Aug 15, 2017

1880: The Perils of Deadheadism

A political cartoon from 1880.
Note the skeleton's hat.

Another example, from the 1813 Pantologia


  1. This post is an experiment - a look at the early uses of the term "deadhead" in the 19th century.
    I didn't transcribe these, but clipped images from a few of the more interesting articles. (Given the small print of the day, some of these are hard to read.)

    I was alerted to its older use by an Archive researcher: "In the late-1800s and early-1900s, a "deadhead" was a person--typically a public official--given a free pass to use a railroad, the railroad hoping to strengthen its political support via its generosity. According to the source I just ran across, 'by 1897, the railroads of North Carolina were giving out 100,000 passes a year, with an estimated revenue loss of $325,000. Paying passengers found it hard to conceal their disgust when they found their seatmate to be a 'deadhead,' for they knew they were indirectly paying his passage.'"

    This use of the phrase was first noted in the 1850s (and helpfully defined by Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms). Deadheads were not limited to the railroads, but were also the scourge of theaters, hotels, restaurants, etc. - basically anyone who got in for free. Some were given free tickets as a policy (trade workers, or journalists), others just wouldn't pay.
    The term arose some time earlier - the earliest example I could find was from 1841. (And it's still used in a similar sense today, for instance on airlines.)

    "Deadheadism" was always referred to in the negative sense, as a plague that must be stamped out (as the train passengers' disgust shows). "Deadheadism is a disease." (1880) "A great trouble with modern life is deadheadism...a very grave evil." (1886) "Abolish every species of deadheadism." (1888)
    The spectacle of some spongers "getting something for nothing" aroused much public ire, with all these articles full of complaints, and the California political cartoon lumps in deadheadism with such odious concepts as "free love," "anarchy," and "the universal co-operative brotherhood."

    "Dead head" was also a technical term used in the casting of cannon (noted in early 19th-century English encyclopedias). I also found references to "dead head" logs and "dead head" insect larva damaging wheat, but these were not common usage.

    Of course, it's a long way from the 1800s to the Grateful Dead, and possibly those who first called Dead fans "deadheads" didn't know the term's etymology, but I'm intrigued by the connection to the past.

  2. Quite the switch...(Grateful) Deadheads creating a vast marketplace in order to pay their own way.
    The above writers from the past should have aimed their ire at Silver Spooned Babies whose entire lives were guaranteed a modicum of success without really having to lift a finger, ie. Donald Trump.
    Heaven forbid that anyone gets Help on the Way home.
    such is life. Finger wagging to preserve hidden truths and lies

  3. To my surprise, Abraham Lincoln also used the term once, in a July 28, 1862 letter about the complaints of Unionists in Louisiana against government policies:
    "The paralysis - the dead palsy - of the government in this whole struggle is, that this class of men will do nothing for the government, nothing for themselves... [Durant] speaks of no duty - apparently thinks of none - resting upon Union men... They are to touch neither a sail nor a pump, but to be merely passengers - dead-heads at that - to be carried snug and dry, throughout the storm, and safely landed right side up... Of course the rebellion will never be suppressed in Louisiana, if the professed Union men there will neither help to do it, nor permit the government to do it without their help."