“Now Sorry Tom was owner uv the Gosh-all-Hemlock mine,
The wich allowed his better half to dress all-fired fine;
For Sorry Tom was mighty proud uv her, an’ she of him,
Though she was short an’ tacky, an’ he wuz tall an’ slim.”
Eugene Field, “The Conversazzhyony” (1889)
Like the word taste, the word tacky is difficult to define. To most modern readers it will suggest the cheap finery that is on display when low class people put on airs. It thus has a strong connection to vulgar ostentation on the part of the poor, and recently poor, when they make a maladroit stab at magnificence.
This is the way tacky is used in the lines above, where Sorry Tom has been raised from poverty to riches by his mine on Colorado’s Red Hoss mountain; and will be in time returned to poverty by the maladroit magnificence of his short and tacky wife.
* * * * *
The word tacky (or tackey) was originally an adjective that denoted the tack-like property of holding something in place. A tacky surface is moderately adhesive, like a coat of varnish that has partly dried or a wood worker’s tack cloth.
From this obvious meaning, the word evolved into a noun that people in the southern United States used to describe a wild horse, or what people in the western United States would later call a mustang. These horses were descended from horses that had strayed from Spanish Florida and the colonial plantations, and because they were most often found in out-of-the-way places, they were called “swamp tackeys,” “cane tackeys,” or “marsh tackeys.”
The Dictionary of American English says the origin of this word is obscure, but I think it is reasonable to conjecture that tackey referred to the unbrushed coats of these wild horse that lived amidst the mud and burrs of a South Carolina marsh. The DAE comes near to seeing this when it defines a tackey as “an unkempt or ill-conditioned horse” (1).
Setting out on to hunt deer on one of the Georgia sea islands in the first part of the nineteenth century, the famous socialite Ward McAllister saw “two marsh tackeys, with their manes and tails so full of burrs, and so netted together, as to form a solid mass . . . and no evidence of either of the animals having seen or been touched by a curry-comb.” Later that same day he saw “four marsh tackeys, decorated, front and rear, with an abundance of burrs” (2).
I believe they were called tackeys because they had burrs tacked to their hides.
* * * * *
The name tackey was subsequently applied to poor and disreputable Southern whites of the class also known as crackers or poor white trash. As a Virginia genealogist explains, the worst people in the Old Dominion “retreated to the mountains or pine forests and became ‘crackers’ or ‘tackeys,’ and have spread throughout the South” (3).
These poor white tackeys often rode on broken-down tackeys they had caught in the swamps or pine barrens, but they were likely given the name tackey because they shared their animals’ unkempt and tatterdemalion appearance. Like the burr-tacked coat of his horse, the coat of a human tackey was dirty, unbrushed, and tacked with burrs, straws and the chaff of his corn-shuck bed.
This is why the Dictionary of American English states that a tackey was not simply a “poor white,” but was more especially a “neglected person.” He was dirty, disheveled and prone to disorderly conduct. He had “let himself go” and “had no self-respect.” In the words of a sociologist, tackeys were known for,
“their sickly and slovenly appearance, habitual drinking, tobacco chewing, utter ignorance, strange dialect, inert behavior, and such strange proclivities as clay sucking, resin chewing, and snuff dipping” (4).
Ida Vose Woodbury was a New England philanthropist who worked with “mountain whites” in Appalachia. In an address to the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1913, she said “there are two distinct classes of poor white people in the South.” But only one of these deserved the name of “poor white trash.” This was the group known as “crackers” or “tackeys,” and they were, she said, “people who have in their veins more or less of a mixture of the blood of the criminal stock, the Creole stock and the Latin races” (5).
* * * * *
Although four-legged tackeys had their uses, and were admired because they did not shy at an alligator, it was obvious that the breed had degenerated in the wild. Restored to natural conditions, the horse will, like any domesticated animal, revert to its natural type. Unregulated breeding will alter the genotype and harsh conditions will alter the phenotype, and many desirable traits will be lost (6).
The same sort of atavism was observed in the two-legged tackeys, who were often called “degenerate whites” or “poor white trash.” One hundred years or more ago, a degenerate man was understood as a man who had remained at, or reverted to, a lower level of human life. This degeneracy was physical, mental and moral, and was understood as a return to the natural or savage state. Thus “poor white trash” were not only cash poor.
Poor meant bad, not penurious. Tackeys were called “poor whites,” or “po’ whites” because they were degenerate and inferior whites.
“But poor as a degenerate breed is poor
Sunk down in squalor” (7).
Squalor is usually understood as the state of being dirty and unpleasant, and it was generally recognized that tackies were both. What is more, it was believed that they were dirty and unpleasant because they had “sunk down” below the general level of humanity. They had degenerated into an inferior breed that was sickly, weak, stupid, and vicious. He did not call them tackeys, but the artist Maitland Armstrong described the degenerate type (and their degenerate horses):
“These ‘crackers’ were a pretty poor class, morally, intellectually, and physically, pretty low down. Even the negro slaves despised them and called them ‘poor whites.’ They were wretched-looking men, and as they . . . had fever and ague all the time, they were so weak and languid that they could hardly swing themselves onto the backs of their little horses” (8).
* * * * *
Tackeys were not only “pretty low down.” They also gave every indication of liking it down there. And this intransigence in squalor was the essential difference between penurious whites and “poor white trash.” To be a tackey was to lack, and indeed scorn, the ambition to be anything more than a tackey.
In her famous Diary from Dixie, Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote disparagingly of “sandhill tackeys” and described some close acquaintances of “the sandhill ‘tackey’ race” (9). These were women from a family of “sandhillers” who had afflicted Chesnut’s grandmother and mother before they afflicted Chesnut. To Chesnut, they indeed appeared to be a “race,” a distinct and separate breed.
Describing these women in terms she would certainly have applied to the “tackey race” generally, Chesnut exclaimed:
“All are made on the same pattern, more or less alike.”
And like those stunted and burr-tacked swamp tackies of the Carolina sea islands, these sandhill tackles had become a distinct and stable type. Milly was the sandhiller who afflicted Chesnut. She was “stumpy, strong, and lean, hard-featured, horny fisted,” and she was exactly like her mother and grandmother before her. Thus Chesnut asks,
“Why do they remain sandhillers from generation to generation? Why should Milly never have bettered her condition?”
The answer to her question is, no doubt, the tackey’s intransigence in squalor. To be a tackey was to lack, and indeed scorn, the ambition to be anything more than a tackey.
* * * * *
Many sociologists have tried to explain tackeys as victims of the slave system. The claim is that they were “degenerate whites living mainly within the plantation area,” and that they could not better themselves because they could not compete with slave labor (10). They were, as sociologists like to say, victims of society.
One problem with this theory is that tackeys were most plentiful outside the plantation areas. We have seen that they were called sandhillers and sandhill tackeys, and their typical place of abode was just as often specified in the phrases “pinewoods tackeys” and “piney-woods tackeys” (11).
A Mississippi doctor traveling in the eastern part of that state noted that it was, “for the most part, piney woods, heavy sandy lands,” with “no soil to speak of, except here and there where a creek or ‘branch’ meanders through.” In these creek-bottoms there were small patches of soil and “you will come across, at long intervals, a cabin, with its household of white headed children.”
“‘Tackeys,’ ‘po’ white trash’ the negroes call them” (12).
Tackies could not compete with organized slave labor. They could not even compete with poor whites who aimed to better their condition. So they retreated to the sandhills and piney woods where they would be left alone to persist in their essential intransigence in squalor.
The Mississippi doctor I just quoted describes coming upon a tackey cabin after riding “mile after mile, through an unbroken monotony of . . . long leaf pine and sand.”
“There had been a rail fence around the house once, but it was down and scattered; the yard was littered with paper and trash, and the house, which was a one-room log cabin, with a dirt-and-stick chimney, was closed and looked deserted.”
Anyone who drives the backroads of the American South has seen the modern equivalents of this tackey cabin, and knows that Chesnut’s “tackey race” is with us still.
* * * * *
Around the turn of the nineteenth century, it became common to call tackeys “tacky people.” Tacky people were the almost subhuman breed of poor whites who inhabited remote “peckerwood” clearings, and sometimes crept out to work in the mill towns of the industrializing South. This, for instance, is from a short story published by a Virginia author in Harpers New Monthly Magazine in 1897:
“Me live in de country! Why, Mahs William, I’m town-bred to de backbone. What I gwine do thar? . . . . Dem tacky people doan want none of my makins” (13).
This is from a 1909 article on cotton mills in the Carolina piedmont,
“It is a fact that many [mill] workers are drawn from the lowest class, but this class is not composed of the ‘poor whites’; it is lower, being more commonly known as ‘white trash’ or ‘tacky people’” (14)
Tacky people were lower than poor whites because they were seen as a separate and degenerate breed that had been, as it were, discarded by the essentially progressive white race. That is, after all, what the phrase “white trash” really means!
Or, in the view of the dominant culture, in retreating to the sandhills and piney woods, tackeys had discarded themselves by dropping out of the race. In the 1920s Lothrop Stoddard wrote that, “the basic attitude of the under-Man is an instinctive and natural revolt against civilization” (15) It is intransigence in squalor and the will to remain at, or regress to, a lower condition.
In the language of the nineteenth century, this lower condition was savagery. The word meant man’s natural, original, and uncivilized state. This included but was not limited to the violence that we today identify with the word. A writer at the end of the eighteenth century said that savagery embraced all of the,
“pursuits of men, who live in the early and uncultivated periods of society; as war, hunting, plunder, migrating from place to place, promiscuous concubinage, and a course of action unrestrained by settled rules. . . .” (16).
And to civilized whites like Mary Boykin Chesnut, it appeared that whites of the “tackey race” had fled to the sandhills and piney woods because they were determined to remain savage or regress to savagery. Their flight was simple atavism as described by an Irish savant on the times:
“It has been said that savages have seldom or never chosen civilized life of their own accord, but that civilized men have been known to adopt the habits and customs of savages.”
“On the outskirts of American population we find a savage race of degenerate whites, ‘the pioneers’ of advancement, who push forward like the Indians themselves, when civilization treads too closely on their heels” (17).
* * * * *
That “savage race of degenerate whites” was, of course, what Mary Boykin Chesnut called the “tackey race,” and what later writers called “tacky people.” In time, civilization caught up with these renegades, but it could not defeat their atavistic revolt. Some remain hiding out in the sandhills and piney-woods, their dwellings not much changed from the tumbledown cabin that doctor came upon in the depths of the Mississippi pine barrens. Others live on streets you have never driven, on the other side of your hometown.
They are members of the “tackey race,” and when they make a stab at magnificence and dress “all-fired fine,” like Sorry Tom’s wife, you probably call them “tacky people.”
1) William A. Craigie and James Root Hulbert, A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, 4 vols. (1938-1944), vol. 4, p. 2284
2) Ward McAllister, Society as I have Found it (1890), pp. 93, 91
3) G. Browne Goode, Virginia Cousins: A Study of the Ancestry and Posterity of John Goode of Whitby, a Virginia Colonist of the Seventeenth Century (1887), p. xxi.
4) A. N. J. Den Hollander, “The Tradition of ‘Poor Whites,’ in Culture in the South, ed. W. T. Couch, pp. 403-431 (1934), p. 412.
5) Proceedings of the Continental Congress of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (1913).
6) “The small native breed of horses raised in South Mississippi, called ‘cane tackeys,’ were degenerate descendants of animals brought to New Spain by Conquistadores. They were very like their kinsmen, the mustangs of the Texas plains. Tackeys were used mainly by cattle herdsmen of the pine barrens, and were employed infrequently by farmers.” John Moore, Agriculture in Ante-Bellum Mississippi (1958), p. 68.
7) Edgar Lee Masters, “Gobineau to Tree” (1916)
8) Maitland Armstrong, Day Before Yesterday: Reminiscences of a Varied Life (1920), pp. 78-79.
9) Mary Boykin Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie (1905), pp. 58, 401.
10) Maurice R. Davie, Negroes in American Society (1949).
11) H. L. Mencken, The American Language, 3 vols. (1945-1948), p. 381; Julia Collier Harris, The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris (1919), p. 222.
12) F. E. Daniel, Recollections of a Rebel Surgeon (1899), pp. 217-218.
13) William Ludwell Sheppard, “My Fifth in Mammy,” in Southern Lights and Shadows, ed. William Dean Howells, pp. 117-153 (1907), p. 141.
14) Aaron Hardy Ulm, “The Plea of the Child Laborer,” North American Review, vol. 189 (April-June 1909): 889-899, quote p. 892.
15) Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt against Civilization: The Menace of the Under-Man (1922), p. 24
16) Benjamin Heath Malkin, Essays on Subjects Connected with Civilization (1795)
17) W. Cooke Taylor,” The Natural History of Society in the Barbarous and Civilized State, 2 vols. (1841), p. 197.