In the late 1800s the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, became the beer brewing capital of the United States. The German immigrants that came to the city brought an appreciation for fine beer with them from Europe. The names of the families that became prominent in the brewing industry in Milwaukee were Pabst, Schlitz, Miller and  Blatz. These brand/family names became so well-known nationally that Milwaukee was promoted as “the beer capital of the world.

Captain Frederick Pabst. His beer won the “Blue Ribbon” at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition (Chicago World’s Fair) and, thus, became known as “Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer,”

NOTE: a digression into word history.

The term “brand name” originated in the early 1800s in the U.S. when the makers of whisky and other hard liquors shipped their spirits in wooden kegs and barrels. In order to identify the company that had made the product they would literally “brand” their name with a hot iron onto the wood of the barrel or keg – not unlike the process of “branding” cattle. Today, we continue to use the terms “brand” and “brand name” with little thought, if any, given to the origin of this term.


A symbol of Milwaukee’s brewing history.

The Schlitz family sold its beer and were quite successful. However, after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Schlitz brewery sent trainloads and boatloads of their beer to Chicago to quench the thirst of the parched population of the stricken city. Chicagoans, in return, gave the Schlitz family the advertising phrase which made Schlitz beer a household name: They referred to Schlitz beer as “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.” (To the people of Chicago, that is.)

This print ad brings together three things. First, sex sells anything. Also, the references to hops and the phrase “The beer that made Milwaukee famous” connect the previous picture/story to the next part of my tale.

To the west of Milwaukee, in Waukesha County, lay thousands of acres of farmland which was devoted to growing one of the main ingredients needed for the brewing of beer: hops. It was a profitable business growing hops because as much as could be grown could be sold to the Milwaukee brewers who needed it to make their product.

Bales of hops at the Schlitz Brewery in Milwaukee.

“Hops” growing on the vine.

With so much farmland around the Milwaukee area devoted to the growing of hops for use in the Milwaukee brewing industry, it was crucial that enough labor was available to harvest the crop when it was ready. There were not nearly enough local workers to do the harvesting, so agricultural workers came from all over the state of Wisconsin, and from other states as well, to pick the hop crop so it could be sold to the local breweries. Special trains were scheduled to bring in the workers from all over the state and also from out of state. Men, women, children, the young and the old, …all came to participate in the harvest and to earn money for their families. They lived in barns, in tents, outside on the ground…wherever they could find a place to sleep and rest.

The hops harvest, late 1800s.

After an extremely long day in the fields harvesting hops, young people and families would gather in a barn, or out in the open, and with whatever musical instruments were available have a bit of fun and relaxation. Fiddles, concertinas, harmonicas,… they were played, and the people danced. It was a way of unwinding after a day of repetitious drudgery in the fields. Husbands and wives danced. A young man would ask a young girl he had noticed to dance with him. Children danced and played.

Before recorded music and the radio made songs readily available to everyone, more people had the ability to play musical instruments. When our society was still primarily rural we had to entertain ourselves rather than be entertained.

This became a ritual evening activity during the hop harvest. Over the years the hop harvest became closely associated with these spontaneous dances. Thus it was that the dance itself began to be referred to as a “hop.” I include the following clip because it is a noted scene from the 2009 film “Hannah Montana: the movie” that has a barn dance scene that is fun to watch. Miley Cyrus sings the song “Hoedown Throwdown” and creatively blends the ideas of dance, country music, rhythm and blues, pop and hip-hop music in an engaging performance. Enjoy.

So a “hop” came to mean, over time, a group of people getting together to dance. This term spread from its regional usage and became associated with such 20th century dances as “The Lindy Hop” (The”Lindy” as it was called was named after Charles Lindbergh who flew the first non-stop solo airplane flight between the U.S. and Europe in 1927).

Charles Lindbergh and his plane “The Spirit of St. Louis” flew the first successful non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic between the U.S. and Europe in 1927.

The Lindy Hop was a wildly popular dance during the Big band/Swing era (1930s-1940s). Note that the term “hop” was making a further transition from reference to an agricultural crop, to simply a dance, and then to the act of performing a frenetic and fast paced form of dancing such as that shown in the following movie clip.


NOTE: PLEASE SEE ANOTHER OF MY POSTS FOR MORE ON 1930s SWING DANCING ALONG WITH THE STORY OF FDR’s “CHILDREN’S HOUR” AND HIS LONG RUNNING AFFAIR WITH LUCY MERCER. HERE’S A LINK: http://www.historyspaces.com/u-s-history/franklin-delano-roosevelt-and-the-childrens-hour-his-relaxation-ritual-in-the-white-house/

So, by the 1940s the word “hop” had come to mean a dance. In the fall of 1957 a group called “Danny and the Juniors” forever cemented the meaning of the word “hop” as a dance by releasing a song that flew to the top of the charts. It was called “At the Hop.”Note the dancers in the checkered skirts, and the sweater vests worn by the members of the group. Wow! The word “hop” has now completely made the transition from referring to a rural agricultural crop to an urban dance. Language follows demographics.

Then in the 1950s and 1960s another word started to appear: “sock hop.” Dances held in high school gymnasiums required that young people leave their shoes at the door and dance the night away in their stocking feet or socks. The picture below is from the 1950s. No one is wearing shoes. Socks only!

1950s “sock hop.”


In the previous paragraph the words “school” and “gymnasium” appear. They both originate from the language of the ancient Greeks. In ancient Greece the only young people who could get a formal education were members of noble or wealthy families. The children of these families would go to the private academies run by scholars who taught them mathematics, philosophy and other subjects. These young students did not have to work in agriculture or another type of job in order to help support their family. They had the leisure time to attend an academy. The Greek word for “leisure” is “SCOLA”from which is derived our word “SCHOOL” (although students may feel there is nothing leisurely about school today).


A young man in ancient Greece with lots of “scola” on his hands. And by the way, girls, even if they came from wealthy/noble families,were not allowed an education.










Also, the athletes in ancient Greece who trained to compete in the Olympic Games did so in the nude. They competed in the nude as well. The ancient Greek word “GYMNOS” means “in the nude.” It is from that word we derive our word “GYMNASIUM.” A gymnasium, today, is a place where athletes train for athletic competitions. However, they do not train in the nude. The word retains its connection to athletics but has lost its reference to nudity. Just thought you’d like to know.


Ancient Greek athletes in a running competition, nude.(detail from an ancient ceramic vase)


A band leader named Cab Calloway who played at the “Cotton Club” in Harlem, New York City, during the late 1920s and 1930s, and who became the incarnation of what we would call “cool” during the 1930s and 1940s, popularized (some say invented) the words “hip” and “hep.” He was also given credit for inventing what came to be known as “jive talk.”

Young band leader Cab Calloway, 1920s.

Cab Calloway (above) as a young man in the 1920s. He reminds me of a later musician from the 1980s, Prince. Do you see a similarity in their appearances?

Prince, of “Purple Rain” fame. How much influence did Cab Calloway have on the development of his music, singing and performing?

“Jive” was the language and street slang of the black musicians who played at the many clubs in Harlem. During the 1920s and well into the 1930s whites only were allowed into the Harlem clubs to see the best black musicians, singers and dancers in the country. This was a practice called “slumming” when uptown or out of town white tourists came to spend their money and “party” in Harlem night spots.

“The Cotton Club,” run by big time gangsters, was the most famous night club in New York City, and the entire country. Whites only audiences were the rule.

White audiences often did not understand the vocabulary or verbal imagery used by the black entertainers they were watching. Cab Calloway, the “master of Jive,” wrote and published Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary starting in the 1930s.

Cab continued to publish his “Hepster’s Dictionary” well into the 1940s.

For example, there was a popular song called “Barbecue” that was performed (sung) at many clubs in Harlem. A song about barbecue? In Cab’s dictionary he explained that a piece of “barbecue” could mean a man’s girlfriend, or a beautiful woman, or a female so good looking a man felt like eating her up. It was a sexist term but it was used in “jive” talk and in songs performed in Harlem. Also in Cab’s dictionary the word “hip” was defined as “wise or sophisticated” as in “She’s a hip chick.” The phrase “hep cat” was defined as a “a guy who knows all the answers and understands jive.”

Some scholars believe the word “hip” originated with the opium smoking culture of the U.S. Opium smokers referred to smoking the drug as “being on the hip” because they reclined on one side (on one hip or another) lying down while inhaling opium  through a pipe. Also, the word “hip” gave us the word “hippy” in the 1960s.

Cab Calloway, 1943.

Keep in mind the words “hip,” “hep,” and “hop” (discussed previously) as you watch the following video from the 1943 film “Stormy Weather.” Cab Calloway and his orchestra sing “Jumpin’ Jive” and the words “hip” and “hep” are used repeatedly. You can hear the lyrics to the song just dripping with “jive” and in Cab Calloway’s performance you can see a foreshadowing of “hip-hop” that would take hold of the youth music culture beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, a pair of dancers appear, the Nicholas Brothers, who proceed to perform what is considered by many to be the best dance sequence ever put on film. The Nicholas Brothers were “hip.” A “hop” was a dance. The perfect conjunction of two slang words.

So what did this video have to do with where we started this historical and linguistic journey? Milwaukee breweries. The hop crops of Waukesha county. The evening dances that came to be known as “hops.” The appearance of the word “sock hop.” Cab Calloway’s popularizing (or inventing) the words “hip” and “hep.” Cab singing “Jumpin’ Jive” with the Nicholas Brothers dancing a fantastic routine that still amazes people today. Their dance reminds us of the connection between the hops used in brewing beer and the joyful act of dancing. Full circle. Hops, a hop, hip, hep and dancing. And, of course, “hip-hop.” But that is another story.

I do not know if the words “hip” and “hop” as I have discussed them provided the name for “hip-hop” music and culture. But it would be fun to take a look at a music video that contains both “hip-hop” music and dancing. The athleticism of the Nicholas brothers in the previous video can be compared to the moves shown in this video, a promotional trailer for “Step Up 3D,” a film about hip-hop culture, music and dance. What do you think? Can you see a connection?

I’ll end with a video clip that has Bill Haley and the Comets playing at a high school “hop.” The “students” are dancing much in the style of the African American Lindy Hoppers (“Hellzapoppin”) pictured earlier in the post. As in much of U.S. history, the movement of “the hip” music, dance and song seems to be from African American roots to main stream white culture (“cross over”). And THAT really is another story. It’s been a journey from the farm fields of Wisconsin to the urban dance floors of yesterday and today,…with a number of side trips and digressions. Hope you’ve enjoyed it. So now you know why a school dance used to be called a “hop.” Now, some intense, amped-up and furious dancing:


Done For Now!