Why Did Yankee Doodle Call a Feather “Macaroni”?

Vintage July 4th Postcard

A vintage Independence Day postcard with the beginning lyrics of “Yankee Doodle”.

In honor of the Independence Day, I want to talk about a pressing question I had as a child pertaining to one of our most popular patriotic songs “Yankee Doodle”.

We all know the first verse.

Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.

The question is why did he call a feather in his cap “macaroni”?

Macaroni does not refer to the tasty cheesy pasta dish that we all love and know.  It refers to an elaborate short-lived fashion trend in England at the end of the 18th century.  The trend started with upper-class youths who returned from their Grand Tours of mainland Europe with a great appreciation for continental style and taste.  They brought back the luxurious fabrics of the French as well as the pasta dishes of the Italians, thus macaroni was used to refer to the fashion trend.[1]

The macaroni style consisted of a tight-sleeved coat with short skirts, waistcoat and knee breeches.  Macaroni emphasized pastel color, patterns and ornamentation like brocaded or embroidered silks and velvet.  On their head, they wore tall wigs with a rising front and “club” of hair behind that required an extensive amount of pomade and powder.  This wig was usually garnished with a large black satin wig-bag trimmed with bow.  The feet were clad in red-heeled slipper-like leather shoes with decorative buckles of diamond, paste or polished steel.  Additionally, as much ornamentation as possible was added with large floral nosegays, hanging watches, swords and tasseled walking sticks.[2]

What is This My Son Tom (1774) published by R. Sayer & J. Bennett

In this print titled “What is This My Son Tom” and published by R. Sayer & J. Bennett in 1774, an “honest farmer” is seen with his adult son, who has large, elaborate hairstyle and stylish clothes following the macaroni trend. Credit: Library of Congress

To be “macaroni” was to be sophisticated, upper class, and worldly.  An elite figure marked by the cultivations of European travel, wealth and taste.

So what did the British troops, who first sang the song about their colonial cousins, mean when they said that Mr. Yankee Doodle stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni?

The song was not meant to be a compliment but rather a joke.  A “Yankee Doodle” was a simpleton who thought that just putting a feather in his hat would make him macaroni or fashionable when, in reality, he was just a country bumpkin.  He lacked class, could never mingle in high society, and was too simple to even realize it.

It was obviously a broad generalization of Americans because in the colonies there was a broad range of fashion.  America didn’t have a global metropolis like London but wealthier colonists like Historic Kenmore’s Fielding and Betty Lewis could afford the luxurious imported fabrics and trendy ornamentation.[3]  Even with the delay in news from England the wealthy always tried to follow the a la mode styles.

The average colonist would probably not have had a pastel silk waistcoat or stripped knee socks, however.  For them, linen, wool, cotton and linsey-woolsey were all common clothing fabrics in more natural or sedate colors.  An average person may only have had 2 or 3 outfits so durability was preferable to style.[4]

What seems like just a silly sounding verse in a marching tune actually illustrates how the British viewed and had always viewed the colonies.   They looked down on the overseas colonies; after all if it wasn’t for the support of the Crown the initial colonial settlements might not have survived. They felt that the American colonists owed them a great deal for protection, for purveying their culture, for providing them with manufactured goods.[5]

So, if the British were insulting Americans in “Yankee Doodle”, why is it such a common American patriotic song now?  Why would Connecticut even make it their state anthem?[6]

As is often the case with insults leveled at a supposed inferiors by people who sees themselves as superior, the colonists appropriated the negative image of a Yankee Doodle and gave it a positive meaning.  No longer was this motley “macaroni” viewed as a garish fool but rather became a symbol of a homespun American identity.

Yankee Doodle from Uncle Sam's panorama of Rip van Winkle and Yankee Doodle (1875) by Thomas Nast

One of six scenes from the story of Yankee Doodle showing an Uncle Sam figure tipping his feathered top hat to the departing British represented by Britannia and the crowned lion and unicorn on King George III’s coat of arms. This scene and five others were pasted together to form a long panoramic strip on a late 19th century children’s toy made by McLoughlin Bros. and illustrated by Thomas Nast. Credit: Beinecke Library, Yale University.

America was a place where your status in society was based on merits of work, enterprise, and earned wealth.  Your value didn’t come from an inherited title or a fancy ensemble but rather from your own abilities and hard work. In America, anyone could indeed stick a feather in his cap and rightly call it macaroni.   The British could keep their macaroni men, Americans would rather be a Yankee Doodle.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Hair, Authenticity, and the Self-Made Macaroni, Amelia Rauser, 2004, pg 101

[2] McNeil, Peter. “Macaroni Dress” https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/clothing-types-styles/macaroni-dress

[3] The Revolution and the New Republic, 1775-1800 http://www.americanrevolution.org/clothing/colonial7.php

[4] Baumgarten, Linda. “Looking at Eighteenth-Century Clothing” http://www.history.org/history/clothing/intro/clothing.cfm

[5]  “Iron Tears,” a British View of American Revolution, Interview with Stanley Weintraub, July 3, 2005. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4727956

[6] Yankee Doodle, Connecticut State Song. https://statesymbolsusa.org/symbol-official-item/connecticut/state-song/yankee-doodle

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