[Ads-l] Antedatings of "tar baby" (1839, earliest)

Bonnie Taylor-Blake b.taylorblake at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 25 07:52:43 EST 2021

Meanings of "tar baby" have come up on the list before, most notably in an
August 2011 discussion started by Laurence Horn. (See
http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2011-August/111152.html and

OED has for "tar baby" ...


tar-baby  n.  (a) the doll smeared with tar, set to catch Brer Rabbit (see
quot. 1881); hence transferred, spec. an object of censure; a sticky
problem, or one which is only aggravated by attempts to solve it
(colloquial);  (b) a derog. term for a black person (U.S.) or a Maori (New

1881   J. C. Harris Uncle Remus ii. 20   Brer Fox..got 'im some tar, en mix
it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun what he call a Tar-Baby.
1893   Richmond (Va.) Dispatch 26 Jan. 4/1   Hezekiah Brown, a little negro
much resembling a tar-baby.
a1910   ‘M. Twain’ Autobiography (1925) II. 18   For two years the Courant
had been making a ‘tar baby’ of Mr. Blaine, and adding tar every day—and
now it was called upon to praise him.


During the 2011 discussion Bill Mullins (
did a great job antedating various meanings, pushing "tar baby" back to
1867. In the decade since his search, however, more 19th-c sources have
been digitized and now still-earlier usages are apparent.

This trickster-tale form (Tale Type 175/Motif K741) is international and
very old, so I suspect that the African-American (slave) narrative
involving the Tar Baby circulated orally in the States well before the 1839
epithet form appeared in print. (By the way, I had gathered much of this
before stumbling on Bryan Wagner's _The Tar Baby: A Global History_
[Princeton University Press; 2017] and there he reports the 1839 usage,
though in stripped-down form, but I thought it might be worthwhile to send
out the rest of this anyway. And with apologies for descriptions of Blacks
that follow.)

The upshot of all this, though, is that "tar baby" even as an epithet has a
long history.

-- Bonnie


(1839, as an epithet.)

Yesterday, while passing by a building on which several negroes were at
work, our attention was arrested by hearing two of the darkies in a
dialogue of high words. One of them was on the scaffolding, and the other
standing on the ground, near a pile of bricks.


"Look heaw, Pomp, you tar-baby, I feels de greates comtenterfreation for
you and all innuwenders, I does; de fac is I looks down on you wid parfec
contemp -- you's all togedder below me."

(From "A Quarrel," The Weekly Picayune [New Orleans], 30 September 1839, p.


(1844, as an epithet.)

Just below me was a large dish of gravy, with a piece of meat about four
inches square in the middle. The gravy was for an accompaniment to rice, a
favorite dish in the diggins. Immediately before it sat a pale faced
genius, who from his complexion and his vocation is termed euphoniously a
"Tar baby" and who had appeared to be considerably corned; he seemed to
gaze with a most singular expression of phiz on the dish, looking around
and seeing no meat; he gazed again on the dish with one eye bent in that
peculiar way that raftsmen close one optic in "drawing a bead," and the
single expression "edzactly" escaped him. Drawing off his vest, for he had
no coat, he unbuttoned his pantaloons and he would have been a "sans
culotte," had not the Landlord interfered with "Bill what the Devil are you
at?" "Jackey" said the Tar baby, "now (hiccup) Dont, dont, be mad (hiccup)
nor, nothin so, you (hiccup) see I couldnt (hiccup) get no meat, no how, so
I (hiccup) thought, I would jist--swim (hiccup) though that are gravy and
(hiccup) get that little piece." Sufficient to say he was well provided for
in a moment.

(From A.B. ["a North Carolina Lawyer"], "A Trip to County Court," Spirit of
the Times, 5 October 1844, p. 379.)


(1859, unclear usage. The other items in this piece seem to refer to songs
and readings given by children, so it's possible that this was a telling of
the "Brer Rabbit" story.)

We have been furnished by one of the officers of the Universalist Sunday
School, with the following programme of the exhibition to-morrow evening,
which will give a better idea of the exercises on the interesting occasion,
than any description we could give:


7. Tar Baby.

(From The Reading [PA] Daily Times, 23 November 1859, p. 2.)


(1860, novel usage.)

Witness went up there in accordance with the agreement and found torches,
which he called "tar babies," put up to illuminate the square.

(From "Investigation of the City Passenger Railway Changes," The Baltimore
Sun, 15 February 1860, p. 1.)


(1864, figurative usage.)

This was speedily accomplished, when, amidst a total silence, the clear
voice of Lieutenant Colonel Harris, 24th North Carolina, commanding brigade
rang out, "Battalions, forward march!" No sooner had the words left his
mouth than, with a real rebel yell, Ransom's tar babies dashed forward.

(From a letter to the editor dated 22 August 1864, in The Richmond
Enquirer, 31 August 1864, p. 2. Ransom here refers to Ransom's Brigade,
which included the 24th North Carolina and three other North Carolina
infantry units. Here, "tar babies" not only seems to be a play on "Tar
Heels," an antebellum epithet embraced by North Carolina troops during the
War, but also suggests the charitable, contemporaneous belief that North
Carolina soldiers stuck to their battle positions, no matter what.)


(1867, the character from African-American folklore.)

"Miss Fanny, did you eber hear der story of der Tar Baby; B'r Rabbit an'
Br' Wolf?"


"Well, I can tell it ter yer, just like Uncle Pomp did tell it to we
childurns in de big kitchen chimbly-corner."

[And then the tale is told, with several mentions of "Tar Baby" over pp.

(In "Bushy and Jack," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, April 1867, pp.
660-663. Harper's website says this was written by Mary Hose. A piece
appearing in The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 11 April 1886, reports that a
version of the Tar Baby tale "from the pen of a South Carolina lady"
appeared in the April 1865 issue of The Southern Cultivator, but I've been
unable to find that.)


(1868, the character from African-American folklore.)

So Br. Wolf went and dig a well for hisself; and after he been done dig dis
well, every mornin' when he go down to fetch the water, he meet Br. Rabbit
tracks dere; and after he find Br. Rabbit keep on comin', he put de tar
baby down dere, and Br. Rabbit come wid a pail one moonshine night, and as
he get about a hundred yard from de well, he meet de tar baby, and he hail
de little girl, and de little girl give him no answer, so he leave the pail
and keep on goin' up, and he hail de little girl again, and de little girl
give him no answer.

(From "Negro Fables," The Riverside Magazine for Young People, An
Illustrated Monthly, November 1868, p. 505.)


(1869, as an epithet. Bill Mullins found a condensed form of this from
1867, but this longer form makes clear that "one of the Virginia
conventionists, who wears a white choker is ... a tar baby in a cream pot"
is clearly used about a Black member of congress.)

A Richmond (Va.,) correspondent of the New York *World* writes: "It seems
to be a sure thing that we are to have a negro member of Congress from
Virginia. Already three gentlemen of color have presented themselves for
our suffrages, and at least two of them stand a chance of election.
'Doctor' Thomas Bayne opposes himself to the regular carpet-bag nominee in
the Norfolk District. He is as black a negro as the Almighty ever made, and
bears all the characteristics of a genuine African. His eyes are large,
with a superfluity of white; his nose is as flat as a pancake; his lips
present the appearance of a very large tomato mashed in two by a cart
wheel; and his teeth, in contrast with his very black complexion, are white
as the purest ivory. He wears a milk white choker and neckerchief, which
once led somebody to describe him as a 'tar baby peeping out of a cream

(From "Scraps and Facts," The Yorkville [SC] Enquirer, 27 May 1869, p. 2.)


(1870, in the sense of "having sticky fingers." benefitting from

GEN. HOWARD, the great "moral agriculurist," (vide "Capt. [illegible]") of
that loyal paraphernalia stuffed with cant and [mousy?]-making
philanthropy, the Freedmen's Bureau, is to be taken out of some of
"[illegible] to jump into," in which he has been drawing a variety of
salaries and snapping up "unconsidered trifles" in the way of perquisites.
No wonder he wanted the "buro" continued. It was a fat thing for Brother
Howard. He personates that great tar baby to which everything stuck, so
famous in the annals of the negro "quarters."

(From "Personal Gossip," The Courier Journal [Louisville, KY], 11 April
1870, p. 3. General Oliver Otis Howard had an important role in
Reconstruction and served as Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau.)


(1870, the character from African-American folklore.)

After long consideration, and knowing the curiosity of wild animals, as
well as the tenacity of tar, the old man concluded to make a "tar baby" or
image, and set it where the rabbit was in the habit of crossing the branch.
The rabbit, after feeding plentifully on the old man's peas through the
night, was returning to his nest across the branch about daybreak one
morning, and to his surprise saw a black baby standing bolt upright before
him. ... Losing all discretion in his rage, he gave the baby a vigorous
butt in the face, when his head stuck, and he was irrevocably held fast --
that cunning old rabbit -- and outwitted by a *tar baby*!

(From Thaddeus Norris, "Negro Superstitions," Lippincott's Magazine of
Literature, Science and Education, July 1870, p. 90.)


(1871, as an epithet. I assume that "tar babies" here refers to newly
enfranchised Blacks.)

We brought out our independent candidates, and with one united effort of
the Democracy of the country achieved one of the most brilliant victories
ever accomplished, the majority being larger over the Radical nominees than
ever was given in their favor; notwithstanding the Radicals went out into
the highways and hedges, and brought in the entire eligible portion of the
Fifteenth Amendment, and voted them amid cheers and shouts of "Roll up your
tar babies."

(From a letter to the editor dated 6 May 1871, in The Cincinnati Daily
Enquirer, 12 May 1871, p. 2.)


(1874, figurative use.)

If Chamberlain was to sit upon the various advisory boards like a dumb
tar-baby, why in the deuce was he placed upon them.

(From "Questions for the Union-Herald," The Fairfield Herald [Winnsboro,
SC], 30 September 1874, p. 2.)


(1875, as an epithet.)

A black boy, giving his name as Marcellus Walker, was arrested for
disorderly conduct. The complainant was another black boy who testified
that Marcellus pitched on him, beat him and cuffed him, and shoved him into
a store, from which the policeman took the aggressor. From the testimony,
it seems that this was an old grudge, for the complainant says that
Marcellus stole peaches from him last summer, while the defendant says that
this boy is all the time calling him "tar-baby," and otherwise aggravating
his feelings. As the attack was clearly shown, Mayor Hurtel fined the
"tar-baby" ten dollars.

(From "Quarrelsome," The Mobile [AL] Daily Tribune, 28 March 1875, p. 3.)


(1876, as in "very dark.")

That soap was hard, that was a fact, and the water must be very limey
indeed; anyway that water soon got as black as a tar baby, and thinking the
handkerchief was rather dirty, he proceeded to fill up, and soaping well
started afresh.

(From "Washing a Pocket Handkerchief," The Bismarck [ND] Tribune, 5 January
1876, p. 2.)


(1878, as in "very dark.")

A full blooded negro said to his children who were playing on the avenue
the other day, "Go into the house and get something on your heads. You'll
be as black as 'tar-babies.'"

(From The Daily Journal [Vineland, NJ], 3 June 1878, p. 3.)


(1882, figurative use.)

WE FRANKLY ADMIT the *News* has given the GAZETTE a "point" in describing
the composition of the old "City Ring." It was made of tar, sure enough,
boiled down to such a pitchy consistency that every one touching it was
defiled. Finally the people became tired of such a disgusting, defiling
mess of political corruption and kicked it out of existence. It took three
years of patient nursing to restore the *News'* "tar-baby" to life again,
but the people stand ready, with a heavy foot lifted, to give it another
paralyzing kick.

(From "Why We are Proud, The Daily Gazette [Wilmington, DE], 11 May 1882,
p. 2. Asterisks indicate italicized text.)


(1882, figurative usage.)

It is interesting to read in the Funder papers their discussion of the
question, what shall be done with Parson Massey. The Lynchburg *Advance*
says it is for him for Congress at large if he is in earnest and means
business. The *Virginian* cannot make up its mind, and quite a number of
others are in a quandary [sic]. They grabbed quickly at that tar baby, and
the said baby sticks to their fingers.

(From The Bristol [TN] News, 6 June 1882, p. 2. Asterisks indicate
italicized text.)


(1884, name of a baseball team.)

The Red Stockings of Sumter, Adam Brown Captain, will play with the Tar
Babies of Herriott's X Roads next Friday evening, at the Depot. A hot time
is expected if the mercury remains at its present altitude.

(From The Watchman and Southron [Sumter, SC], 2 September 1884, p. 4.)

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