Is “Peanut Gallery” a Racial Term?

Matt J. asks: Was the peanut gallery expression really originally a racial term?

peanutsUsed to refer to those giving unsolicited (and unvalued) advice, the expression “peanut gallery” has its roots in late 19th century vaudeville, although for some, the phrase is considered a racial slur.

A typical vaudevillian show of music, drama, comedy, acrobatics, dance and other acts was performed at an established theater, with a balcony, usually situated in a metropolitan area. Vaudeville theaters offered different classes of seats, with the least expensive being the furthest from the stage – in the balcony or gallery.

Those who typically inhabited the cheap seats were known to be rowdy, and free with their constructive criticism of the show, which would often be expressed in physical terms – such as by throwing anything conveniently at hand. As peanuts were a common concession snack for vaudeville shows, unpopular performers would often find themselves pelted with the easy-to-hurl, edible projectiles, not unlike The Beatles during their 1964 U.S. tour. (See: When the Beatles Were Pelted with Jelly Beans)

Others disagree, in part, with the preceding class-based, rather than racial, claim. They note that in the past, cheap balcony seats were often reserved for, or largely made up of, African American patrons. Thus, since the phrase implies that the opinions expressed by those from the gallery were unsolicited, unwarranted and unhelpful, the phrase also connotes something negative about those giving them, purported to be African Americans.

That said, the Online Etymology Dictionary remains agnostic, as does the Oxford English Dictionary and most etymologists, on whether it truly originally had anything to do with race instead of simply a reference to social class, in this case referring to poor people in general inhabiting these cheap seats. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the expression “peanut gallery” to 1874, while the Oxford English Dictionary notes that it was recorded as early as 1876, in the Placerville, California Mountain Democrat, where the writer intoned, “as a bid for applause from the political pit and peanut gallery it was a masterpiece.”

Those who adhere to the “racial term” origin point at that as the first federal law to prohibit racial discrimination and equal access to public accommodation, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, was passed contemporaneously with the expression’s origins, this perhaps lends small support to the racial-based theory.

However, we have little in the way of strong direct evidence to support the notion that it originated as a racial term, rather than something of a class term, and we have several early references to it referring to audiences that were likely made up of mixed race individuals.  In addition to that, across the pond where such racism and segregation was not quite as pronounced at this time, they also had an expression for these rowdy, cheap-seat patrons who likewise liked to heckle the performers. In this case, these lower-class, racially diverse patrons were, and still sometimes are, known as “the gods,” referencing that their seats are so high up, the patrons are watching from the heavens.

Whatever the case, by the mid-20th century, the “peanut gallery” expression was commonly in use, but became even more popular when Buffalo Bob Smith of the Howdy Doody Show began referring to his (radio) studio audience of rambunctious youngsters in 1943 as the “Peanut Gallery,” most definitely with no reference to race in this case.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Before peanuts were called that (starting in the early 19th century), they were typically called ground nuts or ground peas.
  • Peanuts are a food with an identity crisis. While most people think of peanuts as nuts, they are actually legumes. What is a legume? It is a type of plant with seeds that grow inside pods such as peas or beans. Unlike nuts, which are grown on trees, peanuts grow underground. Peanut seeds flower above ground and then migrate underground to reach maturity.
  • Not all peanut throwing in theaters arose organically, and, at least in one cinema, the past time was contrived. During the first quarter of the 20th century, the manager of Hanover, New Hampshire’s Nugget movie theater devised a plan to increase both ticket and peanut sales after observing a patron who used a projectile peanut to get the attention of an acquaintance a few rows up. The manager, Bill Cunningham, “planted a half dozen brothers in various parts of the audience,” armed with packets of peanuts, and as Bill walked down the aisle toward the pit, had them pelt him with goober peas. Bill’s resulting fake outrage and frustration was so enjoyable for the audience of (mostly) young men, that purchasing a ticket and a couple of bags of peanuts became popular at the Nugget, where peanuts were soon being thrown not only at the manager, but at anyone handy.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was declared unconstitutional in 1883 by the United States Supreme Court by a vote of 8-1, with Justice Bradley penning the majority opinion, in The Civil Rights Cases, 109 U.S. 3. Justice Harlan, the lone dissenter, countered the majority’s narrow view of the expanse of the Constitution and noted: “it is essential to just government we recognize the equality of all men before the law . . . and it being the appropriate object of legislation to enact great fundamental principles into law.” Unfortunately, this wasn’t done until Congress successfully enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which today prohibits discrimination in employment, unions and public accommodations.
  • In the intervening years, discrimination in accommodations became common, and in 1895, “separate but equal” became the law of the land after the Supreme Court’s 7-1 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537. Justice Brown wrote its majority opinion, which provided that as long as facilities for blacks and whites were “equal,” they could be separated and still comply with the 14th Amendment. Of course, separate could never truly be equal, but this wasn’t declared by the United States Supreme Court until its decision in 1954 in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483. The result of 20+ years of careful and purposeful litigation by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund to demonstrate, in courts across the country, how the separate educational facilities available to African American children were far inferior to those enjoyed by white kids, the Brown court had no choice but to conclude, in a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Warren, “in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
  • One of the architects of the Brown strategy, Thurgood Marshall, became the first African American Supreme Court justice in 1967, where he served until his retirement in 1991. He was replaced by Justice Clarence Thomas, who continues to serve today.
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  • Sam

    Sorry, the term Peanut Gallery and “Nigger Heaven” are synonyms and describe the same area of the theater before 1874 and before segregation in some places was removed.
    Both words were published as synonyms by Upton Sinclair in his book, “Between Two Worlds.” Thus the racial meaning was still around at that time.

    • Brian

      Yeah, but just because there is a racist synonym doesn’t mean the original phrase is racist. “Slapdash” and “N____r-rigged” are synonyms, but only one of them is racist.

    • Stephanie

      According to no one but you…

  • Jay Ford

    In this day and age the term “Good morning, and how are you?” can no doubt be shown to be racial by those who want it so.

  • Thank you! Again, such informative articles that I love. I just had this discussion the other day with a friend. I’m glad to see that my knowledge my accurate!

  • SiriusBusiness

    When you go actively looking for racial meanings in simple phrases, you’re probably a racist.