horse feathers (1925 February 25)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jan 29 18:06:57 UTC 2011

Thanks to Michael Quinion for the intriguing information about the use
of ostrich-plumes during funerals.

Since no library near me has a copy of The Outlook in 1925 I've
extracted text from Google Books to allow examination of the context
around "horse feathers". The results given further below have not been
verified on paper (and sometimes cannot be seen in snippets) and may
be inaccurate.

The article in the Outlook dated February 25, 1925 is about the myriad
tasks congressmen of that era performed in order to satisfy
constituents and achieve re-election. Some of these tasks are
described as trivial, nonsensical, or inappropriate. At the end of
this section there is a sentence using "horse feathers":

"A poor Representative who can afford his assistant only the statutory
$2500 is out of luck. His own time, which should be applied to more
serious concerns, is consumed chasing horse feathers."

The following excerpt is rather long because the phrase "chasing horse
feathers" functions as a metaphor for an extended series of
activities. Begin excerpt:

  Another inquirer wanted to know
where Christine Nilsson, the Swedish
opera singer, slept when she was in
Washington in 1881, and what she sang.
The same mail brought the same legis-
lator a request for a formula for extermi-
nating rats, an explanation from the
Post Office Department as to why a
Christmas card was not delivered, and
three applications for jobs as prohibition

  On the same day the Representative in
the office two doors away was asked to
get a man out of jail, make good a check
for $75 which he had indorsed for a
visiting constituent the week before, get
a cork leg for a disabled ex-soldier, ac-
cept two speaking engagements, obtain a
publisher for a book of poems, and con-
tribute to two home charities.

  A Congressman's mail averages sixty
letters a day— and that reckoning is low.
Many get more than a hundred. These
letters are all answered. The requests
they contain are most generally attended
to, in one way or another, no matter how
bizarre they are. The Congressman — or
his secretary — matched the silk, for ex-
ample, and the data concerning Mme.
Nilsson was obtained. There is no other
way out if a man wants to stay in Con-
gress. Form letters are used, of course,
but sparingly or expertly by the wise. In
our least sophisticated regions the form
letter is apt to make the poorest showing.
Congressmen from city districts are least
harassed, on the whole, by messenger-
boy errands. City people, with their
busier lives, appreciate brevity and will
excuse a form letter if it tells them what
they wish to know. But in the rural
parts, where a man walks a mile for his
mail, the letter must have the personal
touch, and it should be long and gossipy.

 The Peril of Form Letters

I KNOW a Congressman — a useful and
hard-working one — who never sends
a form letter. He has a remarkable secre-
tary who answers most of his mail. It
is a heavy mail from an exclusively rural
Northwestern district. Once this Con-
gressman went home, to find an influen-
tial farmer deriding his Representative
and exhibiting what he called "this
printed letter." The letter was type-
written, naturally, but it was a personal
letter. It gave the farmer all the
information he had asked, and more, but
it omitted regards to Mrs. Jones and the
children and an inquiry about the stock.
A Congressman gets $7500 a year. Some of
the rich ones pay their secretaries as
much as $10000, largely to handle their
mail. A poor Representative who can
afford his assistant only the statutory
$2500 is out of luck. His own time,
which should be applied to more serious
concerns, is consumed chasing horse

On Fri, Jan 28, 2011 at 4:46 PM, Michael Quinion
<wordseditor at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Michael Quinion <wordseditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG>
> Organization: World Wide Words
> Subject:      Re: horse feathers (1925 February 25)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Garson O'Toole wrote:
>> Here is a curious 1904 cite that does not seem to fit the modern meaning.
>> Cite: 1904, A Later Pepys: the Correspondence of Sir William Weller
>> Pepys: Volume 1, List of items: For the Funeral of the Late William
>> Franks Esquire: August 15th 1797, Page 238, John Lane, London and New
>> York. (Google Books full view)
>> Use of Rich Lidd of Ostrich Feathers and 6 Horse feathers
> These are presumably the common decorations at this period, usually dyed
> black and mounted either on a hearse on on the heads of the horses that
> pulled it. They were often called "ostrich plumes" but I've not before
> come across literal horse feathers. This is a description from much later:
> For the first amount the mourners enjoy all the splendors possible to the
> occasion -- a hearse draped with velvet and drawn by four horses, each
> decked with ostrich-plumes and led by a groom clothed in a mourning
> livery.
> [Lippincott's Magazine, 1877]
> --
> Michael Quinion
> Editor, World Wide Words
> Web:
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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