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Digitization Dispatch: Etymology Edition!

According to a 1918 publication from silk manufacturers The Cheney Brothers, 'polka dots' are so called for a couple of reasons. First, a traveling dance instructor spotted a young woman performing an unfamiliar dance on the border of Poland and Bohemia. The dance instructor became enamoured with the exuberant half steps of the dance and began teaching it to students. He named the dance after the anonymous performer, the feminine form designating Polish citizenry: the Polka. At the same time, the presidential campaign of James Polk was underway. And as the dance spread around the globe, trade manufactures were eager to cash in on on the popularity of both the incoming US President and the dance. Early issues of catalogs begin to describe their wares as "polka gauze", "polka hats", and "polka shoes".

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This month's digital collection highlight, Why do you call them Polka Dots?, neglects the origins of latter half of the phrase, but it could be that the word 'dot' (rather than "spot", say) comes into play because Morse's new communication language was utmost in the mind of the populace. Dots and dashes were on the tip of the collective tongue at the time. And whether or not the Cheney Brothers eytomological report is technically speaking the most accurate tracing of the term, the story highlights the ways consumer culture can creep into language. Enjoy!

How to dance the Polka

Cheney Brothers Silk



One Comment

  1. And President James K. Polk was the person who signed the legislation that founded the Smithsonian. Maybe we should have polka dots as a logo 🙂

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