The other day, my brother called and asked if I would look and see if he had accidentally left his good trousers at my apartment while he was crashing with me; he needed to attend a funeral. I said he had, and that I would press them for him.
“I wish he could afford some better clothes,” I said regretfully to my friend. “But it’s not like anyone will be looking. And the lights probably won’t be be very bright.” (While this may seem a trivial concern, anyone who has worn black polyester to a funeral will know what I’m talking about.)
“It will be fine,” said my friend. “It’s not as though he’ll be in rags. Or a barrel and suspenders.”
This got us thinking about barrels and suspenders—the familiar image of an individual in visibly reduced circumstances. I imagined it had originated in old political cartoons or similar. And then of course we had to look it up.
Wikipedia informed us that, indeed, a cartoonist called Will B. Johnstone was known for having created a New York World-Telegram cartoon character known as the Tax Payer, who—presumably having been taxed so exorbitantly that he could no longer afford clothing—was portrayed sporting only a barrel held up by suspenders.
But the origin of the trope was most likely the Drunkard’s Cloak, or Newcastle Cloak, a form of pillory in seventeenth-century Germany and England in which the publicly inebriated were placed in a barrel colorfully illustrated with scenes of drunken antics. As one helpful Web site explains, “There were two kinds—the enclosed barrel which forced the victim to kneel in his or her own filth, or the open barrel which allowed the victim to roam about town, open to ridicule and scorn.” A Sophie’s choice, really. Especially as both barrels were likely employed for communal use and, presumably, never cleaned. Read More