Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Slow As Molasses In January

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 6, 2011

It was a balmy 43 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) in Boston when the Great Molasses Flood happened on Wednesday, January 15, 1919 .  On that day, the low-lying section of Commercial Street between Copps Hill and North End Park was flooded by the contents of  a 58-foot tank that had contained no less than 2.5 million gallons of molasses .  The container stood just behind the Boston and Worcester freight terminal. 

When the tank split wide open at around 12:30 p.m. that day, a 30-foot tidal wave of molasses tore the steel supports off the nearby elevated train structure.  In the end, it was determined that the molasses of the Great Molasses Flood ran at between 25 and 30 mph (40 to 48 kph).

That being said, the expression “slow as molasses in January” is an Americanism for someone or something that is painfully slow. Due to the high viscosity of commonly available molasses at room temperature, the liquid pours quite slowly. 

In the 1941 movie Gone with the Wind,  Scarlett O’Hara chides Prissy  for being as “slow as molasses in January.”

In the King Vidor movie Hallelujah released in August of 1929, you hear “You’re slower than cold molasses in winter time” just over an hour into the movie.

Thirty-four years before that, John Adrian wrote a piece for the Detroit Free Press on July 11, 1886 that discussed Milwaukee (WI) in a 182-word article. His words certainly painted quite the picture of Milwaukee in 1886!  Part of his review included:

The city is also noted as being somewhat of a slow town. While we brand the villain who says so, we must admit that its street cars are slower than molasses in winter and are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

And 14 years before that review, the Chicago Daily Tribune ran a story on December 28, 1872 about the secret investigation of the Credit Mobilier scandal.  The newspaper reported that:

Most of them had the matter under advisement for seven or eight months before they could satisfy their consciences as to the moral bearing of the transaction, showing that the average Congressional perception of right and wrong is much slower than molasses in January.

In the records of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, there is a case dealing specifically with molasses in the month of January in 1840.

That defendant’s molasses was contained in two cisterns, a large and a small one; that in December 1839, Stansberry, the overseer, told defendant that if something was not done with the molasses it would be lost, because the large cistern, which was under ground, would not stand the pressure upon it, being nearly full.  To this the defendant answered, that he was waiting for the plaintiff to send him some casks, and was expecting them daily.  A few days after, in the beginning of January, a message was brought to the defendant and the overseer, that the cistern had bursted and was leaking.  On reaching the sugar house they found that the large cistern had given way, that the molasses was oozing out of the cistern, and the water outside, running from above.

While there is still no printed reference to being “slow as molasses in January” in 1840, one can determine from how the case was argued that the molasses that leaked out of the cistern in January did so very slowly. 

Somewhere between 1840 and 1872, the expression “slow as molasses in January” became part of the English language.

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