coons & cutters

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Mon Dec 10 18:21:05 UTC 2001

What are they?

The following paragraph was prompted by a report that boys had been
arrested at 2 in the morning while playing pranks in the street with a
fire engine they'd taken from a fire house.  In the passage quoted, the
editor is evidently representing the boys as trying to act like the
grown-ups they admired, by talking like them.  The dictionaries
show "coon" = person, man, as current at about this time, but the most
likely meaning for "cutter" (= an attractive girl) comes from the
1870s.  Are there other meanings?

        "The engine house has been the ruin of many a lad, and we hope
the firemen will now longer allow them to have keys, which almost every
little bantling, from 12 to 16, has in his possession, and may be seen
at the corner of streets vociferating loudly, "this is a coon, and
that's a cutter;" talking of overflowing, the length of leader, and
with mathematical precision calculating the strokes of the piston."
        Evening Star, September 17, 1834, p. 2, col. 4

I might mention that the firemen at this time were all volunteers.
They had had excellent reputations as being young men in training in
their day-jobs to be merchants and business men.  A decade or so later,
the fire houses were seen to be under the patronage of politicians, and
the firemen as thugs and brawlers who were more useful in enforcing
correct voting during elections than in putting out fires.  Boss
Tweed's original power base was a firehouse, and there is still a
firehouse in lower Manhattan with the face of the Tammany tiger on its

I don't see "leader" in the OED, with reference to fire-hose.

"Overflowing" was otherwise called "washing".  If a fire wasn't near a
source of sufficient water, the firemen would set up a daisy-chain of
fire-engines, one at the source of water, drawing it up and pumping it
into the tank of another machine nearer the fire, and from that,
perhaps, into a third machine, until the water reached a machine at the
fire.  The pumps were worked by hand, and it was a matter of pride for
the firemen working the first machine in line to pump so vigorously
that the men working the next machine couldn't keep up, and the water
overflowed their tank.  (It might be questioned whether this game was a
constructive one.  The firemen dragged the fire-engines to the fire by
hand -- horses weren't used -- and an English traveller had observed
that they used so much energy in yelling while pulling the machines
that he wondered that they weren't exhausted when they got to the fire.)


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African
Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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