I'm looking for the origin of this phrase: "Baby needs a new pair of shoes!" (Or "Mama needs a new pair of shoes" or "Daddy needs a new pair of shoes").

You see it in movies and television as a phrase gamblers use before a dice throw, begging for a good result. Does someone know where this phrase originated? Googling shows it in reference to craps players as early as 1914. Does anyone have anything earlier or more definitive? Is it strictly craps slang?

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    It is probably craps-specific (in origin) and also Black-specific (in dialect of origin). See also ask.metafilter.com/116416/… and the term "African billiards" to refer to craps. – Alan Carmack Jun 23 '16 at 20:50
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    Variations precede 1914. See esnpc.blogspot.com/2014/10/… – user66965 Jun 23 '16 at 20:54
  • I missed the blogspot article. Thank you for that. – Solocutor Jun 23 '16 at 20:56
  • @surlawda That article was perfect. If someone wants to summarize it (or has additional information), I will accept that as an answer. – Solocutor Jun 23 '16 at 21:05
up vote 5 down vote accepted

Early instances of the phrase cited in a historical slang dictionary

J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1993) has this entry for "baby needs a pair of shoes":

baby needs a pair of shoes {sugg. that one has expenses to meet} (a traditional exclamation of crapshooters). Earliest cited instances:] 1918 Witwer [From] Baseball [to Boches] 293: Joe, the air is full of "Baby needs shoes!"—"Come on little fever!"—"Ha, Big Dick from Boston!" 1919 Amer[ican] Legion W[ee]kly (July 25) 18: "Little Joe." "Baby needs a pair of shoes." "Roll you bone." 1947 Motley Any Door 94: Come on seven, come on seven, baby needs shoes.

With respect to the first two quotes, it bears noting that in craps "Big Dick [from Boston]" is a throw of ten, "fever" [or Phoebe] is a throw of five, and Little Joe [from Kokomo]" is a throw of four. A throw of nine is (or was in some localities) "Long Liz" or "Ninety days," a throw of eight might be "eighter from Decatur," and a throw of six was "Jimmy Hic [or Hicks]."

The first of the quotations cited in Lighter—Harry Witwer, From Baseball Boches (1918)—describes a craps game being played African American soldiers in a trench at the front somewhere in France:

Well, anyways, I had to go back through the trenches, which is occupied by them colored troops which I told you was here. It was pretty quiet at the time, as the German artillery had laid off to get shaved, or somethin', and a bunch of these babies is shootin' crap. Joe, the air is full of: "Baby needs shoes!" —"Come on little fever!"—"Ha, Big Dick from Boston!" and "Ten of them franc things he don't seven!"

This vignette confirms that at least some young African American soldiers during the late stages of the First World War used craps lingo, and included in their patter "Baby needs shoes!"—and that at least some young white American soldiers understood the lingo well enough to record it accurately for a predominantly white audience. But an item that Lighter cites in the entry for "Big Dick" suggests that white American awareness (in certain spheres of activity) of black American craps lingo goes back to 1890 at least:

Big Dick n. 1. Craps. the point ten.—usu. in phr. Big Dick from Boston; occ. in other vars. {The reason for the application of this name is not now traceable.} [First cited occurrence:] 1890 Quinn Fools of Fortune 540: The quaint expressions of "come seven, come eleven," "where's my point," "little Joe," "big Dick from Boston," and the like, are now frequently heard from the lips of the high-toned white gamblers.

The full paragraph from which the quotation in John Quinn, Fools of Fortune: Or, Gambling and Gamblers (1892 [originally 1890]) is drawn reads like this:

Craps, a dice game, always a favorite with the colored man and brother and the street gamin, is being introduced into the more aristocratic circles, and has become quite popular as a game of chance. The quaint expressions of “come seven, come eleven,” “where's my point,” “little Joe,” “big Dick from Boston,” and the like, are now frequently heard from the lips of the high-toned white gamblers as they carelessly toss the dice in the early morning hours, after the regular games are closed. The play at times runs high among the white votaries, but in their hands it lacks the sauce piquante with which the game is flavored by the lowly descendant of Ham.

Quinn also notes that the first time he observed (and participated in) a game of craps, one of the players alluded to the fact "that one has expenses to meet" (as Lighter puts it), not with the expression "baby needs shoes," but with an even more primal need:

I went out on deck [of the steamboat "City of Chester"], and my attention was arrested by hearing a negro crying in a stentorian voice, "come 7 or 11," then another man calling out, "chill'en cryin' fo' bread." This was followed by the sound of something rolling on the floor.

So at least in this early account, the pathetic cry of need addressed to the gods of chance involved hungry children, not unshod babies.


Matches for the phrase in early newspaper accounts

The earliest craps reference to babies' footware I could find in a newspaper account of the game is from "Become All the Fad," in the St. Paul [Minnesota] Daily Globe (September 28, 1890), which opens as follows:

"Craps!"

"My shoot!"

"Big Dick's my point!"

"I'll fade you quarter!"

"Come a seven or 'leven!"

"Let the dice speak for 'emselves!"

"Buy a new dress for Lulu and shoes for the baby!"

These and many other expressions even more unique and entertaining can be heard around any table or board where a full-fledged game of "craps" is in progress. Each one of the exclamations is generally accompanied by a loud snap of the fingers or a deeply uttered grunt.

The next-earliest instance—which involves shoes, but not specifically shoes for a baby—is from a discussion of craps as played in Memphis, Tennessee. From "The Game of Craps: When Played by the Memphis Negro Every Throw Is Accompanied by Some Strange Exclamation," originally in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, reprinted in the New York Tribune (December 12, 1897):

The first player blows into his hand, picks up the dice, juggles them in the hollow of his hand and rolls them to the ground in front of him. He never fails to utter something which he believes will bring him good luck. The stock expressions are:

"Conjure!"

"Seven 'leven!"

"Lay him down!"

"Get me dat money, 'leven!"

"Dis fo' a paih o' shoes!"

"Hock um die!"

...

"Take my gal to Cairo!"

A thousand other exclamations are indulged in according to the player's conceit.

And from "Instructed the Judge: Who Was So Well Pleased That He Gave Him Seven Months," in the Washington [D.C.] Post, reprinted in the Salt Lake [Utah] Herald (January 22, 1898):

"You take de bones," continued Nathaniel Berry, looking with supreme contempt on the surrounding crowd anxious to learn the ins and outs of a famous but badly misunderstood game. "De first man he thro's the bones like dis and pops his fingers. 'Come seven-eleven,' 'railroad,' nat'ral crap,' 'gimme de bones,' 'baby's got to hav' dem noo shoes,' 'take my gal to Baltimore,' 'Big Dick's my point,' 'all the way from Boston,' 'come on Joe, you must be mine' ——

And from "Seven! Come 'Leven!" in the [Honolulu, Hawaii] Hawaiian Star (July 28, 1899):

The colored troops who lately passed through Honolulu, kindly initiated the water front laborers and hangers on, into the mysteries of the noble game of craps and have given the vocabulary of the Islands such terms as "seven, come eleven," "naturals," "get the baby a new pair of shoes" and others of a kindred character. The natives have translated these terms into Hawaiian, but they use the English forms as well, giving them the Mississippi negro term of expression.

Yet another early instance (noted by Peter Brown, "Baby Shoes, Calico dresses, African Golf and Crabs - a Dicey History and Etymology of "Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes!," and cited in a comment by surlawda above), is from "Played Craps on a Train" in the San Francisco [California] Call (March 27, 1900):

Stark Bell, Patrick Gallagher, John Thompson, Vincent Garcia and John Fernando, arrested Saturday for playing craps on a train from the Tranforan racetrack, appeared before Judge Conlan yesterday. The charges against Gallagher and Fernando were dismissed and the others were continued till to-day. Special Officers Lindelon and Madden, who made the arrests, testified that they saw the game being played, but instead of saying "Come seven; come eleven," they said, "Baby needs a pair of new shoes," "If I win I'll eat chicken tonight" and "The attorney's fees must be paid." About sixteen of the players jumped off the train to escape arrest, although it was running at the rate of sixteen miles per hour.

Also, from "A Reformation" (datelined New York), in the Ogden [Utah] Standard (February 5, 1910), in which an old, white-bearded policeman named Sam English tries to break up a craps game:

"I see you there," announced Sam.

The players looked up in surprise to find a reverend face glaring down at them from the top of a circus poster. "Now you see us, how'd you like us?" "Where's your ticket?" and "Pipe who has arrived" were some of the witticisms provoked by his interruption. The game proceeded during these pleasantries and the "bones" were rolled again right under Sam's indignant nose to the plaintive singsong of the shooter, "Come, you Big Dick. Baby needs shoes."

"You're all pinched," shouted Sam.

"Ah, no." "Leave us go this once.'" "What'r you buttin' in for?" came the answers.

From "Music of Rolling Bones Leads to Their Undoing," in the Washington [D.C.] Herald (April 21, 1917):

"Baby needs new shoes; come on, you seven," accompanied by the music of rolling bones were the sounds which greeted Lieut. Dea and Policemen Gaffield, Sweet, and Mundie, of the Harbor precinct yesterday morning as they mounted the steps to the main deck of the steamer St. John.

A crap game was in progress by members of the night shift from the Washington Steel and Ordnance plant while returning home from work.

In "'Zero' Weather in Memphis Halts McGraw's Pastime," in the New York Tribune (April 12 1918), we see the expression "African golf" used for craps:

Manager [John] McGraw [of the New York Giants baseball club] caused it to be announced last night that hereafter African golf would be taboo in his club. African golf, as we have painstakingly described, is played with small cubes. The possessor of the cubes calls upon the gods on high to witness that the baby needs a new pair of shoes and implores certain numbers, particularly the seven and eleven, to disport themselves in public. Manager McGraw thinks so little of African golf that he is going to collect $100 from the first golfer he finds trying to flirt with Phoebe [five], Little Joe, and Hudson Super, which is the latest sobriquet for six.

None of the players in major league baseball in 1918 were black, owing to the sport's strict segregationist policies.

By the end of World War I, and perhaps earlier, the expostulation for new shoes seems to have become the industry standard in the field of craps. An International News Service story datelined Boston, Massachusetts—and printed as "Baby Shoe Prices Advance," in the Brownwood [Texas] Bulletin (January 24, 1920)—uses the craps angle to introduce an item on the rising price of baby shoes:

"Baby needs new shoes" is a common prayer at games of chance when the devotees wish to make an espacilly urgent appeal to fortune, but Daddy will have to hold more "naturals" or the stakes be higher when he wins if his offspring is to be properly shod for the prices are higher.


Alternatives to the needs of a barefoot baby

The earliest mention of a baby's need for new shoes as an invocation for luck appears in a St. Paul, Minnesota, newspaper in 1890. But that same year, a gambler named John Quinn, in a tell-all book about the cheating methods of crooked gamblers, reports that a craps player called out instead that his children were crying for bread. And "A Game of Which Much Is Heard and Little Known," in the Washington [D.C.] Critic (July 9, 1888), reports a less audible invocation by the dice thrower:

If you get close enough [to the gamblers] to see over the shoulders of the players, you would see one of them, the player, taking a pair of dice in his hand, throwing them out on the ground with a peculiar motion of his hand and wrist, mumbling to himself as he did so some mystic formula "for luck."

Other early exclamations appear in "Gaming at Washington," in the New York Sun (January 31, 1892):

But as each player throws the dice down the long table, sometimes its entire, he waits until they are about to settle, and then he and the other players snap the fingers of their right hand and give a grunt like a woodman who puts his axe home. Then they interchange the snapping fingers with cries of "Come bones," or "Good bones," "Come St. George." The interest is maintained through the game.

The St. Paul [Minnesota] Daily Globe provides detailed descriptions of the game of craps (or "the game of crap" a many peopled then referred to it) in 1889 and again in 1892. From "Rolling de Bones: Ho Two Dice Are Made to Work a Seductive Game," in the St. Paul [Minnesota] Daily Globe (December 1, 1889):

"Gimme dem bones. Shoot for a dollah; shoot you for a half." "Shoot you for two dollah," ventured a sportively attired gentleman, as he shot the dice across the table, to the accompaniment of "Chicken for breakfast. Christmas a-coming. Ralph, me boy." And so the game went on.

And from "Come Seben 'Leben: The Celebrated Game of Crap and How to Play It," in the St. Paul [Minnesota] Daily Globe (August 15, 1892):

Now was the time for the shooter and his adherents to wear doleful and grotesque looks. If the combined face value of the dice should reach seven before to reached ten the caster would lose. The odds were against him in the proportion of two to one, but he was not daunted. Caressing them fondly and imploring them pathetically to remember "dat my house rent's due and de chillun am crying for bread. Dice, doan leave me," he casts them again and again without the fatal seven or the lucky ten turning up, and finally, with courage born of desperation, he made a dextrous and successful throw, which revealed the elusive ten.

Between these two articles, the same newspaper published an article ("The New Fad: How Craps Has Taken Hold of St. Paul—Something of the Game" [March 17, 1890]) detailing how the game had caught on (as a legal entertainment) in St. Paul among white citizens as well as black ones and in high society as well as low.

Also, from "Negroes Crap Crazy," in the New York Sun (March 23, 1890):

The players seated in the inner circle handled the dice rapidly, all the time in a low crooning tone calling:

"Come hear seben! Oh! my Susie [a five]! You'se my gal! Watch dat, Hannah Jane [a twelve]! Catch Little Joe [a four]! Oh! Big Joe [a six]! You'se my meat! G'way Billy [a two]! Roll dem dice—roll 'em er long, my seben's er comin'. Match dat leben! Four's my pint! Come hear ter me Little Joe!"

And "Curb and Corridor," in the Washington [D.C.] Times (August 4, 1894) opens with these representative cries:

"Seben eleben," "Joe, dies," "House rent to pay," "Feber in de south," and numerous other expletives are the sounds which greet the ear of a visitor to the Potomac Flats on Sunday.

And from "Alluring Game of Craps: Mysteries Revealed by Newsboys Just Before Capture by Policemen," in the Washington [D.C.] Times (November 20, 1894):

"Come seven, on, the first throw. Ah, eight's me point. Now, you bones, aint Kitty goin' to git that candy," cried one, as he snapped his fingers excitedly.

"Seven! Yer lose!" cried another. "My throw now. Ain't yer dandy dice. Youse comin' my way, I know. All I'm lookin' fer's an oyster supper 'round ter Joe's. Little major; come, you major."

The dice crackled and rolled along the ground, while the urchins snapped the black-dotted bones, and won or lost their pennies.

"Come 'leven, won't yer, to help mother to pay ther rent. Come 'leven. Ah! There yer are. Gimme the pot."

And again from "Come Seben an' 'Leben," in the St. Paul [Minnesota] Daily Globe (November 22, 1894):

Upon reaching the house, the noise that issued from the upper rooms resembled that of a flock of blackbirds at a convention, and the frequency of such expressions as "Come seben," "Come eleben," "Mamie wants a new dress," etc. left no doubt in the mind of the visitor as to the nature of the festival in progress, nor as to the identity of the participants.

And from "The Game of Craps: It was First Played Over a Hundred Years Ago," in the Los Angeles [California] Herald (October 4, 1896):

The expressions common to the game are amusing. "New dress for de baby," exclaims one. "See my gal Sunday night," exclaims another. "De little number 2," says one, as that unlucky number shows up. "I eight you," says another, meaning that he bets that number will not turn up again before the "lucky seven." And so it goes.


Conclusion

Invoking the baby's need for shoes as a reason for the gaming gods to show special favor to a suppliant gambler is indeed closely associated with the game of craps. Presumably the fact that such in-game patter didn't lessen the thrower's chance of success explains why expressions of this type caught on in craps but not, say, in poker.

Newspaper reports specifically citing baby shoes in the context of a craps game go back to at least as early as 1890 (in the St. Paul [Minnesota] Daily Globe, a newspaper that revisited the subject of craps multiple times during the 1890s.

Crucially, however, the cry "Baby needs a new pair of shoes" (and its variants) is by no means the only fervent expostulation of claimed motives that dicers commonly made during the 1890s. Other popular rationales including buying bread for one's hungry children, paying the rent, buying a dress for a loved one, purchasing a nice chicken (or oyster) supper or breakfast, buying candy, getting money for Christmas presents, going out on the town [or to another town] with a girlfriend, and paying an attorney's fees.

In short, the baby's need for new shoes is only one of a wide range of practical purchases toward which one's prospective winnings might be put. It is unclear to me whether it outlasted the others because it seemed less pathetic than (for example) "children crying for bread" or because it alluded to a borderline luxury and therefore seemed appropriate as a motive for gambling or because it struck players' fancy for some other reason.

  • 1
    impressive research – socrates Nov 30 '16 at 18:01

protected by Mari-Lou A Dec 14 '16 at 21:17

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