Which of Our Six New England States Is the Most "Yankee"?
OF ALL THE theories as to the origin of the word Yankee, the one that makes the most sense to me is the so-called Dutch theory. It says that the early English settlers in Connecticut sold cheese to the early Dutch settlers in New York. So the New Yorkers began referring to the English as “John Cheese” which, in Dutch is “Jan Kaas.” The word Yankee could easily and logically have evolved from that. (We can all be grateful they didn’t sell pumpernickel to those New Yorkers.) So it was that the two words Connecticut and Yankee were very comfortably combined long before Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Now it also happens to be true that Connecticut Yankees were principally responsible for establishing the smart, shrewd, clever, and, well, slippery reputation of Yankees everywhere. Early Connecticut peddlers, with their leaky calf weaners, wooden nutmegs, defective clocks, and cigars that would not draw, traveled from town to town around New England and eventually throughout the South and West as well — always moving fast enough to be out of town before anyone realized they’d been had. It was often said, “You might as well hold a greased eel as a live Connecticut Yankee.”
But there was a more positive side to the Connecticut Yankee. In time his ingenious approaches, clever ideas, original thinking, and skillful craftsmanship evolved into a virtue proudly claimed by all New Englanders today. Usually preceded by the words “good” and “old,” it’s now known as Yankee ingenuity.
And Connecticut has a truly valid point in claiming Yankee ingenuity as its own. It seems almost unbelievable, but, since the United States Patent Office opened in 1790, Connecticut has averaged more patents each year per thousand of population than any other state in the Union or any other country in the world. Nutmeggers (yes, I know, they changed some years ago from the Nutmeg State to the Constitution State — but, to most of us, they’ll always be nutmeggers) have invented everything from the submarine, anesthesia, radar speed detectors, sky hooks, the grinder for the cotton gin, pistols with revolving cylinders, lattice-truss bridges, and the lollipop. And it was a Connecticut inventor, one Samuel Morey, who steamed down the Connecticut River in 1787, 14 years before “Tricky Bob” Fulton did his steamboat thing.
My own favorite Connecticut invention is the hydraulic cigarette lighter that I saw demonstrated in a Wallingford, Connecticut, knick-knack shop many years ago. It’s “advantage” was that it used plain water rather than lighter fluid. The water was poured into a funnel, from which it flowed through a hose to a showerhead, which sprinkled it onto a sponge located on a small wooden platform to raise the gate of a mouse’s cage. The mouse, seeing a piece of cheese, would jump out, landing on a paddle that extended from one end of a lever. When the paddle dropped with the mouse’s weight, a pin on the opposite end would prick a balloon, allowing a weight to fall, which in turn would provide the power to revolve an emery wheel to which a match was held.
Good old Connecticut Yankee ingenuity!