Imagine my surprise when I read in my monthly alumni magazine that the expression “lunatic fringe” has been with us since Victorian times.
Many people mistakenly give credit to Teddy Roosevelt, who toured a modern art exhibition in 1913 and quipped “The lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially so in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.”
Teddy was playing a word game himself, though, because the phrase appeared multiple times in the mid-1870’s, when it was applied to a hair style.
That’s right — long before the John Birch Society or Students for a Democratic Society, the Lunatic Fringe was worth writing about in publications as far apart as New York, Chicago and Wheeling there were references published.
I personally like the Wheeling Daily Register definition from 1875:
Lunatic Fringe is the name given to the fashion of cropping the hair and letting the ends hang down over the forehead.”
You have to wonder, though, whether Chicago was subtly putting down the Big Apple for being slaves to last years’ fashion when the magazine Chicago Inter-Ocean reported in May of 1876 that
The ‘lunatic fringe’ is still the mode in New York hair-dressing.
I wonder whether we can convince Glenn Beck to take up the ‘doo?