Tuesday, August 7, 2018

American History in Doggerel

This post is the result of my bad habit of squirreling away little ditties and poems and bits of doggerel that I run into when I’m researching something more important.

Because this collection is the result of happenstance, there are entire decades missing, and my last bit of doggerel is dated 1937.  Frankly, it’s all a mess.  But then—what are blogs for?  

Here goes, a brief history of America in doggerel:

Found on the sign at a tavern, circa 1780, showing the American proprietor as a jack-of-all-trades:

I shoe the horse, I shoe the ox
I carry nails in my box
I make the nail, I set the shoe
And entertain some strangers, too.[1]


In 1807, Jefferson announced his controversial and widely unpopular embargo:

Our ships all in motion once whitened the ocean,
They sailed and returned with a cargo;
Now doomed to decay, they have fallen a prey
To Jefferson--worms--and embargo.[2]

Alcohol in the new republic was a regular part of daily life, and sometimes too regular:

There’s scarce a Tradesman in the Land,
That when from Work is come,
But takes a touch, (sometimes too much)
Of Brandy or of Rum.[3]

In 1830, when Georgia state law extended itself over Cherokee lands, a popular song of the day was:

All I want in this creation,
Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation,
Away up yonder in the Cherokee nation.[4]

Hiram Powers’s “The Greek Slave” was the centerpiece of the American exhibit at the 1851 World's Fair at the Crystal Palace in London.  Powers portrayed a Greek girl captured by the Turks and sold into the slave market of Constantinople.  The sculpture (and touring copies) were enormously popular—some finding in the work “true womanhood,” and others a protest against slavery in America.  Still others thought there might be some other attraction at work.  To wit:

There’s statues bright
Of marble white,
Of silver and of copper,
And some of zinc,
And some I think
That isn’t overproper.[5]


From Punch magazine, here's a poem commenting on the stunning showing of innovation at that same world's fair in 1851, sung (of course) to the tune of Yankee Doodle.  Colt and McCormick were especially impressive:

Yankee Doodle sent to Town
His goods for Exhibition:
Everybody ran him down,
And laugh’d at his position.;
They thought him all the world behind;
A goney, muff or noodle;
London's 1851 Great Exhibition in the new Crystal Palace
“Laugh on, good people--never mind”--
Says quiet Yankee Doodle.

The poem then went on to praise the Yanks:

Your gunsmiths of their skill may crack,
But that again don’t mention;
I guess that Colt’s revolvers whack
Their very first invention.
By Yankee Doodle, too, you’re beat
Downright in agriculture,
With his machine for reaping wheat,
Chaw’d up as by a vulture.

Cowboys celebrated condensed milk, invented just before the Civil War and a staple of Union soldiers:

Carnation milk, best in the land,
Comes to the table in a little red can;
No teats to pull, no hay to pitch,
Just punch a hole in the son of a bitch.[6]

Here’s a post-Civil War lament from a proud Southerner.  It gets to some of the conflict Americans still feel today:

Three hundred thousand Yankees is still in Southern Dust,
We got three hundred thousand before they conquered us.
They died of Southern fever and Southern steel and shot.
I wish they was three million instead of what we got.

I can’t take up my musket and fight them now no more,
But I ain’t gonna love them, now that is certain sure.
And I don’t want no pardon for what I was and am.
I won’t be reconstructed, and I don’t care a dam.[7]

In the 1880s, Prohibition was still a lifetime away, but young ladies were already being warned:

No matter what anyone says;
No matter what anyone thinks,
If you want to be happy for the rest of your life
Don’t marry a man if he drinks.[8]

And if that wasn’t warning enough, here is another from the 1880/90s:

Five cents a glass, does anyone think
That that is really the price of a drink?
The price of a drink, let him decide
Who has lost his courage and his pride,
And who lies a groveling heap of clay,
Not far removed from a beast to-day.[9]

Throughout the nineteenth century, workers attempted to adjust to the tyranny of the clock:

The tick of the clock is the boss in his anger.
The face of the clock has the eyes of the foe.
The clock--I shudder--Dost hear how it draws me?
It calls me "Machine" and it cries [to] me "Sew!"[10]

In 1899, Rudyard Kipling had urged the Americans (in the Philippines) and Brits (in South Africa with the Boers) to “Take up the White Man’s burden."  Not everyone saw the benevolence of the White Man as Kipling did, including this poet in the New York Times:

Take up the White Man’s burden;
Send forth your sturdy sons,
And load them down with whisky
And Testaments and guns.
Throw in a few diseases
To spread in tropic climes,
For there the healthy natives
Are quite behind the times.
And don’t forget the factories!
On those benighted shores. . .
They never work twelve hours a day,
And live in strange content. . . .[11]

President Taft had used the would-be benevolent phrase,“little brown brother,” but the common solider had a different version, as Robert F. Morrison wrote in the Manila Sunday Sun:

I’m only a common soldier-man, in the blasted Philippines;
They say I’ve got Brown Brothers here, but I dunno what it means.
I live the world Fraternity, but still I draw the line;
He may be a brother of William H. Taft, but he ain’t no friend of mine. [12]

In 1901, a poet in the Chicago Times-Herald satirized Andrew Carnegie’s newfound munificence, writing in “Psalm of the Strenuous Life”:

Let us then be up and doing
All becoming money kings;
Some day we may be endowing
Universities and things.
Lives of billionaires remind us
That we’ve got to own the stock
If we want to leave behind us
Libraries on every block.”[13]

In 1902, the Reverend Alexander Lewis exhorted young men to excel, framing the Protestant work ethic:

There is always a way to rise, my boy,
Always a way to advance;
Yet the road that leads to Mount Success
Does not pass by the way of Chance,
But goes through the stations of Work and Strive,
through the valley of Persevere;
And the man that succeeds while others fail,
Must be willing to pay most dear.[14]

In December 1904, Judge magazine summed up a pretty good year:

Good old year of nineteen-four!
Everyone had goods in store—
Wheat galore, a dollar up,
Lots to eat and lots to sup.
None abroad is mad at us;
Naught at home to cause a fuss—
May the year ahead give more
Of the brand of nineteen-four![15]

In 1908, the "directoire" or "sheath" dress arrived from Paris. The first woman in Chicago to wear one had to be rescued from the crowd by police.  The following was popular:

"Katie Keath, she wears a sheath
With very little underneath."

Here’s an early twentieth-century ode to the Motel T, or Tin Lizzie (with apologies to Rudyard Kipling and Gunga Din):

Yes, Tin, Tin, Tin,
You exasperating puzzle, Hunka Tin,
I've abused you and I've flayed you,
But by Henry Ford who made you,
You are better than a Packard, Hunka Tin.[16]

America’s fathers were losing status by 1910.  Once able to command all of the resources of a household, they had become the brunt of gentle teasing:

We all look on with anxious eyes
When Father carves the duck,
And mother almost always sighs
When Father carves the duck;
Then all of us prepare to rise,
And hold our bibs before our eyes,
And be prepared for some surprise,
When Father carves the duck.[17]

In 1920, Dan McGann was already trying to make America great again:

Said Dan McGann to a foreign man who worked at the self-same bench:
“Let me tell you this,” and for emphasis he flourished a Stillson wrench,
“Don’t talk to me of the bourjoissee, don’t open your mouth to speak
Of your Socialists or your Anarchists, don’t mention the Bolsheveek--
For I’ve had enough of this foreign stuff, I’m sick as a man can be
Of the speech of hate, and I’m telling you straight that this is the land for me.”[18]

By 1921, golf already had a powerful grip on the nation:

Hello dear, how are you?
Glad you came around.
Fred's out at the Country Club
Batting up the ground.

Did you go to Martha's
Fred came in too late.
Played 'til it was pitchy dark,
Forgot we had a date.[19]

By 1925 roadside signs were replacing the dense copy of advertising to play to the new, mobile American:

Within this vale
Of toil and sin
Your head grows bald
But not your chin
Use Burma Shave[20]


A January 18, 1927 letter to editor of New York Times by Sarah Hale Hunter, the granddaughter of Sarah Josepha Hale (author of "Mary's Lamb"), made clear that the old poem had been co-opted by advertisers:

Sweet Mary long has passed away,
The poet, too, is dead,
The children no more laugh and play,
Afar they all have fled.
At teacher's cold, unfeeling words
The lamb no more can quiver
But still the gentle creature serves
To advertise a flivver.

In the 1937 musical revue Pins and Needles, the Ladies Garment Workers’ Union was able to challenge the plutocracy:

When progressive-minded senators decide to tax the riches
That you lifted from the pockets of the public’s tattered britches,
Never stoops to contradict the socialistic sons-of-bitches. . .
Call them Un-American.[21]

That’s where my collection of doggerel ends, unfortunately.  However, I have appended a couple of song lyrics which speak more to modern times.  The first is from 1995, Sheeler and Sheeler’s Car Phone:

He's got a bitchin' car phone
He thinks he owns the road
Yeah, he's got a brand-new car phone
He's stuck in the yuppie mode
Since he has a brand-new car phone
You better not get in his way
He's gonna use that car phone
To make his name in L.A.
Car phone!

And I close with a testament to the me-generation, a song that hit #1 in 2011:

Girl look at that body
I work out
Girl look at that body
I work out

When I walk in the spot, this is what I see
Everybody stops and they staring at me
I got passion in my pants and I ain't afraid to show it
I'm sexy and I know it.[22]





[1] From the John Foster House in Ipswich, Globe magazine, 11, Dec 8, 2013.
[2] From Morison's Maritime History of Massachusetts, 187.
[3] W.J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic An American Tradition, USA: Oxford University Press (Kindle, Amazon Digital Services Inc.), 1981, Location 335.
[4] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 414.
[5] Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar, Engine of Change: The American Industrial Revolution 1790-1860, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 257.
[6] Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, 91.
[7] Fred Kaplan, Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War, New York: Harper, 2017, xvii.
[8] Mark Sullivan, Our Times: America Finding Herself, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927, 113.
[9] Mark Sullivan, Our Times: America Finding Herself, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927, 114.
[10] Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld in Maury Klein and Harvey E. Kantor, "Technology and the Treadmill of Urban Progress," Leo Fink, Major Problems in the Gilded Age.
[11] Mark Sullivan, Our Times: The Turn of the Century, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971 [rpt: 1926], 6.
[12] Mark Sullivan, Our Times: The Turn of the Century, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971 [rpt: 1926], 7.
[13] Mark Sullivan, Our Times: The Turn of the Century, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971 [rpt: 1926], 558-559.
[14] Alexander Lewis, "Manhood Making, Studies in the Elemental Principles of Success." Print. Rpt. in Major Problems in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. By Leon Fink. 2nd. ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2011. 23.
[15] Mark Sullivan, Our Times: America Finding Herself, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927, 631.
[16] Harold C. Livesay, American Made: Shapers of the American Economy, New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007 [rpt: 1979], 157.
[17] Mark Sullivan, Our Times: America Finding Herself, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927, 108.
[18] From the Mount Hope News, July/Aug 1920, Edgar A. Guest.
[19] Amelia Adams Harrington, "It's a Great Life."
[20] David E. Kyvig, Daily Life in the United States: How Americans Lived Through the “Roaring Twenties” and the Great Depression, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002, 50.
[21] Allan Nevins, “The Audacious Americans,” Life, Chicago: Time Inc., Vol. 28, No. 1, January 2, 1950, 83.
[22] LMFAO, “Sexy and I Know It”.