7 Facts About Bertha Knight Landes, First Female Mayor of a Major American City

Bertha Knight Landes was Seattle’s first and only (so far) female mayor—and the first woman elected mayor of a major American city. Read on for seven facts about this determined, no-nonsense early city leader.

1. A MOTHER AND HOUSEWIFE, SHE FIRST ENTERED THE PUBLIC SPHERE THROUGH WOMEN’S CLUBS.

Born in 1868 as the youngest of nine children, Bertha Knight grew up in Massachusetts. She studied history and political science at the University of Indiana, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1891. After a few years as a teacher, she married a fellow Indiana student, Henry Landes, who became a professor of geology, prompting a move to Seattle when he secured a job at the University of Washington. In Seattle, Bertha Knight Landes gave birth to three children; the oldest, Katherine, died at age nine, while a son, Roger, did not survive infancy. A second son, Kenneth, came along later, and the family also adopted a daughter named Viola.

Landes first entered the civic arena through her involvement in women’s clubs. Popularized in the years following the Civil War, these clubs were initially organized to provide women with avenues for self-improvement and cultural opportunities. By the late 19th century, they had also become centers of political action for women who, otherwise generally kept out of politics, desired a method of civic engagement. Clubs lobbied for temperance, labor regulations, educational reform, improved public health, and other progressive causes.

Landes became heavily involved in club life after moving to Seattle. She was a charter member of a group called the Sunset Club and was actively involved in the Women’s University Club. In 1906, she joined the Women’s Century Club, which had been founded 15 years earlier by prominent suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt. From 1918 to 1920, Landes served as the club’s president, mobilizing its resources and members to assist the war effort after the U.S. entered World War I. She organized five Red Cross auxiliaries and then, feeling she could do more, helped found the Washington Minute Women, a group that raised money to support soldiers and their families.

Landes had, by this point, become a prominent figure in Seattle civic affairs. From 1920 to 1922, she served as president of the Seattle Federation of Women's Clubs, and during that tenure, she planned a week-long economic showcase for Washington manufacturers that would be run by her and staffed by over a thousand clubwomen. The successful Women’s Educational Exhibit for Washington Manufacturers brought Landes to the attention of local businessmen and political leaders, and later in 1921, when Mayor Hugh Caldwell created a five-member commission to tackle Seattle’s unemployment problem, he appointed Landes as the solitary female member.

Landes so impressed her fellow commission members that one suggested she run for city council, insisting, “We need a woman in the city council, a woman of your type.” Landes took him at his word, and in 1922 ran her own campaign for a council seat with the help of four fellow clubwomen. While existing Seattle politicians worked within a political machine that ran on graft and favors, Landes staffed her 1922 campaign entirely with political amateurs and kept to a tight budget, avoiding “entangling alliances” with interest groups. She wanted to maintain “clean hands” amidst rampant political corruption, presenting herself as a reformer who would work to stop illegal gambling and foster a more upright police force. She succeeded, winning 80% of the vote, more than any previous candidate for Seattle’s city council. A second councilor elected in that race was another woman, Kathryn Miracle, and the two became the first women to serve on the Seattle City Council.

2. SHE WANTED CHANGE, BUT SHE WAS A REALIST.

As one of her first acts on city council, Landes presented an ordinance to close Seattle’s taxi dance halls. At such establishments, working-class women called “taxi dancers” would dance with men for money, often while encouraging the men to buy alcohol. (These women occasionally also sold sex.) Bertha Landes looked at dance halls and saw dens of vice, but for many working-class women, they offered the best way to put food on the table. Charging 10 cents a dance, a woman could make $4 or $5 a night at the dance hall, while a week of factory work earned her less than $14. Several taxi dancers met with Landes in her home, explaining that their work in the dance halls was an economic necessity. Their appeal, combined with strong opposition from other members of city council, led Landes to alter her law so that it would regulate the dance halls rather than shutter them.

Passed in 1923, Landes’s ordinance mandated that dance halls obtain licenses, hire female chaperones, not allow indecent acts, and maintain bright lighting [PDF]. Landes was lambasted in public hearings and even received death threats for her crusade against the halls, but managed to push regulation through an unfriendly city council anyway. She was proud of the ordinance, which curbed the worst of dance hall excess while allowing women to keep their jobs.

Landes was a realist, not a radical. She wrote in Collier’s in 1929, “I believe in a sane, wise and reasonable enforcement of any law, including the prohibition law, and in the preservation of public decency.” She was a practical politician, noting the “necessity for compromise in small things in the hope of providing for greater ones.” But while Landes understood that vice would never be entirely banished from Seattle, she had little patience for those who let it run rampant.

3. SHE MADE A SPLASH AS ACTING MAYOR.

In June 1924, Landes was elected president of the city council, and when Seattle’s mayor, Edwin J. Brown, left town later that month to attend the Democratic National Convention in New York City, she became acting mayor. By this time, Seattle was home to a corrupt police force that winked at Prohibition, and was a haven for illegal behavior. Henry A. Chadwick of the Argus newspaper wrote in November 1923 that the town was a legal free-for-all: “Saloons, in the guise of soft drink places, started up on every hand. Lewd women rented apartments and did a big business selling booze … Seattle has become … so rotten that it stinks.” Bertha Landes was not having it.

Shortly before Landes took over as acting mayor, the city’s police chief, William B. Severyns, argued to journalists that lax enforcement of prohibition, gambling, and prostitution laws was not his fault, as he had at least a hundred corrupt officers on his police force and local civil service regulations prevented him from firing them. On June 23, 1924, Acting Mayor Landes called Severyns into her office and handed him a letter demanding he remove all hundred of these apparently crooked policemen within 24 hours—she would handle the Civil Service Commission, if they were really the ones preventing the removal of corrupt officers. Severyns was furious that a woman temporarily in charge would dare give him orders, and he responded with his own letter, pointing to a section of the city charter allowing the mayor to take over the police department in an emergency situation. Landes later characterized his response as a “jeer,” writing that he told her, “Be chief of police yourself, if you don't like the way things are done!”

Landes took him at his word, declaring a state of emergency, firing Severyns, appointing Inspector J.T. Mason as acting chief (before firing him less than 24 hours later), and then assuming control of the police department herself. She appointed a former assistant police chief with a reputation for honesty, Claude G. Bannick, as acting chief, and within hours, he led raids of the city’s most notorious speakeasies, lotteries, and illegal punchboards.

Word soon reached Mayor Brown in New York that Landes had declared war on Seattle’s lawbreakers—and its corrupt cops. He left the DNC early and caught a train home, arriving five days later. Upon returning, Brown immediately reinstated Chief Severyns. The mayor argued that Landes’s actions were unnecessary because “Seattle is as good and clean as any city on the American continent.”

Newspapers around the country covered the incident, often in a mocking tone, with headlines like “Chief of Police Ousted by Woman” and “Cradle-Rocking Hand Rocked Police Department.” Mayor Brown was embarrassed, complaining that the situation had “put Seattle in a bad light all over the country.” But Landes was satisfied. “I do not believe in a Puritanical administration, even if I was born in Ware, Mass,” she told a journalist, “but there should be more rigid law enforcement by our police and I believe there will be henceforth. A score of places where there was gambling two weeks ago, are closed.” Landes hoped that she had shamed Brown into keeping a tighter lid on illegal activity, but he returned Seattle to the status quo. Two years later, Landes campaigned to replace him.

4. SHE ARGUED FOR WOMEN IN POLITICS USING TRADITIONAL GENDER NORMS.

While campaigning for mayor in 1926, Landes described her platform as “municipal housekeeping.” First gaining popularity in the 1890s, the concept of municipal housekeeping justified women’s entrance into the public sphere by imagining the city as a macro version of a home. Using this logic, women’s domestic skills—like keeping to a budget and rearing moral children—could be well-applied to solving civic problems. Landes used this model to retain a traditional feminine role even while entering the masculine domain of politics.

When faced with the argument that “a woman’s place is in the home,” Landes replied that she had spent her life in the home, raising her children and supporting her husband, and only once her children were grown and married did she seek to enter public service. “I suppose some of the politicians believe I should merely stay at home and darn my husband’s socks,” she remarked to The New York Times. “Darning socks for one’s husband is a laudable occupation, no one will deny, but I found that my husband got along very well after I became a member of the City Council.”

Landes argued that since advances in technology had reduced women’s domestic workload, “if [a woman] is not to be a parasite […] she must turn her energies to public service of some kind.” But Landes proposed that only older women whose children were already grown should enter politics, and she spoke of it as a calling more than a job. In fact, she argued that male politicians were corrupt in part because they saw politics as a career, and sought to make money from their positions. Conversely, a woman would depend on her husband for financial stability, Landes assumed, and so would not be concerned about low government salaries or tempted by opportunities for graft. “Women are actually better fitted than men for the post of mayor,” Landes told the Oakland Tribune, “because they are not thinking of future political careers.”

As a candidate in the nonpartisan mayoral election (she had no declared party), Landes pledged to clean up Seattle—enforce Prohibition, shut down illegal gambling houses and brothels, and root out corruption in law enforcement. Seattle found her message appealing; she defeated the incumbent Mayor Brown by about 6000 votes, with a record voter turnout of over 90,000 (in a city of about 350,000).

5. SHE CLEANED UP SEATTLE AND TOOK CHARGE OF THE BUDGET.

Landes was serious about “closing the town” to illegal liquor, and during her tenure as mayor, the number of annual arrests for alcohol violations more than doubled. Speakeasies fled across the Seattle city line into the rest of King County, which retained its lackadaisical Prohibition enforcement. Landes also worked to root out corruption in the police department and shut down illegal gambling and prostitution. “Vice and lawlessness cannot be completely eradicated,” she later wrote, “But open flagrant violations of law should not be tolerated for an instant.”

In addition to campaigning as a moral reformer, Landes had emphasized her commitment to the bottom line. Upon taking office, she inherited a city-owned streetcar system that was hemorrhaging money. Her administration overhauled the system’s budget, cut back on less-used routes, and appealed to Washington state to refinance the entire railway, making Seattle’s streetcars profitable. A supporter of municipally owned utilities, she also cut expenses in the water department and maintained public control of City Light, the local electricity utility, which faced an attempted private takeover.

6. DON’T CALL HER THE MAYORESS.

While Landes recognized the increased pressure she faced as the first woman mayor of an American city—“In politics it commonly takes a superior woman to overcome the handicap of traditional prejudice,” she wrote in Collier’s—she also insisted that she be treated the same as a male politician. During her time on the city council, Landes demanded to be called “councilman,” like her male peers, rather than “councilwoman,” and she later wrote in the magazine Woman Citizen, “I threaten to shoot on sight, without benefit of clergy, anyone calling me the mayoress instead of the mayor.”

During her tenure as mayor, Landes refused to let her gender—and gendered ideas about respectability—stand in her way. She visited the same places and greeted the same visitors as a male city leader would; she opened baseball games, broke ground for new buildings, flew in a Navy hydroplane, and rode in a submarine. When Seattle began construction on a new dam, Landes “put on [her] oldest clothes and tramped with muddy shoes all about the site, to observe conditions at first hand.” To celebrate the opening of a railroad terminal, she drove the first electric locomotive into Seattle. She entertained foreign dignitaries, like the royal family of Romania, and American celebrities, like Charles Lindbergh. “An English woman mayor once asked me: ‘Whom do you have to do the things a woman cannot do and go to the places a woman cannot go?’” she wrote in 1929. “There were no such things, or places, in Seattle when I was mayor.”

7. SHE WAS OUSTED AFTER A SINGLE TERM.

In Landes’s day, Seattle’s mayors served two-year terms, and she faced reelection in 1928. By this point, Prohibition had become increasingly unpopular, and Seattle’s citizens were growing tired of Landes’s reformist ways. Her efforts to remove dishonest officers from the city’s police department had also won her a host of enemies. A local businessman and political unknown named Frank Edwards ran against her, funded by policemen Landes had fired, opponents of her public power plan, and those who yearned for a government that winked at liquor and gambling laws.

Edwards’s campaign spending was unprecedented in Seattle—“variously estimated at from $20,000 to $50,000 for election to a position which pays a salary of $7,500 a year,” wrote The New York Times. He employed hundreds of paid workers, purchased billboard, radio, and newspaper ads, and embarked on a general PR blitz. The campaign was light on policy proposals, and his main message seemed to be that Landes was unsuitable for office because she was a woman.

When Landes challenged him to a series of debates Edwards declined, saying, “Any married man knows the danger of getting into an argument with a woman.” So at the first planned debate Landes spoke alone, with an empty chair onstage to represent the absent Edwards. “Can it be true,” she asked the empty chair, “that a man is afraid of a woman? If we need a man as Mayor of Seattle, why is it that the man who is the nominee for this office is afraid to meet me in debate?” The New York Times wrote, “She laughs as she conducts these one-sided debates and appears to get as much ‘kick’ out of them as her hearers, and the audience is usually in an uproar.” But outside the debate hall, Edwards’s message found an audience. “Seattle is sensitive to its reputation as a he-man city,” Julia N. Budlong wrote in The Nation at the time, “It did not like to be teased about its mayor.”

During her time in politics, Landes had not created a political machine or developed a network of officials and businessmen who depended on her. Her commitment to honest government meant that she was easy to oust. Meanwhile, supporters who backed her 1926 campaign over a desire for reform were less motivated to vote now that Landes had cleaned up the city. Local newspapers including The Seattle Times endorsed Landes for mayor, but come election day, Edwards trounced her by over 19,000 votes.

Despite speculation that she might run again, Landes never reentered politics. During the 1930s, she and her husband led University of Washington students on a series of study trips to Asia. After Henry died in 1936, Landes lived alone in their apartment in Seattle, moving to California in 1941 for health reasons. She died in 1943 at age 75, in her son’s home in Michigan.

Additional Sources:An Alumna in Politics,” Indiana Alumni Magazine, April 1939; Bertha Knight Landes of Seattle: Big-City Mayor; “Municipal Housekeeping in the American West: Bertha Knight Landes’s Entrance into Politics,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 3; “The Origins of the Washington State Liquor Control Board, 1934,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 100, No. 4; “What Happened in Seattle,” The Nation, Aug. 29, 1928.

When Harriet Tubman Helped Lead a Civil War Raid That Freed 750 People

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

As clouds flitted across the moonlit sky on the night of June 2, 1863, three gunboats snaked up the Combahee River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. The Civil War was raging and the vessels were filled with Union troops, many of them from the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, on a mission to strike Confederate plantations. There to guide them on this perilous expedition was a black woman already famed for her bold excursions into hostile territory: Harriet Tubman.

From Underground Railroad to Union Spy

Born into slavery, Tubman—the subject of the soon-to-be-released movie Harriet—had liberated herself in 1849, fleeing north from bondage in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia. Though a fugitive with a price on her head (her former slaveholder promised $50 for her capture, $100 if she was found out of state) Tubman repeatedly returned to Maryland to usher other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of people, both black and white, who facilitated the escape of enslaved people northwards. It is believed that Tubman rescued around 70 slaves this way, and by the end of the Combahee River Raid on that June night in 1863, she had helped free some 750 more.

After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, John Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, had asked Tubman to head to the South and assist with the "contrabands"—a term used to refer to the thousands of enslaved people who fled to Union camps amid the chaos of the conflict. It was a fitting role for Tubman, since helping African Americans shed the bonds of slavery had become the driving purpose of her life.

She volunteered in Fort Monroe, Virginia, before heading to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she worked as a nurse for soldiers and liberated slaves. Disease ran rampant during the war, and Tubman was skilled in herbal medicine. She also oversaw the building of a laundry house, so she could train African American women to become laundresses—a vocation that would prove useful as they embarked on a new, free chapter of their lives. But according to H. Donald Winkler, who writes about Tubman’s wartime exploits in Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, “many believe that the humanitarian aspects of her trip … were a cover for her real work as a spy operating within enemy lines.”

Biographer Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, agrees that it is possible Tubman was sent to the South at least in part to gather intelligence. “Certainly she was someone who was able to go behind the lines and make contact in a way that the soldiers were not, because she had done that on the Underground Railroad,” Clinton tells Mental Floss.

Time and again as an Underground Railroad rescuer, Tubman had proven her cunning, charisma, and steely resolve, slipping into slavery territory and back out again with multiple fugitives in tow. She secretly reached out to enslaved people to encourage their escape, scouted dangerous areas, and cultivated contacts who were ready to offer shelter and support. Tubman liked to stage her rescues on Saturday nights, because Sunday was a day of rest; by the time they were discovered missing on Monday, Tubman had been given a head start.

She also possessed an uncanny ability to avoid detection, often with the help of disguises. In her book, Clinton writes that on one trip through a town near her former Maryland home, Tubman caught sight of a man who had once been her master. Fortunately, she had a bonnet pulled low over her face and two live chickens in her hands. When the man came close, Tubman pulled on strings tied to the birds’ legs, causing them to fuss and flap—and giving her an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Such exploits earned Tubman a legendary reputation among abolitionist circles. She was nicknamed “Moses,” after the biblical figure who led the oppressed to freedom.

Whatever the initial purpose of her journey south, by 1863 Tubman was working as a covert Union operative. She recruited a small but trustworthy group of black scouts, several of whom were water pilots with a thorough knowledge of the coastal landscape. The spies would sail along waterways, take note of enemy positions and movements, and communicate the information back to Union brass. Colonel James Montgomery, a fervent abolitionist, relied on Tubman’s intelligence to stage several successful raids, according to Winkler. The most famous of these was the Combahee River Raid.

Tubman's Turn to Lead

Combahee River basin, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge, Beaufort County, South Carolina
The Combahee River basin in Beaufort County, South Carolina, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge and near where the raid is believed to have taken place.
Henry de Saussure Copeland, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The goal of the mission was to destroy Confederate supply lines, disable mines in the Combahee River, and cripple prosperous plantations along the shore. As Tubman had shown with her Underground Railroad rescues, “the great weapon was to go into enemy territory and use the subversive weapon of the enslaved people themselves,” Clinton says. So if all went according to plan, Tubman and Montgomery intended to free the plantations of their slaves, too.

But first, they would need to plot their attack. Before the fateful night, Tubman and her team of spies secretly sailed up the Combahee to map the locations of rice and cotton storehouses. Tubman also found the enslaved people who had laid Confederate “torpedoes”—stationary mines beneath the water—and promised them liberation in exchange for information. It was important to spread the word about the upcoming raid, so that when it happened, the slaves would be ready to run.

Montgomery, who had worked with Tubman to raise the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, was in command of the several hundred black troops who ultimately set out up the Combahee to execute the raid on June 2. But Tubman was there to guide the ships through the mines, which were difficult to spot on a dark and cloudy night. She thus became, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition.

One of the three Union gunboats stalled after it ran aground, but the other two were able to proceed as planned. John Adams, the lead boat, pushed up to Combahee Ferry, where there was an island, a causeway, and a pontoon bridge. Montgomery’s men burned the bridge. They also set fire to plantations, storehouses, and rice mills, pillaging whatever food and cotton supplies they could carry, according to an account by the U.S. Army. And when the gunboats approached, slaves came pouring onto the shore, where rowboats were waiting to bring them to the ships. Tubman was floored by the scene.

“I never saw such a sight,” she later recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”

The scene grew all the more chaotic when it became clear that there were too many fugitive slaves for the rowboats to accommodate at once. According to The New York Times, those left behind held onto the vessels to stop them from leaving. Hoping to restore some calm, a white officer reportedly asked Tubman to speak to “your people.” She didn’t care for the turn of phrase—“[T]hey wasn’t my people any more than they was his,” she once said—but she nevertheless began to sing:

“Come along; come along; don’t be alarmed
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give you all a farm.”

Her voice had the desired effect. “They throwed up their hands and began to rejoice and shout ‘Glory!’ and the rowboats would push off,” Tubman remembered. “I kept on singing until all were brought on board.”

All of this commotion did not go unnoticed by Confederate troops. But their response was sluggish. “With malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox rampant in the [Lowcountry] from spring through early fall, most Confederate troops had been pulled back from the rivers and swamps,” Winkler explains. A contingent did approach Combahee Ferry, with orders to push the Yankees back, but reportedly only succeeded in shooting one fugitive slave. Major Emmanuel, the Confederate ranking officer in the area, came after the retreating ships with a single piece of field artillery, but his men got trapped between the river and Union snipers. They were only able to fire a few shots that landed in the water.

The raid was, in other words, a tremendous success, and Tubman’s contribution was “invaluable,” Clinton says. For the next year, Tubman stayed in the South, assisting in guerrilla activities and working to support liberated slaves.

Recognition Deferred

During her three years of military service, Tubman had been paid just $200 (about $3000 in today's money). Finding herself in difficult financial straits after the war—she was the sole supporter of her elderly parents, whom she had extricated from the South during her Underground Railroad days—Tubman appealed to the federal government for additional compensation. Her cause was backed by a number of influential supporters who believed that Tubman deserved a veteran’s pension, but her campaign for payment would nevertheless span more than 30 years.

It was only in the early 1890s that Tubman began receiving a pension—not for her own wartime work, but because her late husband, Nelson Davis, had served with the Eighth United States Colored Infantry, which entitled her to $8 per month as a veteran widow. In 1899, Congress approved an Act raising that sum to $20, but as the National Archives points out, “the Act did not acknowledge that the increase was for Tubman’s own service.” The government’s resistance may have stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that documentation of Tubman’s activities on the frontlines was lacking. But Clinton believes other factors were at play.

“I found evidence that one of the members of the [pensions] committee was a South Carolina politician who blocked her pension,” Clinton says. “And it was really in many ways a point of honor ... that a black woman not be given recognition as a soldier.” Upon receiving the increased funds, Clinton adds, Tubman used the money to “bankroll a charity. That’s who she was.”

When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York. The Combahee River Raid was just one remarkable chapter in her remarkable life, but it left a powerful impression on her. Looking back on that night, when hundreds of slaves rose up and made a dash for freedom, the woman known as Moses would remember them like "the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.”

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

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