Friday, March 1, 2024

The jimmies story: Fact and fiction

The "jimmies" question came up again on Bluesky this week, and since my Boston Globe article on the topic is paywalled, I'm posting it here. I haven't done further research in the 13 years since publication, but I haven't heard anything to make me doubt what I've written. If I do find new evidence, I'll post it here, of course. —JF


Boston Globe, February 13, 2011

By Jan Freeman

When I mentioned jimmies, the long-established localism for chocolate sprinkles, in a recent column, it was just as a passing example; I didn't mean to reopen an etymological can of worms. But a few days later, along came an e-mail from Ron Slate of Milton, repeating the rumor that has dogged our candy terminology. "My mother told us never to use the word 'jimmies' because it is an epithet for African-Americans,'' he wrote. "So we always said 'sprinkles.' ''

Even before that tale got abroad, jimmies was trailing clouds of factoid and fancy. Its origins are murky, so — like "the whole nine yards'' and "the real McCoy'' — it attracts just-so stories, some plausible and some less so. At the "Boston English'' section of the website UniversalHub, commenters will tell you that jimmies are named for the Jimmy Fund, the children's cancer charity; for a kid named Jimmy who got them on his ice cream as a birthday treat ("they're Jimmy's''); for a mayor named Jim Conelson, or a Jimmy O'Connell who was extra generous with sprinkles; and for a guy who (maybe) ran the chocolate-sprinkles machine at the Just Born candy factory.

Of all these theories, only the last is even remotely plausible. Just Born, the candy company that still provides us with marshmallow Peeps and Mike and Ikes, was founded in Brooklyn in 1923, according to its official history, though patriarch Sam Born had already come up with candy innovations like a machine to put sticks into lollipops.

The company's website claims that "jimmies, the chocolate grains sprinkled on ice cream, were invented at Just Born, and named after the employee who made them.'' (Company spokesmen have mentioned a Jimmy Bartholomew, but his existence is unverified.) But company histories often include a fudge factor, and this claim of invention seems dubious: Chocolate sprinkles, so called, were already popular in the 1920s, the newspaper archives show. The Nashua, N.H., Telegraph was advertising a treat made with chocolate sprinkles in 1921, before Just Born was born.

Later that decade, the sprinkles show up in Ottawa and Spokane newspapers, and by 1927, Sunshine is producing a Chocolate Sprinkle cookie topped with marshmallow and sprinkles. (There's even a laxative consisting of "tasty Swiss-like milk chocolate sprinkles''; a 1928 ad in the Pittsburgh Press says it has given "Thousands of Pennsylvanians . . . the Glorious Complexion of a Regulated Body.'')

Just Born may still deserve credit for coining the word jimmies, but that claim remains to be proven. The company's website has a photo of two large cans of its product, one labeled "chocolate grains'' and the other "jimmies'' — but the jimmies can bears a Zip code, dating it to 1963 at the earliest. That's decades after the oldest print evidence I found for jimmies: a December 1930 ad in the Pittsburgh Press in which a local food emporium offers sponge cake "with creamy butter frosting and chocolate jimmies,'' adding helpfully: "In case you don't know what jimmies are . . . tiny chocolate candies.'' This suggests that the term was new (to Pittsburgh, at least), but it offers no clue to its coinage.

Whatever the source of the name, though, nothing in the record suggests that jimmies was ever racially tinged. If it had been, it's not likely anyone would have been coy about it, as racist brand names and artwork were unremarkable in the 1930s and '40s. Katharine Weber, whose novel "True Confections'' is set in a family candy company, blogs about some of them at Staircase Writing: The Abba-Zaba wrappers with their smiling cartoon savages, Heide's "Black Kids'' candy, and Whitman's infamous Pickaninny Peppermints, a brand that persisted until Thurgood Marshall, then a young civil rights lawyer, took on the company in the early 1940s.

So where did the "racist'' label for jimmies come from? It's possible that people old enough to remember the candies of the '40s, like Ron Slate's mother, wrongly assumed that "jimmies'' was also a slur. But there's no evidence that this notion was ever widespread: David Wilton, who investigated jimmies in his 2004 book, "Word Myths,'' found no record of the accusation before 1997.

If the idea hasn't died out, that's surely because it's so hard to prove a negative. But as Wilton notes, "when one would normally expect to find evidence, its absence can be revealing.'' And the absence of evidence here is striking; nobody warning against jimmies cites examples of its use as a slur; there's just a vague hint that it might have some connection to "Jim Crow.''

In this instance, though, the facts may finally prevail. Yes, you can find fictional etymologies of jimmies on the Web, but the "racist'' label doesn't seem to be catching on. And what we do know about jimmies is widely available: in Wilton's book, in David Feldman's "Why Do Pirates Love Parrots?'' (2006), and on the Web at,, Barry Popik's The Big Apple, and Wikipedia. So be of good cheer, jimmies fans everywhere; you may feel guilty about the calories in those chocolate tidbits, but there's no shame in the name.

Copyright © 2003 The Boston Globe

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The "Mommy Kissing Santa" legend (Part 2)

The Boston Globe has just published my story refuting the old myth that "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" was once banned in Boston by the Catholic Church.

The article won't appear in print till Dec. 24, but Wikipedia has already corrected its entry on the song — up to a point. There's another part of the tale, though, that didn't make it into the Globe. 

Many retellings of the "Kissing Santa" saga include this second chapter, summed up on Wikipedia thus: "The song was commissioned by Saks Fifth Avenue to promote the store’s Christmas card for the year, which featured an original sketch by artist Perry Barlow, who drew for The New Yorker for many decades." (The entry will be promptly corrected, I assume; this is what it says today.)

As for commissioning the song, why would a department store order up a composition that didn't mention the store's name or establish any lasting connection? And neither the news stories about Jimmy Boyd nor histories of the song itself — it was written by Tommie Connor, a Brit, and produced under the aegis of Mitch Miller — mention such a sponsorship. It's hard to prove a negative, but this part of the story seems to be pure fantasy. 

(The earlier myth has a kernel of truth, since apparently a few radio stations briefly banned "Mommy Kissing Santa." These bans were somehow, over time, transmuted into a story about Boston and its censorious Catholics.) 

I'd be happy to learn that the most plausible part of this legend — that the Perry Barlow cover (above) became a Christmas card — was true (as would his family). So readers, if anyone has a sample to show us, please do. Otherwise, like the rest of the story, this detail remains unproven.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Sun's web ads leave writer in shade (and reader incensed)

I subscribe to the Baltimore Sun for one reason: to read John E. McIntyre (@johnemcintyre on Twitter), longtime editor and exceedingly sensible commenter on our evolving usage. Since his language column is paywalled, I thought his fans ought to see how the Sun treats it (and us) on the web. Screenshots are from today's column. Further comment below, not that it will be necessary ...

I'm not sure how much the subscription costs me at the moment, since no price is listed in my account details; the Sun wants me to phone (or dig into my credit card statements) to find out. But whatever the price, all I'm buying is this column; I don't need Baltimore news or restaurant reviews.And this is how the Sun repays me.

 Several of the ads are live video; others bounce around or fade into new and different ads. My shots are not full size, but they show how the type—WHICH I CAME TO READ—is utterly overpowered by the ad display. 

Dear Sun, this is an abuse of your audience. It might be defensible if you allowed free access to the column. But to ask us to pay for this treatment is ridiculous, appalling, and insulting to both readers and your columnist.