proto-dude would likely have been August Belmont, Jr., who was nearly 30 at the time; his younger brothers, Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont and Raymond Belmont were 23 and 19.  August Belmont Sr. was one of the founding members of the club’s board of governors. The Times (Philadelphia), June 14, 1885 (“In 1871 twenty-one of the most prominent members of the old New York Club formed themselves into a Board of Governors, with Alexander Hamilton as President, and with a limited number of men of their own choice organized the Knickerbocker Club.  The Board of Governors of this club is a close corporation.  The club members have no control over it; it fills vacancies itself and is in fact the club. . . .The club was an immediate success, owing firstly to the social prominence of the governors, among whom were August Belmont . . . .”).

[iv] The description of August Belmont Jr. as “short” appears to be accurate.  An article about an altercation in which August Belmont, Jr. was allegedly struck another man with a “heavy cane” describes him as, “very short and slender, his weight not exceeding one hundred pounds.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 27, 1883, page 6.

[v] W. A. Croffut, wrote numerous “New York Letters,” with insider gossip and intelligence about the goings-on in New York society.  His New York letters were published in dozens of newspapers and magazines.  Beginning in about 1890, he would write similar “Washington Letters” about happenings in the Capital.  W. A. Croffut is known to have had access to the types of people who were members of the Knickerbocker and other exclusive clubs.  He wrote a book entitled “The Vanderbilts and the Story of their Fortune,” which was published in 1886.

[vi] Robert Sale-Hill was, among other things, an accomplished amateur cricket player.

[vii] Des Moines Register, March 6, 1883, page 1.

 

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