As with the lunatic fringe, the peanut gallery found its way into the popular jargon of the 20th century quickly and easily. It’s an offensive term made before an audience of one or more observers that quickly dismisses any opinion made by an individual (or group of individuals) that calls into question the veracity of an opinion being put forth by another individual (or group of individuals).
For example, if someone from Political Party A gives a speech in which he states that Program A will have a specific benefit to all people, someone from Political Party B may call out from the crowd that Program A has deficits or will benefit only a specific segment of the people. The opportunity then presents itself for the original speaker or someone else to refer to the person from Political Party B as being from the “peanut gallery” thereby dismissing the comment.
Andrew Button wrote an article for the CBC News entitled, “The Peanut Gallery Rules The House” that was published on December 13, 2010. After spending 4 days observing the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly in action, he included this observation in his story:
“Although the house of assembly is still shy on women, it has diversity where it really counts: in the maturity levels of its members. From stiff professionals like Steve Kent and Lorraine Michael to jokers like Roland Butler and Tom Hedderson, the house represents everyone from the go-getters to the peanut gallery.
But, if the days I spent observing the house are any indication, the peanut gallery has more representation than anyone else in our province’s legislature. With the non-stop heckling that goes on there, the house of assembly evokes the detention hall more than the hallowed offices of the Queen’s own chamber.”
The Deseret News published an article written by Jack Anderson on the June 1, 1976 that addressed the issue of whether Jimmy Carter was the “trust-me candidate” and “a phony” in his bid to become the President of the United States of America. A quick snapshot of the then-governor of Georgia revealed interesting facts and was entitled thusly:
The Peanut Gallery‘s View Of Carter
On August 20, 1959 the Portsmouth Times newspaper of Portsmouth (OH) ran an article about James C. Hagerty, presidential press secretary. It was said that he had been working “around the clock for many days setting up President Eisenhower’s schedule for his trip to Europe.” While the details were to quick and to the point, it appeared that the point of the article was actually to promote the concept that the job of a U.S. President was “24 hours a day, 365 days a year” and that all the overtime was free of charge to everyone living in the U.S. The title of the article — with a hint of a dare to Eisenhower’s detractors — was none other than:
Comments From The Peanut Gallery?
The St. Petersburg Times ran a story by Whitney Martin entitled “Low Scoring Orgy In Golf Due To Putting, Says Jones” on February 3, 1940. It was a sports article about golfer Bobby Jones who told the reporter that the reason for consistent low scaring from then-present-day golfers wasn’t “just a case of the golfer making the putts, but of the putts making the golfer.” But the article wasn’t long enough to fill the entire column, and so additional information on what was going on in baseball was also included, beginning with this paragraph:
“If the hecklers in the peanut gallery will refrain from heaving over-ripe cracks to the effect that it needs it, it might be pointed out that the National league is getting quite a transfusion of new blood this year.”
Just three years earlier (nearly to the day), the News-Sentinel published a story in the February 6, 1937 edition of the paper. The story was out of Seattle (WA) and addressed an ongoing argument between one Mrs. Schultz, owner of the theater, and nine members of the local censor board. She stated that there were no city ordinances requiring her to furnish the members of the censor board with expensive accommodations from which to review the Ballet Russe, and the members of the censor board cast aspersions on Mrs. Schultz’s theater for refusing to provide seats that were more to their liking. The article began with this:
“Seattle’s theater censors, gasping for breath at the mere thought of climbing up to the peanut gallery, peered around cautiously today for a line of attack against Mrs. Cecilia Schultz, who refused them free seats in “bald-headed” row. If the censors don’t find some solution to their troubles by Saturday, they’ll have to view the Ballet Russe from the last row in the highest gallery or pay to get in.”
It can be surmised that negative comments from the members of the censor board would not be welcome, and they would be referred to as comments from the peanut gallery, hence providing some of the earliest current-day references for the phrase.
The Evening Independent of January 8, 1919 also shows some of the earliest current-day references for the phrase peanut gallery in an article entitled, “Hot Shot For Suffpests And Declaration Of War.” The article was short and to the point and taken from the Tampa Tribune.
“An exchange says not a politician in Florida dares come out openly against woman suffrage. Perhaps not. We are no politician, but if this darned foolishness in Washington, this snide way of trying to attract a little peanut gallery applause, this indication of being possessed by seven devils, and this brazen attempt at bull-dozing the country does not stop, you can bet we are going to come out in the open and fight it till hell freezes over.”
The connection between peanuts and politics and political acceptance among the electorate, however, had already taken root earlier in the era, as evidenced by a story published in the New York Times 15 years before that.
But interestingly enough, peanuts and politics were strange bedfellow long before 1903. In a New York Times article dated September 9, 1892 there’s mention of “peanut politics” as evidenced in the article entitled, “It Was New-York’s Day: Good Reports At Democratic National Headquarters.” The former Secretary of State Frederick Cook of Rochester was quoted as saying this when interviewed at the Democratic National Headquarters the day before:
“THE TIMES said several years ago that I did not believe in ‘peanut politics,’ and I can say now with greater force than ever that no Democrat this Fall can report to ‘peanut politics,’ for if he does he will not only lose the confidence of the electors of his district, but every chance for political preferment. No, Sir: the time is past in this State for ‘peanut politics.’”
The reference to peanut politics (without the italics around the expression) was included in the New York Times 5 1/2 years earlier on February 4, 1887 in an article entitled, “Gov. Hill’s Little Game: Plans To Seize The Constitutional Convention.” The story was from out of Albany, New York and ended with this bit of information:
If the State goes Democratic, the year after a majority of the Senate may possibly be secured during the reign of D.B. Hill, providing he is renominated and re-elected Governor. Then he will have a body in sympathy with him. If he didn’t become the boss of the party during the next three years it would be because there is no power in patronage. Then will peanut politics be played after Judge Muller’s own heart. The first step to be taken in all of this, however, is to capture the Constitutional Convention. If that cannot be accomplished then let there be no convention. It is easy enough for a hostile Governor to frame reasons for refusing to sign a bill.
The phrase peanut politics was used in such a way as to make clear that its meaning was understood by New York Times readers.
In theater talk, the peanut gallery was made up of the cheapest seats in the house. In Britain, those who sat in the cheapest seats were called the gallery gods. However, it should be noted that in America, the favorite theater snack at the time was peanuts still in their shells. As such, when theater patrons in the cheapest seats were dissatisfied with a performance, they adopted the habit of throwing the peanut shells at those performers they held responsible for the poor performance. Of all the theater patrons, those in the cheapest seats had the clearest shot at performers on stage. It was for this reason that many performers played to the cheap seats to spare themselves from potential peanut shell attacks.
Therefore, peanut politics was seen as politics that played to the “cheap seat” electorate … those most likely to vote for someone because they liked him, not because his views were necessarily based in good government.
It is therefore the opinion of Idiomation that the expression peanut gallery dates back to 1919 with many nods to peanut references and the expression peanut politics, taking it back to 1887.