I knew “23 skidoo” basically just as a jocular reference to days gone by, a slightly raffish expression now passe. (Looking back, I think I got this impression from Bugs Bunny in one of his cartoons mocking the Gay Nineties.) I picked up later on the fact that when it was in use, the phrase essentially meant “Scram”, but I still saw it through animated cartoon filters, and didn’t ask where it came from.
That innocent period of my life ended when I started to examine antique postcards and turn up references to the phrase when it was still alive, a glimpse of a wild piece of slang in its natural habitat, before progress and rebuilding crowded it out of the language.
It apparently started as two separate phrases. Skidoo was a sign of bad luck, or an order to depart immediately (A bouncer coming at you was bound to be a sign of bad luck.) Using it to mean scram may derive from the word Skedaddle, which meant the same thing, or from a racing boat called the Skidoo (but what was IT named for?)
The number 23 is supposed to have become a phrase for scram because men used to like to gather on 23rd Street in new York to watch winds whip around the Flatiron Building and blow women’s skirts up, OR watch by the subway grates when THAT wind blew women’s skirts up (Edison made a movie about this, which you can see on the Library of Congress website and/or YouTube) Other people spoil it by pointing out the number was being used that way before there was a Flatiron Building (I suppose it was still windy on 23rd Street, though) and blame it on Charles Dickens (the man who said it was a far far better thing was number 23 in line for the guillotine) or racetrack slang (there was enough room for 22 horses), telegram slang (lots of short phrases were used to mean longer ones, to save on costs), the twenty-three saloons in the town of Skiddoo, jumprope rhymes…the list goes on and on
Roughly four million different writers and comedians claimed to be the first to put the two together but it seems that by 1906, companies were using it in ads, which means a slang phrase has really caught on. Just about everyone agreed that the phrase meant “Beat it. Scram. Hit the Road. Take a powder. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry.”
I am completely mystified here. I get the general idea that we’re expressing contempt for someone or something. I was writing this off as a joke someone tried that just didn’t work when I ran into this card.
This leaves me in the position of the man in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, telling himself “This means something.” Anyhow, it meant something once upon a time. I am aware that hobos, unable to stop by Wal-Mart and buy new clothes, had to steal anything they could get from clotheslines to wear, but this doesn’t QUITE get me to an understanding of the theme of these two cards. Are we telling these men to scram, or are they saying that to us? Or are these just souvenirs from the Costume festival in the town of Skidoo? (as far as I know, they don’t have costume festivals in Skidoo).
You think it over and let me know what you come up with. Or, if these lads and their clothes don’t interest you, perhaps you can tell me what this young lady has in mind. And what the owl has to do with it. And what….
Never mind. Time to skidoo.