Beyond the Lunatic Fringe
Posted on Fri, 1/14/2011 - 4:17 by August Imholtz Jr
The lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and Futurists, or Near-Impressionists. (Outlook, 29 Mar. 1913) This, along with a usage in Roosevelt’s Autobiography (1913), represents the earliest known use of the phrase lunatic fringe.Shapiro therein follows the entries for “lunatic fringe” found in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 17th edition (2002), the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations, 2nd edition (2002), and the Dictionary of Quotations by Bergen Evans (1968), and perhaps other of the numerous quotation dictionaries.
More recently, I searched for lunatic fringe in historical databases. To my surprise, I found many uses from before 1913—all in a very different sense from Roosevelt's. Here are a few:
"The girls!" exclaimed Miss Lizzie, lifting her eyebrows till they met the "lunatic fringe" of hair which straggled uncurled down her forehead. (Oliver Optic's Magazine, February 1874) "LUNATIC Fringe" is the name given to the fashion of cropping the hair and letting the ends hang down over the forehead. (Wheeling Daily Register, 24 July 1875) The "lunatic fringe" is still the mode in New York hair-dressing. (Chicago Inter Ocean, 24 May 1876)
It appears, then, that Teddy Roosevelt was playing on an existing phrase. His usage was a metaphorical extension of an expression previously applied to bangs—evidently, bangs that were considered outré. Fringe is still used in Britain for bangs, but the usage has been abandoned for so long in the United States that lexicographers were completely unaware of the coiffure-related prehistory of lunatic fringe.Those quotations, with the exception of the one from Oliver Optic's, are from the Readex digital collection America’s Historical Newspapers. A couple other sources can be added to Shapiro’s list:
New York young ladies still let their hair cascade over their foreheads in the “lunatic fringe” (St. Louis Post Dispatch, 26 May 1876) The latest style in hair is lunatic fringe. It is very popular. (San Francisco Chronicle, 6 Oct. 1878)And the lunatic fringe—we are speaking still of the hair style—persisted for a number of years, at least into 1880. We read, for example, in the 21 March 1880 New York Times a letter from a certain S.E.K that contrasts “Montague Curls” with the “lunatic fringe” in a manner unfavorable to the poor fringe:
(Source: California Perfume Company)
I am sure “Montagues” are a vast improvement on those straight abominations, or if you prefer a more complimentary and man-like name, “lunatic fringe.”“Montague curls,” it seems, involved gluing a woman’s curls to her forehead with a substance called bandoline. Both words, “Montague” and “bandoline,” would afford further opportunities for popular etymology fun.