Are Jimmies Racist?

Claim:   Jimmies, the sprinkles used on confections, are so named as a reference to Jim Crow.


Example:   [Collected via e-mail, February 2003]

"Jimmies" is the Boston/New England word for "chocolate sprinkles." Ask any ice cream vendor for jimmies on your sundae, and so long as you're within a 200-mile radius of Boston, chances are he'll understand you.

When I was 16 or 17, I heard for the first time this doozy of an urban legend, causing me to feel guilt for taking pride in this linguistic quirk — although I never stopped using the word. My friend told me, after I had ordered jimmies on my ice cream, that it was racist to say jimmies. She explained that because chocolate sprinkles are black, early Bostonian racists referred to them as jimmies — because of the Jim Crow laws. As little sense as this makes to me now, I was taken aback as a teenager, and was vaguely ashamed every time I got a chocolate-sprinkled sundae.

I've heard it about 20 times since then, from all different sources, inside and outside of Boston, each accompanied by a dire warning not to perpetuate this racist expression!

Origins:   While many of us like our ice cream unadorned, some could not properly enjoy a cone of their favorite flavor without its first being dipped into or sprinkled with jimmies, a colored candy decoration commonly used on ice cream, cupcakes, and donuts. However, as the example above illustrates, for some it's a guilty pleasure because they've been told their preferred name for the multi-hued sweet sprinklings packs a racist wallop.

The Dictionary of American Regional English defines jimmies as "tiny balls or rod-shaped bits of candy used as a topping for ice-cream, cakes and other sweets." This confection goes by many names, including 'sprinkles', 'nonpareils,' and 'hundreds and thousands,' but even among those who refer to them as 'jimmies' there is contention — some say all colors of this topping are properly styled 'jimmies,' while others assert only the brown ones are called that, with
other shades of the sweet stuff being termed 'sprinkles.'

There are two theories as to why anyone might think there's a racist connotation to the name: One focuses on the brown color of what some say are the only true jimmies; the other posits that the name is a reference to Jim Crow, the title character in a well-known minstrel song of the 1830s. (Jim Crow quickly became a slang term for anything having to do with African-Americans, particularly items of a racist bent, such as the Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks from whites in the South.)

No valid reason exists to suppose that 'jimmies' carries a racist meaning or had a racially-charged origin. However, it's difficult to definitively disprove the claim because the term's entry into the English language is downright murky.

The theory cited most often attributes the naming of the confection to the Just Born company, a candymaking operation founded in Brooklyn in 1923 who now produce such popular treats as 'Peeps' and 'Mike and Ike.' Just Born have long maintained that not only did they come up with the name "jimmies," but they invented the product (i.e., chocolate sprinkles) as well:
Yes, jimmies were invented at Just Born and we have in our archives some of the advertisements from that time period and containers with the word "jimmies" and the Just Born logo on them. Although there is nothing in writing to confirm it, it is commonly known here that the chocolate sprinkles were named after the Just Born employee who made them.
The notion that Just Born "invented" chocolate sprinkles is specious, however, as newspaper references to chocolate sprinkles antedate the founding of the company:
Company histories often include a fudge factor, and this claim of invention seems dubious: Chocolate sprinkles, so called, were already popular in the 1920s, the newspaper archives show. The Nashua, N.H., Telegraph is advertising a treat made with chocolate sprinkles in 1921, before Just Born was born.

Later that decade, the sprinkles show up in Ottawa and Spokane newspapers, and by 1927, Sunshine is producing a Chocolate Sprinkle cookie topped with marshmallow and sprinkles. (There's even a laxative consisting of "tasty Swiss-like milk chocolate sprinkles"; a 1928 ad in the Pittsburgh Press says it has given "Thousands of Pennsylvanians ... the Glorious Complexion of a Regulated Body.")
But even if Just Born didn't invent chocolate sprinkles, could they at least have been the source that first called them "jimmies"? Beth Kimmerle, author of Candy: The Sweet History, ventured the opinion that Just Born created the term "jimmies" as a way of branding an extant product as their own:
[Kimmerle] believes the name was a way for Just Born to put its mark on an already-existing product, just like Hershey's branded its conical chocolate drop the "Kiss."

"I think jimmies were a way to brand sprinkles," said Kimmerle. She thought the reason why some people call only the chocolate version of sprinkles jimmies is because Just Born initially made only chocolate sprinkles.
Some sources identify the Jost Born employee for whom jimmies were supposedly named as Jimmy Bartholomew, a fellow who began working for Just Born in 1930 and manned the machine that made the confection. However, that too may be myth, as Just Born co-CEO Ross Born couldn't positively confirm "Jimmy"'s surname. Also, certain respected slang dictionaries (such as Cassell's Dictionary of Slang and Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang) trace "jimmies" to the 1920s, which would place the naming of the item prior to the purported machine operator's stint with Just Born in 1930.

As to how else the term could have entered the language, another theory suggests it as a short form of the venerable English slang word jim-jam. While jim-jam has a number of meanings, one that's been around since the 16th century is "a trivial article or knick-knack." By the lights of the
jim-jam theory, the "trivial" aspect of that one particular meaning translated to the confection now called jimmies.

However, that theory has a number of holes in it. First, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (which is the bible of word histories for the English language), the only meanings common to both jim-jam and jimmies have to do with delirium tremens and the heebie-jeebies — the "trivial" meaning of jim-jam does not seem to have moved over to jimmies. Second, at no point have the candy sprinkles been called jim-jams, a link in the etymological chain one would expect if the one were a shortening of the other.

Throwing yet another log on the fire, a 1993 Boston Globe item stated that "The origin of the name is apparently unknown, but we found this hard-to-take-too-seriously reference in an old file: An (unnamed) ice cream maker claims that in 1901 Constance Bartlett of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, after grating chocolate over ice cream for her son's birthday, reportedly told other children they couldn't eat them because 'they're Jimmy's.'"

Sometimes words just sneak into a language without anyone's knowing, years after the fact, how that process came about. Yet no matter how jimmies became part of common parlance (as with many other terms, its origin may ultimately prove untraceable), no substantive evidence demonstrates anything denigrative of African-Americans was tied to the origin of the name:
Whatever the source of the name, though, nothing in the record suggests that jimmies was ever racially tinged. If it had been, it's not likely anyone would have been coy about it, as racist brand names and artwork were unremarkable in the 1930s and '40s.

So where did the "racist" rumor come from? It's possible that people old enough to remember the candies of the '40s wrongly assumed that "jimmies" was also a slur. But there's no evidence that this notion was ever widespread.

If the idea hasn't died out, that's surely because it's so hard to prove a negative.
It may be the case that among those who refer to dark brown or chocolate sprinkles as "jimmies" and other colors simply as "sprinkles," someone simply assumed a potentially racist connection was at work and retroactively invented an explanation for it.

Barbara "brown out" Mikkelson

Last updated:   21 June 2015


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