“If Russia gets gay with us,” a 1903 Dry Goods Reporter ad promises, “she’ll have some pretty muscular soldiers to meet.”
The relevant meaning of “get gay with,” a Google Books search suggests, is to provoke, threaten, harass, insult, or — to use a colloquialism equally likely to become incomprehensible with time — diss. Take this ominous sentence from the May 1913 issue of Business Philosopher magazine: “Germany, Austria, and Italy have formed a combination, and said, ‘We will help each other. If Russia, France, or England gets gay with you, just let us know, and we will help you show them where they get off.’”
In the 1903 ad, the bellicose language appears, oddly enough, in a promotion for children’s underwear. For decades, the Nazareth Waist Company advertised its wares as stretchy enough to allow vigorous exercise. “We needn’t ask if you would have the boys and girls sturdy and strong, with bright eyes and rosy cheeks. The Nazareth Waist allows them to grow, play and romp unhampered,” promised a 1895 Ladies Home Journal ad. In an urbanizing society increasingly anxious about physical fitness, the company declared its products good for kids’ development. Hence the promise that young men “reared in a Nazareth Waist” would make “muscular soldiers.” (“Heavy stocks,” by contrast, has nothing to do with muscles. It means “large inventories” held by financially strong wholesalers.)
The ad’s saber rattling marks a notable departure from the company’s usual promotions. Nazareth Waist’s trade ads typically emphasized the popularity of its products, their easy availability from wholesalers, or the brand’s ample consumer advertising. Yet in July 1903 tensions with Russia were running so high that the subject could plausibly make catchy copy to sell children’s underwear, at least at wholesale. What was going on?
So, what was going on?
Two sources of hostility had become entangled, as a search for newspaper stories on Russia reveals. One was Russia’s aggressive action in Manchuria, which would eventually lead to the Russo-Japanese war. In particular, the United States objected to the closing of treaty ports to foreigners, including U.S. merchant vessels.
The second was the Boko Haram story of its day: the brutal massacre of Jews in the Russian town of Kishineff (or Kishinef or, its common spelling today, Kishinev) over Easter. As stories of what had happened trickled out, including the role of local officials in abetting the pogrom, the incident became a cause célèbre, not only for Jews but for Americans in general. Newspapers ran horrifying accounts, relief drives took place, and B’nai B’rith organized a petition to the Russian czar asking for religious liberty and tolerance “in the name of civilization.” Opposing the massacre of Jews in Russia became an expression of American culture and values.
The past is a foreign country.