Hamilton, Ohio – The first time somebody asked, we just kind of shrugged and answered.
The second time, we raised an eyebrow. But by the third query, we had to ask ourselves a hard question.
Is it possible we are too clever? Is it possible the common phrase “paint the town red” is not as common as we assumed?
Never fear. We’re not too clever at all. (But you knew that, didn’t you?)
What you might not know is the fact “paint the town red” – the theme we picked for our 2023-2024 Season Launch party from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday, August 18 – has been part of the vernacular for at least 139 years.
But let’s back up a second and talk about the meaning of the phrase before we discuss its origins.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines the phrase, “to go out and enjoy yourself by drinking alcohol, dancing, laughing with friends, etc.: e.g. I'm ready to paint the town red with a few of my closest friends."
Miriam-Webster says much the same - “to go out drinking, dancing, etc,” - while theidioms.com offers a clue on how to celebrate: “enjoy yourself flamboyantly.”
All of which seems on brand for a Fitton Center party. So when and how did the phrase originate?
Historyextra.com suggests it may date back to 1314 and the completion of Dante’s The Inferno, the epic poem set in Hell featuring the line, "We are they who painted the world scarlet with sins.” Not the same phrasing, but a similar sentiment.
According to wiktionary.com, “Various theories include the red from bonfires, the heat from over-stoked paddle-wheel boilers, and town demarcation lines in the Wild West. A British claim attributing it to the actions of the Third Marquess of Waterford predates the first known use by decades.”
The latter dates to 1837 and involves the so-called Mad Marquis’ raucous exploits in the town of Melton Mowbry, though one comment in a thread on his escapades rather rudely debunked the notion.
“It's NOT from Marquis of Waterford, in Melton Mowbray,” the poster claimed. “The phrase was never used to describe the Mad Marquis until 50 years after his death. It's just something (the) Melton Mowbray Tourist Board likes to push on unsuspecting idiots.”
The paddle-wheel theory has some traction.
The Guardian said, “the phrase may be traced to the times when a Mississippi steamboat captain would want to defeat his rival. `Paint her, boys,’ he would command his men as they heaped fuel upon the fires at night, casting a red glare upon the surrounding scenery. The phrase was helped into popularity by the fact that `to paint' (i.e. to paint the nose red) was an old slang term for drinking.”
But not until The November 1884 edition of the Boston [Mass.] Journal did the exact phrase appear in print: "Whenever there was any excitement or anybody got particularly loud, they always said somebody was 'painting the town red'."
Fans of Cincinnati Reds baseball may be more familiar with the phrase than most. During the Big Red Machine era in the 1970s, popular t-shirt designs exhorted fans to "Paint the Town Reds." More recently, the Reds signed a two-year deal in 2009 with the New York City band The Hotcakes to license their song “Paint the Town Red” for in-stadium and promotional use. By July of 2021, it got a new digital life when South East Games released a video game called Paint the Town Red. The described the game as a “chaotic first-person melee combat game set in different locations and time periods and featuring a massive Rogue-Lite adventure.” (See the game’s launch trailer here)
And just this week, Streetside Brewery – near Lunken Airport in Cincinnati’s East End – put an Irish red ale called Paint the Town Red on tap.
So, we hope that clears up any questions.
And we hope you’ll join us August 18 as we Paint the Town Red with our Season Launch Party.
The Fitton Center for Creative Arts is located at 101 S. Monument Avenue on the Riverfront in downtown Hamilton, Ohio.
Building Community Excellence through the Arts and Culture