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June 13, 2016

I’ve recently come across the claim that Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville were all self-avowed Locofocos (though I haven’t seen the evidence to back this up). What was a Locofoco exactly? The following has been cobbled together from Wikipedia and the old encyclopedias that Wikipedia in its turn frankensteined. (It’s mostly quotation but there’s a bit of summary.)

The name Loco-foco was originally used by John Marck for a self-igniting cigar, which he had patented in April 1834. Marck, an immigrant, invented his name from a combination of the Latin prefix “loco”, which as part of the word “locomotive” had recently entered general public use, and was usually misinterpreted to mean “self”, and a misspelling of the Italian word “fuoco” for “fire”. Therefore, Marck’s name for his product was originally meant in the sense of “self firing”. It appears that Marck’s term was quickly genericized to mean any self-igniting match. In 1835 it became a nickname for the Equal Rights Party, which was created in New York City as a protest against that city’s regular Democratic organization (“Tammany Hall”). The nickname originated when a group of New York Jacksonians used locofoco matches to light candles to continue a political meeting after Tammany men tried to break up the meeting by turning off the gaslights. Locofocos were vigorous advocates of laissez-faire and opponents of monopoly. In the 1840 election, the term “Locofoco” was applied to the entire Democratic Party by its Whig opponents, both because Democratic President Martin Van Buren had incorporated many Locofoco ideas into his economic policy, and because Whigs considered the term to be derogatory. They developed an alternate derivation of “Loco Foco”, from the combination of the Spanish word “loco”, meaning mad or crack brained, and “foco”, from “focus”. Their meaning then was that the faction and later the entire Democratic party, was the “focus of folly”.

I’m tempted to say that such an etymological trainwreck could only happen in the U.S. of A. But I’m sure we could find comparable incidents elsewhere, if we knew where to look. In any case, some obvious questions all this raises include:

  • What the heck is a “self-lighting cigar”?
  • How could anyone think “loco” means “self” when it’s so obviously related to “location”?
  • Why didn’t Marck trademark the name? Or did he just fail to protect his trademark?
  • Did the Locofocos fetishize matches the way Tea Partiers sometimes dress up as Founding Fathers?
  • Are the metaphorical resonances of “self-firing” intentional?
  • How would things have played out differently if everyone had still been using the previous generation of matches, known as “lucifers”?

Postscript: the Locofocos originated as a protest party trying to fight Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall was controlled at the time by a man named Preserved Fish. His father and grandfather were also named Preserved Fish. “Preserved” is pronounced with three syllables: “pre-SER-vedd.” His life story, in a nutshell:

As a youth, the younger Preserved Fish shipped to the Pacific on a whaler, becoming its captain at the age of 21. He soon realized that fortune lay in selling whale oil, not in getting it, so he became a merchant, and later a banker.

Remember that Melville was from New York, and that he became a writer during the years when Preserved Fish controlled New York politics. I’m tempted now to try to track down references to all this stuff in Melville’s writings. Might Moby-Dick contains some heretofore-unrecognized puns about Mr. Fish?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 13, 2016 3:37 pm

    Locofoco might be applied to the Republican party today. Although I consider their presumptive to be too dangerous to be seen only as “folly”


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