The Dude arrived in Cincinnati around 1880 and confused the heck out of a lot of folks here. No one could quite figure out what dudes were all about.
Dudes arrived around the time observant scribes at Cincinnati’s newspapers realized that Cincinnati was no longer a frontier backwater. The Queen City had begun to acquire a patina of culture and was no longer so obsessively focused on manufacturing and profit. Cincinnati, they opined, was getting civilized – maybe too darn civilized. One tongue-in-cheek commenter in the Cincinnati Gazette [28 August 1880] longed for the rough-and-ready days of his pioneer forbears:
“A man didn’t go roaring and swearing around his room in the morning in these good old days, with his eyes full of soap, groping for the towel. There was no such thing as soap and they had no use for towels. And they never worried about salaries and the price of commodities. When they wanted anything they stole it, and when they couldn’t steal it, in a sublime spirit of contentment, they went without it.”
Perhaps one of the symptoms of Cincinnati’s encroaching urbanity was the arrival of our very own dudes. From about 1880 until the turn of the century, The Dude was a running gag for Cincinnati humorists. Dudes were all about style; they dressed fastidiously in the most fashionable garb. That may have been where the word came from – it’s believed that “dude” derives from the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Later, after 1900, dudes became associated with “dude ranches.” But any sort of ranch-related activity would have required far too much exertion for the classic 1880-1890 dude, who was . . . well, let us allow a contemporary observer [Enquirer 20 May 1883] to describe one:
“Here comes a dude. His nobbed cane is jauntily held in his left hand, his body bends slightly forward. His pants are pasted to his gangly legs. His coat is very short and fits like a glove. On his tiny head sits a Derby, or more properly a pie-tin hat. Mark how he salutes the fair one whom he spies on the horizon of the shopping procession. First he gets in ‘posish,’ right leg a wee bit forward as she draws in hailing distance. She sees him. At the proper time the dude turns his eyes upon her; a high tide of cordiality and wealth of grin spread over her countenance; she nods; he hesitates but for a second, and, as though the spirit of flattering admiration dictated, his hand flies to the shiny spot on his hat-brim, made glossy by previous salutes, and the Derby performs a parabolic curve to the pit of his stomach, to the second vest button, and bobbing back in a straight line squats upon the noddle of the dude. It was a studied bow; he had practiced it before the mirror, and it was the latest caper.”
Fashion, style, debonair affectation, these are the hallmarks of the dude. One cartoon showed a bicyclist perched atop one of those old penny-farthing “wheels” they used to ride, asking a dude if he ever rode. Of course not, the dude, replied. Made the calf muscles bulge. Positive deformity, don’t ya know.
And that was another aspect of the dude – a special dialect. The proper dude ended almost every statement with some variation on “don’t you know,” or “doncha know” or something similar. Dudes pronounced everything with a lazy sort of Harvard drawl: fawther, rawther, etc.
So common were dudes, and so humorous to the bulk of the population, that circuses at the time incorporated dude clowns into their big-top productions. Here is the Enquirer [15 August 1883]:
“One of the most amusing features of the Barnum, Bailey & Hutchinson consolidation is the dude clown. This individual is an exact copy of his prototypes as is seen every day loitering around the hotels in New York, and whenever he makes his appearance in the tents he attracts the closest attention and causes uproarious applause. A peculiarity of this clown is that he never enters any of the rings, but confines his operations almost wholly to the reserved seats. His costume is that of the regulation dude – high crush hat, eye-glass in one eye, small, neat umbrella, light overcoat (when not too hot), so short as to disclose the tails of an inner one beneath it, tight-fitting dark breeches and patent-leather pointed gaiters. Tan-colored gloves complete the costume of this burlesque type of the community often seen on ‘first sight’ in the lobbies of the metropolitan theaters.”
Although the dude appeared almost simultaneously with the United States tour of Oscar Wilde in 1882, there is no indication that people assumed dudes were anything other than heterosexual. One cartoon showed a gang of country bumpkins making fun of a dude, then scowling as they realized all the pretty girls preferred the well-groomed urbane dude to his unkempt hayseed rivals.
No, the dude was more likely the vanguard of East-Coast sophistication tip-toeing into Cincinnati. Another cartoon showed a rural couple sending their farm-boy son off to Yale and getting a dude in return.
To be called a dude, to be sure, was anything but a compliment. A reviewer for the Cincinnati Post [3 February 1885] lambasted the Cincinnati College of Music for its light-weight curriculum and lackluster alumni, calling the school a “concert saloon” and its supporters as a “foppish society element of small proportions,” but saved the biggest zinger for the headline. The College of Music, according to the Cincinnati Post, was “The Dude College.”
And when a dude went on trial for murder, it was far from funny. Joseph Levo, hauled into court for shooting Miss Ida Kipp in 1891, was labeled the “Dude Murderer” because of his obsession with fashion. This fixation was so intense that his attorney, William H. Pugh, tried to build an insanity defense on Levo’s preoccupation with stylish attire. It may have saved Levo’s life. He ended up with life in prison, but the original charge of first degree murder was a hanging offense.
After many iterations involving Roy Rogers, California surf culture, Bill & Ted, The Big Lebowski and who knows what else, The Dude still abides. But that’s an etymological tale for another day.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.