Tracking down a Big Thing on Ice

Here in Central Massachusetts in July, readers and staff at AAS are experiencing our third heat wave of the summer.  Mind you, heat waves here in New England cannot compete with those that build in the American Southwest, Texas, or the Deep South, but we suffer all the same.  To counter the heat, I decided to do some searching in the online catalog for material related to the harvesting and sale of ice in America.  The plan was to gather material for a small exhibition that might offer cooling imagery for our visitors (I was thinking of stacks of thick ice slabs, big saws, ice wagons, fancy ice tongs, etc.).

In my first broad sweep (keywords “Ephemera” and “Ice”), I located this Civil War-era envelope with a cartoon of an African American slave pointing to Jefferson Davis, who is depicted inside a low refrigerator.

It was odd and not at all what I was expecting to see in my search results! It looks as though Jeff Davis is in a magician’s trick box, about to be sawn in half.  The slave is pointing to Davis and saying “Oh Massa Jeff you is a big thing on Ice.”  What does that phrase and that image even mean?

Working with our summer page Camille Dupuis, I started searching for other uses of the phrase “big thing on ice” and was immediately overwhelmed with results.  We found the slang phrase used in American newspapers starting in 1861 and really coming into vogue by 1875.  The phrase was the title of a comic ballad written and performed in 1861 by the singer and actor Tony Pastor.  The song outlines the various uses of “a big thing on ice” which can mean a “profitable venture” or “an important event” or, on the other hand, “a really big sham” or “a blustery know-it-all.”  In his song, Pastor calls the phrase a “flash saying” and indicates it is in wide and popular use.

Pastor performed his ballad “Big Thing on Ice” to great applause (according to his biographer) at the Melodeon Theater in Philadelphia on April 11, 1861, the day before the attack on Fort Sumter and the start of the Civil War.  The phrase “big thing on ice” was almost immediately co-opted into use by Union soldiers and it turns up in their letters repeatedly. George Turner wrote to his cousin from Hilton Head, South Carolina, in August of 1862 stating “You must not worry for the absent one far away, for we are doing a big thing on ice.” (George Turner Letters, Providence Public Library, RI).  Harper’s Weekly uses the phrase in a fictional account of war recruiting, with a recruiter telling potential soldiers, “War is a big thing on ice.  Big thing!”  The phrase turns up on comic valentines, in advertisements for soap (see right), in the memoir of P.T. Barnum (who uses it to describe the carcass of a large whale that he displayed in his museum in a huge specially-made refrigerated case – literally, a Big Thing on Ice), and in the lectures of temperance reformer John B. Gough, who claimed giving up drink was a big thing on ice.

By 1865, the phrase began to take on double meanings, as first indicated by Tony Pastor in his ballad.  An article on the use of slang in the army published in the United States Service Magazine in June 1865 declares the phrase has been turned into a tired joke by soldiers, one of whom discusses Victor Hugo’s Les Mirables with his superior and slyly remarks the newly released and wildly popular book is a “bully big thing on ice, ain’t it?”  Hugo, of course, wrote at length about the subtle power of slang in Les Mirables, entitling one chapter “Slang which weeps and Slang which laughs” and stating, “As the reader perceives, slang in its entirety, slang of four hundred years ago, like the slang of to-day, is permeated with that sombre, symbolical spirit which gives to all words a mien which is now mournful, now menacing.”

Still true today (think about “the bomb” or “clutch,” which today are used to mean “cool” or “awesome” but 40 years ago meant something else entirely), and true for a “big thing on ice.”  Camille and I finally looked up the phrase in several dictionaries of American slang (ranging in date from 1889 to the present), where it was variously defined completely without context to mean everything from “a calm coolness of action” to “an important event” to “a fine rarity.”  Best of all, and proving that some things never really change, by 1905, the phrase had been shortened to just its initials, “B.T.I.,” eerily forecasting, perhaps, the use of BTW, AON, GTG etc., used by texting teenagers (and adults) around the world today.

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Lauren Hewes

Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

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