You’ve heard this song a million times. We all have. I used to work in a museum that had it playing on repeat all day, so I don’t know if I ever need to hear it again. Buuuutttt, ‘Yankee Doodle’ does have a very interesting history…even if the song’s lyrics are hard to decipher.
A little background: the song was created by the British to disparage Americans, and American soldiers claimed the song as their own during the Revolutionary War. And the rest is history. The first verse of the ditty is a little odd and sounds like it’s about a fella who confuses a feather for some pasta:
“Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony,
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.”
Okay, what the hell does that mean? In the song, ‘macaroni’ does not refer to food, but to a fashion trend that was all the rage among British aristocratic men in the 1760s. Wealthy young British men used to take a ‘Grand Tour’ across Europe to learn about the world and other cultures – kind of like how American college kids go to South Padre Island, but not as classy.
Anyway, these young, cultured men brought back different things with them, including new fashion styles. A popular new fashion among this elite group consisted of large wigs and slim clothing. A man who employed this type of dress was referred to as a “macaroni.” It meant you had style and class.Therefore, the original song mocks what the British saw as dumb, low-class American colonists who thought they could ‘stick a feather’ in their caps and suddenly become sophisticated. The ‘macaroni’ style fell out of favor quickly in British high society and men labeled with the term were soon seen as effeminate and “exceed[ing] the ordinary bounds of fashion.” One satiric comic skewered this new style of macaroni with drawings of a servant carrying a macaroni’s extremely long hair.
Ridiculing macaronis became a popular trend, and soon all of the British Isles were on board. And while most of British society joined in with the mocking, the macaronis lived the kind of lives they wanted to, in an era where freedom was frowned upon and punished. So, in a way, these men paved the way for people to live their lives in any way they saw fit. Trailblazers, these macaronis were.
h/t: Atlas Obscura