Date: Sun, 5 Jan 1997 23:23:40 -0500
From: "Barry A. Popik" Bapopik[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]AOL.COM
Subject: Gay Nineties
Who named the Gay Nineties?
That was 1890-1899, not 1891-1900. (The new century begins January 1,
2001, and you can find that on your "words ending in -gry" websites.)
The answer to the "Gay Nineties" is simple, but a bit surprising. The
Gay Nineties were not called that in the 1890s, nor the 1900s, nor the
1910s. The name, as far as I can tell, dates from 1925--a quarter-century
The Dictionary of Americanisms, pg. 687, col. 1, has "gay...(4)
Nineties, the 1890's, so called from the fashions and manners of the time."
The first cite is a rather late "1937 MITCHELL _Horse & Buggy Age_ 81 Such a
street was Washington Street in Hartford during the elegant Eighties and gay
The New York Public Library's CATNYP (their computer catalog--you knew
that name was gonna surface somewhere) shows:
Corday, Rene, FROM THE GAY NINETIES; TOE DANCE (c. 1930).
Hanes, Ken, THE GAY GUYS GUIDE TO LIFE: 463 MAXIMS, MANNERS, AND MOTTOES
FOR THE GAY NINETIES (1994).
THE GAY NINETIES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY GAY FICTION, edited by Phil
Willkie and Greg Baysans (1991).
Dietz, F. Meredith, GAY NINETIES COOK BOOK (1945).
Black, Jennie Prince, I REMEMBER: A SHORT AND INTIMATE SKETCH OF THE
DIGNIFIED SEVENTIES, THE ELEGANT EIGHTIES AND THE GAY NINETIES IN OR NEAR THE
HUDSON VALLEY... (1938).
Bowers, Claude Gernade, INDIANAPOLIS IN THE "GAY NINETIES" (1964).
Desmond, Shaw, LONDON NIGHTS IN THE GAY NINETIES (1928).
Pennoyer, Albert Sheldon, THIS WAS CALIFORNIA: A COLLECTION OF ENGRAVINGS
REMINISCENT OF HISTORICAL EVENTS, HUMAN ACHIEVEMENTS AND TRIVIALITIES FROM
PIONEER DAYS TO THE GAY NINETIES (1938).
UNLEASHING FEMINISM: CRITIQUING THE LESBIAN SADOMASOCHISM IN THE GAY
NINETIES, Pat Parker, et al. (1993).
I went to NYPL's Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library and found some
songs and shows with a "Gay Nineties" title, but none were before 1925.
William A. Grew and Harry Delf made a movie by that title in 1929. In 1946,
Bobby Gregory did a "Gay Nineties Polka."
RLIN's Eureka provided what I believe to be the answer, but I'll discuss
the others first. Seven titles came up originally:
Bill Hardey's songs of the gay nineties (1938).
Everybody's favorite songs of the gay nineties (1934).
Gay nineties (19??).
Gay nineties (19??).
Roaring twenties, Gay nineties (1977).
Gay nineties by Colby Dixon Hall (1961).
The gay nineties by Maynard McFie (1945).
Other titles (not mentioned in NYPL's CATNYP) include:
Gay nineties costume ball (Palm Springs, Calif., The Desert Inn, 1949).
Gay nineties fun; a gay nineties entertainment by Arthur Le Roy Kaser (c.
The gay nineties in America: a cultural dictionary of the 1890s by Robert
L. Gale (1992).
Gay nineties medley arranged by Bill Holcombe (c. 1980).
Gay nineties medley: for expandable flute choir by Rickey Lombardo (c.
Gay nineties melodramas; a collection of old-fashioned melodramas of the
gay nineties period by Lawrence Martin Brings (1963).
Gay Nineties Memories (music) by Bowman (19--).
The Gay Nineties, or, The Unfaithful Husband (movie) produced by Warner
The Gay Nineties (19--), various songs such as "Ta-ra-ra- Boom-der-e," "In
Good Old New York Town," "Little Annie Rooney," "Strike Up The Band," "Mr.
Captain, Stop the Ship," "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me A Bow-Wow," "Kentucky Babe,"
"Hello My Baby," "White Wings," "The Bowery," "Throw Him Down, McCloskey,"
"After the Ball," "The Band Played On," "Put Me Off At Buffalo," "Silver
Threads Among The Gold," "While Strolling Through The Park One Day," "Kiss
Me, Honey," "Daisy Bell," "With All Her Faults I Love Her Still," and "The
Sidewalks Of New York." (This may be from the "Metropole gay nineties song
folio," published 1948.)
In LISTENING TO AMERICA, Stuart Berg Flexner writes on page 284 "In the
Gay 90s, _to be gay_ meant to take liberties, and a _gay woman_ was a
prostitute, while in the 1920s a _gay dog_ was a woman chaser." In his I
HEAR AMERICA TALKING, Flexner devotes pages 162-163 to "The Gay 90s,"
THE GAY 90s is a term that became popular in the not-so-gay Depression
years of the 1930s, when people looked back with nostalgia to their parents'
lives or their own youth of the 1890s. Since then the Gay 90s has been
considered the period when _the Elegant 80s_ relaxed and everyone enjoyed
friendly, informal manners and fashions. In the 1890s, _gay_ not only meant
happy and carefree but informal, and _to get gay_ with someone meant to take
liberties, to be a little too brash even as Victorianism receded. (...)
Yet, despite this usual mix of good and bad and rich and poor, the 90s
probably were happy, carefree times for most Americans. A great many people
did relax and enjoy themselves, there were exciting and pleasant things to do
and, mainly, many people seemed to _think_ they were happy--something later,
more sophisticated Americans have found it increasingly hard to do.
The Chicago Tribune, 23 September 1956, page 10 of Comics Section, has
an advertisement for GAY 90's TOFFEE FUDGE Sealtest Ice Cream. "Special
Offer! Gay 90's decals! Bright! Colorful! See package for details!" A
barbershop quartet sings "Sing a song of Sealtest/ Toffee Fudge for me!/ Rich
'n' thick 'n' creamy../ a flavor harmony!" "Not even grandma made ice cream
like this! Sealtest Gay 90's Toffee Fudge Ice Cream--old-fashioned toffee
laced through and through with fudge. You've never tasted anything like it.
At Sealtest dealers only. More people enjoy Sealtest than any other ice
The earliest citation--probably our answer--is a book called THE GAY
NINETIES: A BOOK OF DRAWINGS by R. V. Culter (Gadern City, NY: Doubleday,
Page & Co., 1927). The book has interesting sketches of 1890s culture, and
begins with a foreword by Charles Dana Gibson:
IN THE spring of 1925, Richard Culter came into the _Life_ (the old
Life--ed.) office with three drawings of scenes and people in the eighteen
nineties. He submitted them to Robert Sherwood, the editor of _Life_, Frank
Casey, the art editor, and myself, in the hope that they might develop into a
series under the general heading, "The Gay Nineties."
We liked Mr. Culter's drawings enormously--I can't imagine that anyone
would fail to appreciate the perfection of his draughtsmanship or the
complete truthfulness of his subjects; but we frankly doubted that "The Gay
Nineties" would appeal to a wide circle of our readers.
Nevertheless, we published the three drawings--and have continued the
series in _Life_ ever since. It proved to be one of those rare features--so
eagerly sought for by all harassed editors, and so infrequently found--which
are characterized, in the jargon of our trade, as "sure fire."
Doddering, decrepit veterans who have lived to the ripe old age of
thirty-five, enjoy Mr. Culter's drawings because they reflect, so honestly,
the costumes and customs of their dear, dead youth. Children who have been
born in this century relish "The Gay Nineties" because of their
archaeological interest--much as children of my generation were fascinated by
the reminiscences of the Civil War.
Mr. Culter has the ability to reflect life in terms of humor, and he has
succeeded in representing the Gay Nineties as really gay. Look through the
pages of this book and study the people that Mr. Culter has drawn; even
though you survey them from the eminence of 1927--even though you laugh
heartily at their ludicrous attire, their ridiculous headdresses--you will
come to the conclusion that they must have had a thoroughly good time.
Which, if memory has not utterly failed me, they did.
Charles Gibson (signed)
On 29 January 1929, the New York Times ran this on page 29, col. 2:
R. V. Culter Dies in Florida.
MIAMI, Fla., Jan. 28 (AP).--Richard Vincent Culter of New York, magazine
illustrator and originator of a number of humorous sketches, died here today.
That's it. No age. No specified illness. No indication if he moved to
Florida or was just visiting. No indication also that he coined "the Gay
The New York Herald Tribune, 29 January 1929, pg. 23, col. 5, had this:
VINCENT CUTLER (sic)
MIAMI, Fla., Jan. 29 (AP).--Vincent Cutler, of New York, magazine
illustrator and originator of a number of humorous sketches, died here
Richard Vincent Culter or Vincent Culter--whoever you are, wherever you
are--thanks for coining "the Gay 90s."