"All wool and a yard wide" (1866?, 1876-1880)

Bonnie Taylor-Blake b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM
Mon Oct 21 03:32:50 UTC 2013

In an ADS-L posting from 2004 Michael Quinion mentioned "all wool and
a yard wide," that old American idiom.  At the time he had written,


A subscriber has suggested that the phrase "all wool and a yard wide",
known from the 1880s and which is suspected to be an early advertising
slogan, actually derives from a slogan of the J O Ballard woollen mill
at Malone, New York. There certainly was a woollen factory in the town
in 1855, but I lack the resources necessary to determine whether the
story is a folk etymology, or whether the mill's publicists borrowed
an already existing expression. Can anyone help?



After a brief on-list discussion, Michael posted this,


Thanks to Erin McKean and Doug Wilson for their comments. My existing
piece on the phrase does suggest that it arose through a connection
with the physical width of the cloth, which was why I was intrigued to
receive a suggestion that it might be from an advertising slogan, as
has been suggested in the past, and a specific one at that. It looks
from the evidence I've seen that it was an elaboration of the older
"all wool" for something first-class, which is recorded from the
period of the Civil War.



Michael's full analysis is at http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-all2.htm

This is probably old news to Michael, but I thought I would mention
that J.O. Ballard didn't get involved in the clothing industry in
Malone until 1887 and didn't establish his own woolen-cloth
manufacturing plant until some time thereafter.  (At least this is
what I get from his obituary published in 1934, see [1], below.)  He
seems to have been born around 1858 and spent some time as a traveling
salesman before getting involving in the manufacture of cloth.
Moreover, there's a hint (below) that the full expression "all wool
and a yard wide" was used idiomatically by 1866, so my guess is that
although, as you've indicated, there may have been a pre-war woolen
factory in Malone, Ballard could have picked up the phrase from any
number of places before he settled on it as a slogan for his company.


TRUE. -- An advertisement in the Morrison *Sentinel* says: "It don't
pay to imagine that 'Andy' Johnson is all wool, because he was raised
in a wool growing State.  That is probably true, for if "Andy" had
more wool about him he would not have worn threadbare quite so soon.
He's neither all wool, nor a yard wide."  [From The Sterling (IL)
Gazette, 19 May 1866, p. 4, via newspapers.com.]


I haven't been able to find contemporaneous (or earlier) usages of
"all wool and a yard wide," but I think it's possible that the above
text relates to a then-existing idiom larger than "all wool."

Also probably not new to this group is the observation that "all wool
and a yard wide," used to signify "genuine" and, further, "exemplary,"
seems to have taken off ca. 1880.  Although the idiom may have been
not uncommon in informal usage in some pockets of the country up to
about 1880, it may have gained popularity elsewhere via Denman
Thompson's performances as "Joshua Whitcomb" between 1875 and 1885
(see [2], below).

-- Bonnie



Capt. Jay Olin Ballard, president of the Woolen Cloth and Clothing
company which bore his name, died at his home in Malone Tuesday.

Captain Ballard, 76, a native of Mexico, had been in impaired health
since spring, but until early summer he continued at his office in the
J.O. Ballard & Co. plant.

He was a son of Homer and Elmira D. (Ely) Ballard,  The family were
among the pioneers of the state.  After spending his boyhood in Mexico
where he was educated, Mr. Ballard began his business career as a
traveling salesman.

He located in Malone in 1887 and became associated with C.C. Wittelsey
in the manufacture of cloth and clothing in the Whittelsey plant.
After a short time he became associated with his brother-in-law, Col.
William C. Skinner of Hartford, Conn., in the manufacture of woolen
cloth at Malone.

>From this association there developed the erection of the well
equipped J.O. Ballard plant, whose original product, "Malone pants"
under the slogan "all wool and a yard wide" were sold all over the

[From "Maker of Malone Pants Dies," The Lake Placid (NY) News, 28
February 1934, p. 7.]


[2] Early idiomatic usages of "all wool and a yard wide."

It always gives us pleasure to say a good word for our merchants, and
we most cheerfully say to the people of Fort Wayne and vicinity that
Owen, Pixley & Co., are "all wool and a yard wide."  [From
"Christmas," The Fort Wayne (IN) Daily News, 22 December 1876, p. 1,
via newspapers.com.]

In the language of one of the actors of a popular play, SAMMY [Samuel
J. Tilden] is *not* "all wool and a yard wide."  He is shoddy, and
lacking in breadth.  He has a winning way to make people despise him,
and the more they see of him the more they don't admire him.  [From
"Fraudulent Sammy," The Chicago Tribune, 30 April 1878, p. 4, via

West Lebanon is have [sic] a select school, taught by Prof. L.H.
Swisher who, as a teacher, is "all wool and a yard wide."  [From "West
Lebanon," The Indiana (PA) Progress, 2 May 1878, p. 12, via

The "Rarely" cigars sold by A. Sorg, druggist.  "These cigars are all
wool and a yard wide and warranted not to cut is [sic] the eye, nor
run down at the heel.  They make the breath sweet, keep the teeth
white, and will force a moustache on the smoothest lip in five weeks."
 [From The Daily Gazette (Kalamazoo, MI), 19 November 1878, p. 4, col.
2, via Genealogy Bank.]

Denman Thompson appears as "Joshua Waitcomb," [sic] in the play of
that name.  Mr. Thompson's impersonation has been very successful in
New York, and from the papers has gone up a harmonious chorus of
praise after this fashion: "Mr. Thompson's portray of 'Uncle Josh
Whitcomb' is one of the most thoroughly artistic pieces of character
acting that we have ever seen upon the American stage.  In the quain
[sic] language of the text 'Uncle Josh' is 'all wool and a yard wide.'
 This is no humbug about him.  He is a real, live, breathing man."
[From "Amusements, Music, Etc." The Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 December
1878, p. 3, via Genealogy Bank.]

Dickerson, to use an expression from *Joshua Whitcomb*, proved himself
"all wool and a yard wide."  He pretty nearly banged the right-field
fence down, hitting it twice with the ball for a two or three-base
hit, and making three more very fine hits to right field, one being a
double-bagger.  [From "Slogging and Muffing; The Cincinnatis and the
Picked Nine at It Again," The Cincinnati (OH) Daily Enquirer, 25 April
1879, p. 8, via newspapers.com.]

(More on Henry Denman Thompson and "Joshua Whitcomb" at

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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