cottonball officers and cottonball barons 

U 12.1347-9: The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God’s earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons.


U 16.1354-9: —Fine lump of a woman all the same, the soi-disant townclerk Henry Campbell remarked, and plenty of her. She loosened many a man’s thighs. I seen her picture in a barber’s. The husband was a captain or an officer.

—Ay, Skin-the-Goat amusingly added, he was and a cottonball one.

  This gratuitous contribution of a humorous character occasioned a fair amount of laughter among his entourage

Cottonball officer


Don Gifford in Ulysses Annotated suggests that “cottonball” is a slang term used adjectivally to mean “having the appearance but not the actuality of being the real thing; thus, overpreoccupied with fashion, affected”, though he offers no justification for this. In fact Gifford is quite close to the mark, but the usage is not as generalised as his definition implies.


     Towards the end of the eighteenth century, and doubtless earlier, draper’s shops and haberdashers, and haberdashery departments with draper’s shops, both in England and Ireland, sold “cotton balls”. These were used predominantly as wadding in clothing, to impart stiffness and structure to a garment. We can return to this detail later.


  Evidence links the adjectival use of “cotton-ball” very closely to physical balls of cotton, not to figurative uses. The celebrated “cotton-ball duel” of 1842, for example, between Alderman Richard Spoor and attorney Joseph Wright, both of Sunderland, was not simply a duel which had “the appearance but not the actuality of being the real thing”, but was a duel in which the seconds, fearful for the lives of the principals, agreed to replace the bullets with cotton wadding.


  We begin to get hints of “cottonball officers” in mid-1860s Dublin: the expression is unknown outside Ireland. A run of advertisements for the Prince of Wales’ Theatre in Fishamble Street in the city describes what the audience can expect to find:


The Ladies, as usual, on their Toes with the Dizzy Gentleman and the Cotton ball Swell (Freeman’s Journal, 1863, 31 October p. 1)


  Eighteen months later the theatre announced, in its advertisement, that:


On this Evening a General Meeting of the Cotton Ball, Ribbon, Ham, and Limerick Bacon Curates will take place at Nine, to Memorial their Governors to shut on Tuesday next, to enable them to attend the Great Ball at the Prince of Wales Theatre. (Irish Times, 1865, 6 May p. 1)


  “Limerick Bacon Curates”? “Ham Curates”? “Cotton Ball Curates”? Joyce knew this Irish English use of curate, meaning a “shop assistant”, and he uses it in 1914 in Dubliners:

These two gentlemen and one of the curates carried him up the stairs and laid him down again on the floor of the bar. (p. 184)


In fact, the reference from Freeman’s Journal (1863) above predates the Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use. It is not easy today to imagine different varieties of shop assistants constituting distinct groups or tribes within a society, but Dublin was famous for its grocers’ assistants, who met together for sports days, joined the Grocers’ Assistants’ Cycling Club, and were later significant in the early history of the Gaelic Athletic Association. The OED defines curate in this meaning as “an assistant to a publican or a grocer licensed to sell alcoholic spirits; a barman”.

  These curates were, as it turns out, not dissimilar to the cottonball officers. In a continuation of the same set of advertisements for the Prince of Wales’ Theatre, a year later in 1866, the theatre promises:

Another Great Success! – Arrived, a Cargo of Comic Singers, Dancers, Cotton Ball Officers, and queer things – all will appear to-night!!! (Freeman’s Journal 11 October p. 1)


  And two days later (p. 1):

Another novelty! – Arrival of all the Cotton Ball Officers, to go through their facings To-Night (Saturday) with their friends, the queer Samaritan, in order to meet their tall friend, O’Baldwin, and his Pupils.


     By chance the writer John Augustus O’Shea unlocks for us the meaning of “cottonball officer” in his article “Strolls through Paris” in the issue of Shamrock magazine of 2 November 1867 (pp. 66-7):


The youth who earns his bread behind a counter [in Paris] is calicot, which means something like that mean locution, “cotton-ball officer” in another city [i.e. Dublin].


  But O’Shea doesn’t clinch the link between cotton balls and shop assistants, though further attestations keep on coming, here describing townsfolk enjoying themselves at a day at the races (a “commercial” is someone involved in commerce, typically a commercial traveller):


I saw Hurro, the commercial, with Miss Lns, and Miss H, Lower-road. They were laughing at him.

  Jom Connors I saw enjoying a threepenny drive with another cotton ball officer. (Munster Express 1875, 15 May p. 5)


  At the dance in the south of Ireland cotton-ball officers are the object of some admiration and competition:


On entering the dancing room the first [that] took my notice was Miss R Tn and Miss O’D tossing up a button to know which of them would have the cotton-ball officer. The former lady won him. (Wexford and Kilkenny Express 1875, 21 August p. [3])


  And from the same source almost a year later:

I met Bridget A C and one of the boys walking out on Monday. He is one of these cotton-ball officers, from the Seaport. What a variety of beaux? (Wexford and Kilkenny Express 1876, 17 June p. 3)


The exasperation in the last sentence reminds us that these are not military officers, but pale imitations, available at local dances, in this case at Ballinameena, Co. Waterford.

In 1879 Mr Leech, the former Mayor of Drogheda, was being badgered by his local newspaper. In response he took to attacking the editor of the newspaper verbally. One of the meanest facts he was able to drag up was that “a few years ago” the editor was “nothing more than a ‘cotton-ball officer’” (Dundalk Democrat 1879 6 December p. 4).

Not surprisingly the newspaper replied stoutly: “Now, sir, as a ‘cotton-ball officer’, I protest against the arrogant presumption displayed by our ex-mayor in his sneer at the position which drapers’ assistants occupy.”

     “Cotton-ball officer” is a slang term for a draper’s assistant, humorously strutting like a watered-down military officer, often found out with friends enjoying himself at a dance or at the theatre, after a day selling cotton balls and more over the counter of a draper’s establishment.

  The expression was common in the days of Joyce’s father in the mid to late nineteenth century, and was still known in Joyce’s day, though gradually fading from memory. Slote, Mamigonian, and Turner (Annotations) helpfully refer to Richard Ellmann’s biography here:

[John Joyce] liked to tell how, as a civil servant, he was obliged to attend certain functions at Dublin Castle. On one occasion there was a masquerade ball, and for a lark he went dressed as a British officer. The jarvey who drove him in a cab to the castle was expecting a tip befitting his passenger's rank, but John Joyce gave him the minimum . ‘Holy Jaysus,’ said the jarvey, ‘and I thought I had a real officer!’ ‘And so you have, my man ,’ said John Joyce, refusing to be intimidated. 'I have,' said the jarvey, looking at the coin in his fist, ‘a cotton-ball one’.” (Richard Ellman, James Joyce (1982) p. 21, citing John Stanislaus Joyce, My brother’s keeper)


  And other records document the true meaning of the expression:

I read with astonishment in your last issue a letter touching the above subject [“Early Closing”], signed “An Assistant” (I presume a 3rd class cotton-ball officer), supposed to emanate from all the shop assistants in Armagh. (Ulster Gazette 1891, 25 July p. [2])

  From the Tralee Liberator of 19 October (p. 3):

The skilled workers were organised, the solicitors were organised and the lawyers were organised. He remembered when the Drapers Assistants were not organised; he remembered when the Dock Laboureres were not organised; [etc.].

  And from the publication year of Ulysses:

It transpired that durin’ the few months that followed he was no farther away than Kells, where he was tryin’ to make a livin’ as a cotton-ball officer in John Neligan’s haberdashery!” (Weekly Freeman 1922, 4 March p. 3)


  Contemporaneous evidence, therefore, demonstrates that these “cotton-ball officers” were not soldiers or local militia officers, but were draper’s and haberdasher’s assistants, apparently particularly so called when they were out for a night on the town.



Cottonball baron


The expression “cotton-ball baron” uses the humorous symbolism of common cotton balls to describe someone who adopts the airs and graces of a baron, especially in a commercial context. The usage derives from the fact that the decoration around the outside of a baron’s coronet could be taken to represent cotton balls.

“There is but one commercial faith, and [the cotton capital] Manchester is its prophet.”

We rejoice in the good fortune of the gold-encumbered inhabitants of that wonderful city, and bow before their enormous wealth. We feel, in addressing them, that we are venturing to approach busy men, who are laying up the wealth wherewith to found great families; to the Rudolphs of succeeding generations, where heralds will be taught to admit that the balls on the coronet of the Baron and the Earl are properly cotton-balls, and that the Ducal strawberry leaf is more truly a fossil vegetation of the coal measures. (London Times 1860, 21 February p. 8)

John Simpson