Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Shipboard Ball

A dance on a ship, probably 1850s or 60s.

I was looking for uses of the the phrase "tripping on the light, fantastic toe," when I came across this description of  preparations for a ball on board a ship. I was amused by the idea of a bayonet chandelier. Several Civil War memoirs have mentioned using a bayonet to hold a candle. Apparently, building candlesticks and chandeliers from bayonets was more of a nineteenth century custom than I had realized.

The following lines are from an account of shipboard ball in the late 1830s:
On the following day our crew were actively employed from the earlier part of the day in fitting up and dressing the ship, for the purpose of holding a ball on board. The colors of different nations were tastefully arranged in gay festoons; those of America and England being placed in the most conspicuous situation in the centre. A kind of chandelier was arranged, formed of round hoops, covered with different colored bunting, and bayonets fastened to the same, pointed downwards, so that the upper parts of them were made to receive the candles, in the form of a candlestick. 

Every fanciful ornament that could possibly be mustered was put in requisition to give a coloring to the scene, which was picturesque in the extreme, more especially when lighted up on the quarter-deck, for the purpose of accommodating those of our visitors who felt inclined to amuse themselves on the light, fantastic toe. 

(Cruise of the Frigate Columbia around the world, under the command of Commodore George C. Read, in 1838, 1839, and 1840. By William Meacham Murrell, one of the crew. Boston Benjamin B. Mussey. 1840. p.139-140.)

A reproduction Enfield bayonet of the Civil war period.

An elaborate candlestick made of bayonets, French, probably from the 1870s.
A chandelier made of bayonets, Karlsborg, Sweden.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Tripping on the Light Fantastic Toe

Do you remember the expression, "tripping the light fantastic?" Sounds kind of 1960s doesn't it? Maybe your recollection is completely confused by the song about "skipping the light fandango."

The phrase, "trip the light fantastic" comes from a song of 1894 called The Sidewalks of New York. The pertinent lyrics are: 

Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.

Of course, the expression is much older. In the 1630s John Milton wrote a poem, l'Allegro, where he used the phrase in a description of Mirth: 

Come, and trip it as ye go, 
On the light fantastick toe.

From the time it was published in 1645 until the end of the eighteenth century the expression was commonly used. You can find it quoted in poetry but also used in scholarly works on science and philosophy.

William Blake's circa 1820 interpretation of Mirth on her light fantastic toe.

It was in the nineteenth century, however, that the phrase became hugely and popularly common.   You can find it applied to professional dancers upon the stage, social dancers at balls, and all manner of people: light-hearted, graceful, drunk or clumsy. Also in the nineteenth century a comma got slipped into the phrase. Now people "tripped on the light, fantastic toe."

It seems clear that early to mid-nineteenth century people were more likely to "trip on the light, fantastic toe." Late nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century people were more likely to "trip the light fantastic." People who go around "skipping the light fandango" or who "tripped the merry-go-round" are post-1960.