Passed Out on the Printing Shop Floor: Reviving the Legacy of the Early American Hipsters

By Jonjo Murphy


Long before PBR and fixed gear bicycles, rolled up Levi’s and garage band, a succession of men thrust their subcultural ideals onto the kitchen tables of mainstream America, leaving their fair trade, cantaloupe noted stains indelibly on the surface. The importance of these men is no secret. Indeed, they are some of the most popular and recognizable figures in the American public imagination. Yet so many facets of their spirit are today maligned as characteristics of an undesirable and unemployed subculture, and the seemingly unrelenting march toward a second Gilded Age threatens the legacies of these men as much as it ever has. They are the Great American Hipsters; the pioneers of cool subversiveness, before it was cool to be subversive.

We must first establish the tenets of hipsterdom. Nowadays the term is used far too loosely, with many applying it to any kid in skinny jeans and thick framed glasses making their way slowly out of Urban Outfitters. The hipster has gone from being a character of unique temperament and refinement, to one of mass produced plaid and old vinyl. This is wrong.

The 1940's incarnation

When the term came into use in the 1940s, it referred to stylish jazz aficionados, probably with a soft spot for casual narcotics and a propensity to appear to be far poorer than they actually were. Over time the parameters have shifted and expanded somewhat, allowing for beards, traditional style tattoos and a fondness for artisanal craftsmanship.

I think our most accurate vision of the archetypal hipster can be derived from the features of both periods; a kind of love child of Bing Crosby and Dev Hynes, possibly sipping a green tea chai latte, and definitely with ambitions of moving to Seattle and opening a customised ski shop.

Beautiful, isn’t he? With that in mind, let us trace his origins, all the way back to the 18th century.

Benjamin Franklin: Founding Hipster (Image by Lauren Aguilar)

What better place to begin, than the inception of this great nation? In fact, we can go back a few years earlier, and across the Atlantic, to England in the mid 1760's. At the time, Ben Franklin was emerging as the leading spokesman for American interests in England, following his public opposition to the passage of the 1765 Stamp Act, which ultimately led to its repeal. The position he was granted following this success, as agent to the crown for the colonies of Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, afforded Franklin even greater access to the burgeoning atmosphere of enlightenment intellectualism that was beginning to emerge in Western Europe.

Now, Franklin’s identity as a founding hipster had certainly begun to gain traction before this period. He had, for example, already invented the glass harmonica in 1761, and the Franklin stove in 1742. He had, if not invented, at least redesigned and re-popularised the rocking chair, and he was a pioneering brewer of ale. He was a multi-instrumentalist, competent on the violin, harp, and guitar. His Poor Richard’s Alamanac was a pocket sized arsenal of clever aphorisms and quippy proverbs.

In short, if I were to purchase a tavern tomorrow, and I could stick old Ben in the corner playing a few tunes, deck the place out with his inventions, serve his beer and stick his literature on the shelves, I'd have the most happening pub in Shoreditch; the older, beardier, more heavily tattooed brother of Williamsburg, and the Mecca of the European hipster.

But it was the substance he added to this style and attitude in Europe, which truly cements him as the founding father of American hipsterdom.

Franklin at his glass harmonica

On his travels through the old world, Franklin stayed with Joseph Priestley, and Thomas Percival, as well as spending three weeks at the home of Scottish atheist philosopher David Hume in the early 1770's, undoubtedly drawing great influence from these radically independent thinkers. He was also a regular frequenter of Baron d’Holbach’s atheist salon in Paris, during roughly the same period. He would go on to say “Furnished as all Europe now is with Academies of Science, with nice instruments and the spirit of experiment, the progress of human knowledge will be rapid and discoveries made of which we have at present no conception. I begin to be almost sorry I was born so soon, since I cannot have the happiness of knowing what will be known a hundred years hence.” Perhaps he would be disappointed with the rate of improvement.

Nevertheless, Franklin was very much a part of the Age of Enlightenment, garnering a spirit of thoughtfulness and individuality which is at the heart of the hipster ideal of breaking out of the mundanity of conventional, every day life, and questioning the authority of established orders. Whilst of course, his role within the heart of the international political establishment ensured something of a trade off at times, the like of Ben Franklin has not really been seen in mainstream politics since. He is perhaps, the one and only hipster diplomat- hiplomat!- in American history.

In many ways, Franklin was being hip in an environment which was and has continued to be most hostile to that sensibility, and disappointing though it is to declare the era of the hiplomat dead at such an early stage of it’s life, the diversity of the field of the Great American Hipster more than makes up for this.

Abolition seems a more comfortable arena than mainstream international politics, for hipster legends to be made. More peripheral. More edgy. And beginning in the late 1820s, the edgiest dude around was William Lloyd Garrison.

‘The Liberator’

Through his role as the most famous and ardent white abolitionist of the day, Garrison takes his seat at the hipster high table. The abolitionist movement embodied a spirit which the most noble hipsters strive for today. An attitude centred around ideas of morality and individual freedom, supported by supreme confidence in their convictions, and often a sense of superiority over the dominant culture, underpinned the fight for emancipation. Today issues such as gay marriage are championed with similar fervour, and while the dosage of superiority may often be a little strong amongst the modern hipster, the general sensibility undoubtedly shares an affinity with that of Garrison and his comrades.

But even aside from his crusade to rid the nation of the cruel and peculiar institution, Garrison was as hip as they come. He was famously great friends with Frederick Douglass, and many more of his closest pals were either black, female, or both. It’s rare to see a group of friends comprising white and black men and women on most college campuses, today. Suffice to say in the early 19th century, Garrison and his clique would have turned quite a few heads.

Garrison’s BFF Frederick Douglass, depicted here by William Edouard Scott appealing to President Lincoln to enlist African-American soldiers

Additionally, he followed in the footsteps of founding hipster Ben Franklin in utilising the printing press to great effect, writing and publishing controversial articles challenging the prejudices and hypocrisy of the establishment. In fact, he stepped further into the realms of ultimate hipster credibility, by often sleeping on the floor of his printing shop, unable to afford anywhere to live or even a bed to sleep in. Most modern hipsters spend their lives pretending to be that poor. Garrison actually attained the poverty for which they strive so hard.

Garrison’s credentials as a truly legendary hipster were confirmed on the 4th of July 1854, when he publicly burned a copy of the constitution, denouncing it as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell”. A more emphatic middle finger to the authority of the United States, one cannot imagine. A greater affirmation of the importance of such subversive figures in the course of American history; perhaps also, unimaginable.

Thus far, the proclivity of the hipster to transcend particular locations has been extremely apparent. Both in Franklin’s capacity as an international diplomat and political confidante, and Garrison’s role as a prophet of the noble abolitionist cause, they spread the hipster gospel far and wide. Yet today, it is increasingly the case that the hipster exists and has particular meaning in specific spaces.

Most major cities in the western world have in recent years, spawned small enclaves where young, expensively bespectacled men and women have settled down together to open small businesses and have enchanting, misunderstood offspring. Their identity may be ridiculed or misunderstood in other contexts, but in that Moroccan restaurant and shisha bar on the corner of the street, it all makes perfect sense.

Upon the next branch of the hipster family tree, sits the forefather of this thoroughly modern incarnation.

A 21st century incarnation of Walt Whitman; riding trains to no discernible destination, staring forlornly out of the window (Image by Lauren Aguilar)

Though he spent periods residing in his native New Jersey and in Washington DC, Walt Whitman would at once become synonymous with Brooklyn, New York. Not only did the borough inspire some of his finest poetry- namely Crossing Brooklyn Ferry- but more than that, it offered a landscape upon which he would etch a blueprint for urban bohemian living.

He began really forging that lifestyle following a two year stint as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle between 1846 and 1848. Having become disillusioned with the pursuit of “the usual rewards” of conventional working life, he determined to become a poet, began cultivating what would become one of the most luscious beards in human history, and gradually assembled an enviable group of achingly hip admirers.

Among his greatest advocates were transcendentalist pioneers and tree enthusiasts Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the latter of whom sent Whitman a five page letter of praise for his seminal collection Leaves of Grass following its initial publication in 1855.

Hipster nearly-man Henry David Thoreau on a fixed gear bicycle. Why the hell not? (Image by Lauren Aguilar)

In addition to such revered far afield admirers, Whitman led a dilatory band of actors, writers and comedians in a conscious affectation of European bohemianism through the streets of Kings County, frequently taking in taverns, cafés, and even the recently opened Brooklyn Academy of Music on their march to the summit of Mount Hipster.

Of the importance of his close friends, Whitman would comment, “I have learned that to be with those I like is enough”, and for many of his devoted disciples, to be with Walt Whitman was everything.

From the company he kept to the clothes he wore, his dedication to the lifestyle was unremitting. Where Garrison and Franklin harboured a hipster sensibility which ran alongside their vocational commitments, Whitman’s hipster status was absolute. His abandonment of middle class comfort in exchange for a nomadic, earthy existence; his insistence on wearing a hat both indoors and out; his relentless pursuit of authenticity of experience; his BEARD, for the love of God! This is a man to be revered not just for his poetry, but for everything he stood for.

The consummate 19th century hipster

William Sloane Kennedy predicted that in years to come, “people will be celebrating the birth of Walt Whitman as they are now the birth of Christ”. Though this was perhaps a little ambitious, it is certainly true that today we should look back at Whitman, and indeed at Garrison, Franklin and others and recognize those faculties of theirs which bare fruit among the current ‘hipster generation’.

Theirs is a legacy of questioning the established norms; of trusting individual intuition and intellect, and refusing to be complicit in a corrupt and immoral system. Though the term may have become overused and undervalued, the meaning of what it is to be a true hipster must now be seen in a comparable light to those whose mantle it takes on.

In its essence, hipsterdom is sceptical about the accepted modes of being, and that is important. It’s good, it’s healthy, and it reflects the very best facets, of the very best Americans throughout history.

Even if they don’t know it, the hipsters are the torch bearers for a better alternative. These plaided, bearded masses are to be looked on not with scorn but with pride. They’ve not given up on a revival of the spirit of the Early American Hipsters. Neither should you.