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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Photos: “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” 2018

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2018 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place January 5, 6, and 7. Here are a few photos from the performances.

When Christmas Wasn’t for Kids

Merry-Christmas-Ornamental-TypographyPicture it. No Santa. No Christmas tree. No big-ticket Christmas present. No little Susie or Bobby up to their eyes in wrapping paper, as their parents snap a photo of every gift they unwrap.  To die-hard Christmas fans today, this sounds like a nightmare. Where is the wonder and joy? Where is the standing in line or the surfing online all night to find the perfect gift? Where is the fulfilling of little Susie and Bobby’s every Christmas wish?

Christmas, as a celebration, was not always so focused on small children.  Until the 1800s, Christmas was a holiday mainly for adults.  Most of the festivities in the 18th century were designed to provide opportunities to socialize and celebrate with adult family and friends from far and near.  The Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 6) were a time to make merry, unless you were a kid.

Now, to say that children had no chance to enjoy holiday festivities would be an overstatement but not by much.  Kids made “Christmas pieces,” or cards that they decorated and adorned with poems, for their parents and siblings. This tradition eventually grew into the modern activity of sending Christmas cards.

Christmas Pieces

Reproduction “Christmas pieces” in Betty Washington Lewis’ Bed Chamber at Historic Kenmore.

Colonial children did receive small gifts from friends and family – little presents like books, fruit, and nuts. There was nothing expensive, nothing breakable, and nothing age-inappropriate.  These presents served as small tokens of affection as parents showed children that they were remembered during the season.  Gift-giving in the 1700s was a top-down affair – parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents could provide little gifts to the children but children were not expected to return the favor.  Modern children might be envious of their 18th century counterparts if they knew that they were off the hook for giving presents to their parents and older siblings.  But Colonial Virginia was a hierarchal society with children near the bottom.  Christmas gift-giving enforced these rules of deference and even at a festive time it remained clear who was firmly in charge.

One reason children were left out of Christmastide festivities in the past may have been just the lack of kid-friendly activities.  Firing guns, going fox hunting, and getting married at a holiday ball weren’t (and, in some cases, still aren’t) activities associated with children.  This is not to say that children did not take delight in these activities when adults did them.

Young boys could not partake in the fox hunt, but it didn’t make it less exciting for them.  Boys admired their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers as they prepared for the hunt.  Boys who were a little older could watch as their male loved ones dashed off on their horses and into the excitement of the hunt.  George Washington was an enthusiastic fox hunter starting in his-mid teens, at which point a young man would be up to the physical challenge. Boys also surely excitedly watched the men fire guns into the air as a way to say “Happy Christmas!” to the neighbors.

Twelfth Night in Devonshire (1863)

“Twelfth Night in Devonshire” (1863) shows men firing guns to celebrate the holiday in “Das festliche Jahr in Sitten, Gebräuchen und Festen der germanischen Völker” by Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld. Credit: Wikipedia

Girls probably happily helped their mothers or older sisters prepare for the Twelfth Night ball even though they would not attend.  It wasn’t until a boy or girl had gone through puberty that they were ready to go to the ball.  Some children started their dancing lessons early, while others started later.  George Washington was taking lessons by age 16.  Even the nature of the 18th century dancing would have been too difficult for children.  At the beginning of every ball, the guests danced the minuet, a complicated series of steps performed on the tip-toes. This would be nearly impossible for children and their still developing motor skills. Until they were older, little boys and girls admired the festivities from afar.

Couples took advantage of the Christmas balls and family get-togethers to hold weddings.  The 12 days between Christmas and Twelfth Night were a popular time for couples to get married.  Thomas Jefferson married Martha Skelton on January 1, 1772 and George Washington and Martha Dandridge Custis married January 6, 1759.  This was a joyous occasion for the whole family, but the children of the family were certainly not the center of attention.

Perhaps the greatest example of how Christmas in the 18th century wasn’t for kids is the fact that many people, adults and children alike, did not celebrate the day at all.  Seventeenth century Puritans in Massachusetts saw the Christmas celebrations of the Church of England (and, by extension, Virginia celebrations) as a mockery of the Puritans’ devout faith.  “Yuletide is Fooltide” was the attitude and, except for going to church all day on Christmas, Puritan children did not participate in any of the frivolity of the season. At least Virginian children could enjoy the celebrations even if they were not their focus.

More than anything, Christmas provided 18th century children with the chance to learn the etiquette and proper behavior that would be important for them as adults.  Both boys and girls observed how men and women prepared for and behaved during Christmastide and the rest of the year.  That’s right, modern American children, the biggest Christmas gift that 18th century children received was learning how to behave.

Kelly Brennan Arehart
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

Photos: The GWF’s Delightful December

Merry-Christmas-Ornamental-TypographyThe George Washington Foundation wishes everyone a joyous holiday season!  Enjoy these from our month of festive happenings and decorations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

There will still be time to see Kenmore and Ferry Farm adorned for the season and delight in each site’s annual display of dollhouses, miniatures, and gingerbread creations until December 30. For details about these exhibits and our holiday hours, visit kenmore.org/events.