Monday, February 6, 2012

Before "Fan": The Buff

When I started this blog last year, I talked about some of the slang terms used to refer to ardent audiences before the full emergence of the term "fan." I'd to explore those terms in posts over the next several months. For me, the etymological origins of early audience names provide an important window into the history of fandom; how people chose to label themselves, or were labelled by others, can enable us to see the personal and institutional forces at work in shaping the meanings of public participation.

First up: BUFF.

The origins of using "buff" to refer to a follower of an activity is complex. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (Second edition, 1989; online version December 2011), "buff," in one of its many definitions, is a shortened form of "buffalo," and was used in particular to refer to "leather made of buffalo hide; but usually applied to a very stout kind of leather made of ox-hide, dressed with oil, and having a characteristic fuzzy surface, and a dull whitish-yellow colour." This term for a particular color of leather was used to refer to certain military uniforms, to skin (naked="in the buff"), and to a variety of Cochin fowl.

"Buffs" were apparently those who, at the start of the 20th century, enthusiastically followed firefighters and fires. According to the Oxford, the term "buff" was applied to fire enthusiasts because they were reminiscent of the volunteer firefighters of New York in the mid-19th century, who wore buff-colored uniforms.

Foremen, Phoenix Fire Company, Charleston, SC, c. 1855.
However, Robert W. Masters, in his Pictorial History of Firefighting (quoted at, states that,
The name "buff" originated in the hose-and-wagon days when enthusiasts with smoke-bleared eyes stood on icy street-corners for hours, huddled together tightly under buffalo robes. Firemen humorously named them "the buffaloes," which soon became "buff" for short. In some cities, they are known as "fire-fans" and in a few as "sparkies" but whatever they're called they're easily recognized. They're the boys who attend each major blaze with almost religious determination.
Whatever the exact origin, the term is meant to indicate a quality of participation in firefighting more generally. Early 20th century buffs, gathering at the scenes of fires, especially evoked the mid-19th century, when firefighting was an amateur volunteer effort, and male camaraderie and the fellowship of street culture trumped public service or efficiency in extinguishing blazes. In fact, before being professionalized in the 1860s, firefighting in American cities involved competing clubs of urban, working-class males, who often acted quite territorially in response to alarms and used the occasion of fires to settle debts, acquire capital, and just plain rumble. Martin Scorsese captured this well in Gangs of New York:

At some point in the early decades of the 20th century, when Progressives moved to codify and clean up civil and governmental services, the culture supporting buffs started to disappear. It's something I'm only beginning to explore, but as this article (from the Elmira, N.Y, newspaper, The Summary, Vol. XXXIII, No. 43, December 23, 1905, pg. 2) suggests, buffs were increasingly forbidden to enter the firehouse or "accompanying apparatus to fires":

I haven't been able to trace the word's history further. The usual slang dictionaries are failing me, so it will take some deep mining of literature, magazines, and other primary sources. For now, it appears that the eradication of buffs from the world of firefighting freed "buff" from any specificity of meaning and allowed it to be generalized as any form of "amateur enthusiasm." The only thing I would note is that "buff," at least in my own experience, is used in particular ways. It is acceptable to refer to a history buff, sports buff, science fiction buff, television buff, film buff, etc., but "LOST buff" or "Ornette Coleman buff" seem a misuse. The term connotes intense amateur involvement in types of cultural engagement rather than any specific text or figure.

In the end, I realize that "buff" is perhaps not quite a word that circulated before "fan"--the two terms seemed to have moved out from their respective pockets of American society (firefighting and baseball) around the same time in the 1900s. But any alternate word for "fan," whether parallel or antecedent, is intriguing. It widens the scope of audience behavior and gives us a stronger basis for understanding its history.

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