Saturday, September 24, 2022

What "Hamfatter" & "Ham" Mean As Colloquial References to Actors & Actresses

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest revision- Jan 9, 2023

This pancocojams post presents online excerpts about the late 19th century/early 20th century colloquial meanings of the word "ham" with a focus on the word "hamfatters" and the song "Ham Fat Man".

The content of this post is presented for linguistic, historical, and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.   
Portions of this post are included in this pancocojams post: "The History Of The Hoochie Coochie Dance (including information about The Song "Ham Fat Man")"

Click for a related pancocojams post entitled "
What The African American Vernacular English Phrase "H.A.M" ("Going Ham") Means"

These excerpts are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only. 

From,dance%E2%80%9D%20or%20danse%20du%20ventre The History and Etymology of the "Hoochie-Coochie" Dance, Peter Jensen Brown,  July 8, 2016
Part II - the History and Etymology of the "Hoochie-Coochie" Dance

The Ham Fat Man

Both “hoochie-coochie” (derived from “coochie coochie”) and “coochie-coochie” (an altered form of kouta-kouta) may have been derived, at least in part, from a general familiarity with what was then a decades-old song lyric, “hootchy, kootchy, kootchy, I’m the Ham Fat Man.”  “The Ham Fat Man” was a staple of black-face minstrelsy in the 1860s, but is best known today as the inspiration for the word “hamfatter,” later shortened to “ham,” meaning a bad actor.

The earliest reference I could find to the song is in a report of a military construction battalion of free black workers erecting the defenses around Baltimore during the American Civil War:


At the time, the song was only a few years old.  The earliest indication of the song that I’ve found is an instruction to sing the early Civil War song, “The Union Man” (published in 1861) to the tune of “The Ham Fat Man.”[xiv]

Although Baltimore’s construction battalion is quoted as having sung, “Coochee, Coochee, Coochee,” other published versions of the song, and later reminiscences of the song, generally recite the lyric, “hoochy, koochy, koochy” (or equivalent).[xv]  Alternate versions of the song, however, used “rooksey, cooksey, cooksey[xvi] or “roochy coochy coochy.”[xvii]

The song, or performers who sang the song, seem to have been wildly popular for a time; with several rival performers claiming to be the “original” “Ham Fat Man.”  But by 1865, the song had already overstayed its welcome…


By 1903, with many of the old-time blackface performers dying away, the song may have reached such a level of obscurity that the origin of the term “hamfatter” (bad actor) was not widely known.  An old-timer explained the origins of the term for a new generation:

Perhaps from the giving away of ham at Pastor’s the impression may prevail that that’s just how the term ‘hamfatter’ for a bad performer originated but this is not so.

The expression is an old minstrel term and came from the refrain of a song and dance which goes something like this: ‘Ham fat, ham fat, smoking in the pan.’  This song became popular, and the performers and later the public caught up the term.  When a minstrel or a variety actor appeared and he was not up to the standard they used to yell at him, ‘Ham fat, ham fat, smoking in the pan.’  And this was abbreviated until poor actors were known as ‘hamfatters.’

The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), June 13, 1902 (reprint from the New York Sun).

Ham Fat Men

The “Ham Fat Man” was more than just a character in a minstrel show; he was based on an actual occupation.  Other occupations were also subject to parody by the minstrels.  One song book of the period[xix], for example, has songs about, “The Soap Fat Man” (another name for the “ham fat man”), “The Stage Driver,” “The Pop-Corn Man,” “The Charcoal Man,” “The Rat-Catcher’s Daughter,” “The Shop Gals,” and “The Candle Maker’s Daughter.”

Not long since a class of traders called “soap fat men” used to go from house to house exchanging soap for the refuse fat accumulated by housewifes.

The Democrat (London), Volume 2, Number 23, December 5, 1885, page 178.

Soap-fat men, or ham-fat men, were at the low end of the food chain.  Ham-fat men went door to door collecting leftover ham and bacon grease for delivery to a soap boiler.  The soap boiler, in turn, made soap and tallow candles to be sold or traded back to the households donating the fat.  A nostalgic piece from 1920 described the business as practiced in one neighborhood in Washington DC:

Who remembers the soap factory on the banks of Rock Creek at the terminus of Twenty-fifth and U streets, where you could take a quart bucket of grease and get a long bar of common soap, good for family washing, household scrubbing, etc?

The Washington Times (Washington DC), May 23, 1920, page 16.

A description of a poor neighborhood in which a quack doctor treated patients at the police station in the early 1800s lumps “soap-fat men” in with a number of other lowly trades:

These, however, were the aristocrats of my practice; the bulk of my patients were soap-fat men, rag-pickers, oystermen, hose-house bummers, and worse, with other and nameless trades, men and women, white, black, or mulatto.

The Century, volume 59, number 15, page 114.


But the “Ham Fat Man” did have one advantage; he had an opportunity to meet all of the women, cooks and kitchen staff in the neighborhood.  Like the milk man of later generations, the “Ham-Fat Man” of song was a sort of neighborhood lothario; precisely the kind of man who might be the “someone in the kitchen with Dinah,” another staple of minstrel performances.

The Lyrics

The various versions of “The Ham-Fat Man” and “The Soap Fat Man” that I have seen, involve a relationship with someone on his fat-collection route.  In “The Soap Fat Man,” which does not appear to be the same song, although it relates to a similar character, he seduces an “old maid” who is “fifty-six with a face of tan”; takes her to a “lager bier” garden; convinces her lend him $10 to open his own beer garden; and then absconds with the funds; as “he’d a wife and seven children, had the soap fat man.”

Two versions of “The Ham-Fat Man” may also offer a peek into social conditions that led to the development of so-called, “Soul Food;” traditional foods associated with African-American culture in the South.  Although some features of soul food relate back to grains and vegetables brought over from Africa, other elements of soul food reflect the practice of slave “owners” feeding their captive workers as cheaply as possible.  Slaves had to make do with what were considered less desirable “greens,” as well as less desirable cuts of meat.  The “Ham-Fat” Man is satisfied with the fat of the ham; who needs veal, venison, chicken, hare or lamb:

Oh! good-ev'n to you, white folks,
I'm glad to see you all,
I'm right from ole Virginny,
Which some people say will fall;
You may talk about ole massa,
But he am just de man,
To make de n[-words] happy
Wid de ham-fat man.


Ham-fat, ham-fat, zig a zig a zam,
Ham-fat, ham-fat frying in de pan;
Oh! roll into de kitchen fast, boys, as you can,
Oh! rooksey, cooksey, cooksey, I'm de ham-fat man.

Ole missus she's up stair
A-eating bread and honey;
Massa's in de store
A-counting ob his money;
But Susan's in de kitchen
Frying at de ham,
And saving all de gravy
For de ham-fat man.-Chorus.

Some n[-words] likes de mutton,
Puddin', cakes and jam;
Some like veal and venison,
Chicken, hare and lamb.
But of all dese birds and beastesses
Dat plow the raging main,
Dey're not to be compared
To gravy in de pan - Chorus.

In this version, his relationship with Susan seems to be a good one; she saves her “gravy” and “ham fat” just for him, in what may be a mildly naughty sexual suggestion.

In another version, the “Ham Fat Man” is jealous of his rivals; and his “yaller gal’s” loyalty may be suspect:

When wittels am so plenty, oh! I bound to get my fill;
I know a pretty yaller gal, and I lover her to kill,
If any n[-word] fools wid her, I’ll tan him if I can,
A Hoochee, Koochee, Koochee, says the Hamfat man.

A third version of the song involves a more brazen cheater, who leaves town with an Asian man:

White folks attention, and listen to my song
I’ll sing to you a ditty and it won’t detain you long
It’s all about a pretty girl, whose name was Sara Ann
And she fell deep in love with the ham fat man.

Ham fat, soap fat, candle fat or lard,
Ham fat, cat fat, or any other man,
Jump into the kitchen as quick as you can,
With my roochee, coochee, coochee, the ham fat man.

Now the ham fat man, he couldn't stand the press
For every day she wanted to buy a new dress
His money it was gone and the faithless Sara Ann
She hooked it off to Bathurst with a Chinaman

Elements of the second and third versions point to another early influence on the song; a traditional Irish song called, “The Cuckoo’s Nest.”  Both versions are about a woman who is, or may be, unfaithful, and the third version, from Australia, is said to be sung to the tune of “The Cuckoo’s Nest.”"...

Excerpt #2
answer by 
Jonathon Green, 2012
I am a lexicographer and establishing etymologies is a central part of making a dictionary

"Ham is an abbreviation of hamfatter, a second-rate and thus impoverished actor who was forced to rub hamfat over their face, as a base for the powder that was then applied, rather than being able to afford sweeter smelling oils. Although the practise suggests a much earlier use, both terms are so far first recorded in the 1880s. A more recent synonym is scenery-chewer.

The Century Dictionary (1889) suggests an origin in a black song ‘The Ham-Fat Man‘; hamfat was also used by old-time jazzmen to grease the slides of their trombones – thus the 1930s band The Harlem Hamfats; note U. of Missouri use (in 1931) ham, ‘one of unpolished manners’ and Baker et al., College Undergraduate Slang Study (1967–8), ham, ‘a person who always fools around’; note also 1939 reference to a lard actor, ‘an early professional version of “ham actor”,’ in a Federal Writers’ Project essay on Vaudeville, suggesting that lard, rather than ‘hamfat’ was a substitute for cold cream as a basis for make-up.

Although ham is primarily associated with the stage, it can also be used of any species of incompetent, especially one who poses as more expert than their performance – often in sport – shows him to be; an incompetent boxer, a poor fighter".

From  World Wide Ham
Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–
"A ham or ham actor is one who struts his piece upon the stage to little effect, a fifth-rate artiste of the sort that P G Wodehouse said “couldn’t play the pin in Pinafore”. He may fail because he is an unskilled amateur, though the word is more often applied to a thespian who overacts in a theatrical or ranting way to compensate for his poor grasp of technique or to upstage his fellow actors.

The term is American and dates from the nineteenth century. Where it comes from has been the subject of more inventive etymology than you can shake a stick at. It’s said to be from Hamlet’s advice to the actors (“O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings”), though why it had to wait 300 years to appear is not explained. A related idea is that the word comes from the title of the play, which is one that amateurs frequently perform badly. Others argue it’s from a Cockney pronunciation of amateur, hamateur, but that would put the origin on the wrong continent.

In the 1860s, ham began to be used in America for somebody who was stupid, clumsy or worthless, especially an untalented prize fighter. This is most likely to have been borrowed from ham-handed or ham-fisted, meaning a person with large hands that fancifully resembled the prepared ham of a pig, hence clumsy.

In a separate development in the 1870s, ham began to be applied to variety performers, who were looked down on by “legitimate” actors. It was also used for incompetents within the profession generally:

Ham — is the most derisive word in the professional vocabulary, and if you wish to lose the friendship of anyone in the business call him a “ham,” and that settles it. A person who can do nothing at all, can not speak his lines properly or is any way bad in his calling, is denominated a “ham”.
Cincinnati Enquirer, 7 Sep. 1879.

In this sense, it’s almost certainly an abbreviation of the slightly older hamfatter:

“When Dellaven proposed this concert business, I told him I was no ham-fatter, and — ” “Ham-fatter?” “Yes. Ham-fatter. That’s the name we give a man in our profession who is a poor performer.”
Nashville Union and American, 6 Nov. 1874.

The consensus is that the source lies with low-paid performers in minstrel troupes, who had to make do with ham fat for cleaning off make-up after a performance rather than a more expensive cream. It seems likely that a mental association grew up with the existing sense of ham for a clumsy or useless person. Another link may have been hambone, slang for a third-rate minstrel performer; this is said — not entirely convincingly — to come from trombonists in such troupes using ham fat to grease the slides of their instruments, slangily known as bones.

Ham later became a term for an amateur radio enthusiast. There has been much controversy about where the term comes from, but it seems certain that it’s connected to ham in the sense of clumsy. With that meaning it was used in the 1890s by US railway telegraphers to describe ill-trained, slow and inaccurate Morse-code operators. It seems to have been adopted early in the next century as an inverted badge of honour by early radio experimenters, who also communicated using Morse code."

[Pancocojams Editor's Note: I assigned numbers to the entries that are found below for referencing purposes only. These numbers don't coincide with the order of the entries in that blog post.]

From,which%20dates%20from%20about%201863.&text=Interesting. "Why Is An Actor Sometimes Called Ham?"

1. "The word Ham to mean an "overacting inferior performer," apparently dates from about 1882 and orignates from American English. Originally the word was hamfatter, meaning "actor of low grade," and has been linked to an old minstrel show song, "The Ham-fat Man" which dates from about 1863.


answered May 2, 2014 at 11:39

2. "Ham means Not a professional or Not a member of a paid profession. An amateur, as in an unpaid radio operator, is also called a Ham. They are not paid for their work, instead they make their own radios from used parts.

Lacking professional skill—as in a poor theatrical performer. In the history of theater, amateur actors used ham or pig fat as a "poor" homemade theatrical makeup, not professionally applied makeup. Hamming became synonymous with poor acting due to the overuse of greasepaint which was made from ham fat."

edited Oct 31, 2014 at 18:33
Mari-Lou A

answered Oct 31, 2014 at 12:00
john crow

3. "Following up on the earlier answers by Ilythya and john crow, I did some research into the theories that ham (in the actorly sense) derives from ham fat or from hamfatter (or from both).

Ham fat or ‘The Ham-fat Man’?

 John Ayto, Word Origins, second edition (2005) includes this comment in its entry for ham:
"Ham in the sense 'performer who overacts', first recorded in the late 19th century, apparently comes from an earlier hamfatter 'bad actor', which may have been inspired by the Negro minstrel song 'The Ham-fat Man'."

This bolsters Ilythya’s answer; but john crow’s answer finds support, too, in Martin Harrison, The Language of Theatre (1993):
"The most plausible derivation, with a more detailed and credible etymological story, is that in C19, before the invention of Leichner make-up, powder make-ups were combined with some form of grease or oil before application. Amateurs, or actors on a low income—that is, those who tended to be inferior—were forced to employ cheaper substances (rather than the professionals’ sophisticated oils) to apply their make-up, hence the nicknames ham-bone and ham-fat(ter) from the fact that they used ham-rind and other unpleasant greases as a medium. Ham-fatter may come directly from a negro minstrel song, ‘The Hamfat Man’.

Michael Macrone, Animalogies (1995) brings the “ham grease” and “Hamfat Man” theories together in a somewhat different way from Harrison [combined snippets]:
"The title [“The Hamfat Man”] refers to the minstrels' use of hog grease to clean the black off their faces. It's very likely that the tune inspired the phrase ham actor or ham for short, although such epithets as hamfat man or hamfat actor may predate it. In any case "ham" appeared on its own by 1882, when someone referred to himself, in a letter to in a letter to Illustrated Sports and Drama News, as "no ham, but a classical banjo player."

So one source says that ham fat was used to blend with powder make-up before application, and another that ham fat was used to remove blackface makeup (presumably burnt cork) after application.

Earliest occurrence of ‘Hamfatter’

According to Iris Blake, “Burlesque: Music, Minstrelsy, and Mimetic Resistance” (2013), “The Ham Fat Man” was an 1863 minstrel song show, which also (she says) is the first song to include the words “hootchy cootchy,” albeit in a primitive phonetic spelling. The chorus of the song:

Ham fat, ham fat, zigga zolla zan,
Ham fat, ham fat, Tickle olla tan;
oh! Walk into de kitchen, as fast as you can,
Hoochee Koochee Koochee, says the Hamfat Man

Early notice of the term hamfatter appears in John Farmer, Americanisms Old and New (1889), where the term doesn’t refer to performers of any kind:

HAMFATTER. —A recent name in some quarters of New York, for a second-rate dude or masher, and more especially applied to the habituĂ©s of the Rialto in that city.

[Example:] I’ll warrant that these ladies who complain have, if the truth were known, strolled up and down Broadway by the Fifth Avenue Hotel and the Hoffman, and were they so fortunate as to receive an admiring glance from the well-dressed and more prosperous professional brother of the HAMFATTER, they were not offended, forsooth. —New York Herald, July 29, 1888.

Another source indicates that in New York City the term hamfatter was applied colloquially to non-actors by 1879. From George Sala, “All the Fun of the Fair,” (December 3, 1879), in America Revisited, sixth edition (1886):

"Every American who does not wish to be thought “small potatoes” or a “ham-fatter” or a “corner loafer,” is carefully “barbed” and fixed up in a hair-dressing saloon every day."

However, in “Spangles and Sawdust,” in the Nashville [Tennessee] Union and American (November 6, 1879), a “flying trapeze” artist tells the reporter that the term refers to second-rate performers in his profession:

”This is the first [circus] show I ever left in this way. I traveled with Forepaugh’s establishment four seasons, and never had any trouble. I’ve been with this show since the 12th of June last, having joined it at Clinton, Iowa. When DeHaven proposed this concert business, I told him I was no ham-fatter, and—“


 “Yes, ham-fatter. That’s the name we give a man in our profession who is a poor performer. I’ve been in the business since I was ten years old, and I’m a little over twenty-five now.”

It’s difficult to think of a form of entertainment where the idea of applying ham fat before a show seems less suitable than in a trapeze act—but that consideration evidently didn’t prevent the minstrelsy term hamfatter from becoming circus slang, too.

The first instance of a performer specifically promoted as a “ham-fatter” appears in an ad for the Vaudeville Theatre in the San Antonio [Texas] Light (April 8, 1884):

"Then comes the noted ham-fatter, CHARLIE FRYE. “If you can guess what he is doing you can have it.”

The same ad mentions that Frye will participate later in the show as a character in “The exceedingly laughable Ethiopian interlude, entitled, Nitro-Glycerine!” which is evidently one of the high points of the evening.

Other uses of ham fat in popular entertainment

From Rosemarie Ostler, Let’s Talk Turkey: The Stories Behind America’ Favorite Expressions (2008):

"According to tradition, ham fat was part of the equipment of old jazz musicians. A 1966 New Yorker piece on Louisiana music alludes to this claim: “Most of the musicians playing in these clubs are old men…. They’re hamfat musicians. In the old days, the rough musicians kept pieces of ham fat in their pockets to grease the slides of their trombones.” By the time [George] Sala used the word in his book [in 1879], it had become synonymous with a third-rate performer or other low-class person."

I was surprised that multiple sources endorsed the theory that ham fat as preparation for makeup (or as a post-performance cleanser of makeup) inspired the minstrelsy song “the Ham Fat Man.” An alternative theory might be that “Ham Fat Man” was simply a stock minstrelsy name—like Tambo, Jim Crow, and Mr. Bones—that had no reference to practical uses of ham fat on the stage.

In any event, the argument that “ham actor” is derived from hamfatter seems quite strong, even though the term hamfatter was also used in connection with forms of entertainment besides stage acting, and indeed was sometimes applied to people who were not entertainers at all.

UPDATE (3/24/2016): I consulted a new (to me) glossary of theater terms to see what it might add to the discussion. Here is the entry for ham in Don Wilmeth, The Language of American Popular Entertainment: A Glossary of Argot, Slang, and Terminology (1981) [combined snippets]:

"Ham or ham actor. An amateur or professional actor who is affected, self-indulgent, or conceited, and who tends to strive for attention over the other actors on the stage by overplaying. A number of theories to the origin of this unflattering epithet have been posed. Two possibilities involve the operation of Tony Pastor, the early vaudeville manager. He had an act in his downtown establishment called "The Hamtown Students," a black-face quartet known for their exaggerated movements and the overblown nature of their act. Supposedly, whenever Pastor saw an actor who was overplaying he described him as a "ham." Others apparently used the full name, "Hamtown student." Another theory is that a poster at Pastor's Opera House in New York announced "sixty hams distributed on Monday evening." This offering of free hams, according to the theory, began to reflect poorly on the actors until they were known as "ham actors." H.L. Mencken suggested that it came from Hamlet, since all actors either claimed to have played Hamlet to great applause—or wished to play Hamlet. He further pointed out that an old name for an amateur was hambone. It has been said that the term actually came from a name associated with Hamish McCullough (1835–1885), who toured the "pig-sticking" towns of Illinois with a fit-up or portable company. His nickname was Ham and his troupe was called Ham's actors. The most sensible origin is that the word is short for hamfatter, the emollient or lard derived from pork and ham used by old-time actor and minstrel men to remove their makeup. It was common before the advent of cold cream and later, when col cream was available, was just as effective and cheaper."

edited Jun 15, 2020 at 7:40

answered Nov 1, 2014 at 7:22
Sven Yargs

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