When a Pickle Showed Patriotic Colors

Google news clipping of published version of red-white-blue pickle storyA reminiscence: According to one of the authors, this was an April Fool story that got misdirected to the Fourth of July.

Back in the summer of 1979, I was writing the daily “People in the News” column that ran on page two of The Hartford Courant. While never proving any threat to Liz Smith, I would cull through Playboy magazine interviews, tabloid papers’ gossip columns, and the major wire services’ “Names in the News” features to find material to rewrite and fill my “combined wires” space.

It was a lot like today’s aggregation-style blogging; it gave me time to write longer features, and by relying heavily on each evening’s wire stories I had mornings free to go to grad school. (In anthropology and ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, which, in a round-about way, led to my career shift into the software industry, which webbed my way back to journalism.)

One July day in 1979, the copy desk chief tossed me a couple of feet of wire-printer paper and said something like, “We don’t have room for this; maybe part of it will work in the People column.”

It was a remarkable story about a man in Winsted, Conn., “inventing” a red, white and blue pickle. It had been in a July Fourth weekend Waterbury Republican newspaper, and the wire service picked it up from there. I couldn’t believe it, and set it aside to process other items.

Some papers did run it, as you can see above… But before I got back to the Winsted item, the copy chief tossed over another piece of wire paper and said, “Hey, don’t use that pickle thing. It’s a hoax.” That also made it into print elsewhere…

The follow-up UPI story about the great pickle hoax, from Milwaukee via Google News

I looked at both wire stories. The second one said the reporters (“stringers” or “freelancers”) would no longer be writing for the Waterbury paper. Google News’s archive of scanned papers provides the evidence above that elsewhere in the country, there were editors who fell for the pickle piece or at least entertained their readers with the after-the-fact hoax story.

(It’s intriguing that the Sarasota paper carried the story. Sarasota, you may know, is the home of the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus Museum. The famous hoaxster P.T. Barnum, like the pickle story, was a Connecticut native, born about 27 miles from Waterbury.)

Before I decided what to do, I looked at the Waterbury paper. It had a picture of the man holding his innovative pickle. It had stripes. It had a square field of blue with stars — or at least dots. As I recall, he was wearing a moustache, sunglasses and maybe a pith helmet, reminding me of Leon Redbone without a guitar.

“How on earth could they have believed this thing?” I asked myself. I forget how I tracked down the reporters, but I did. Maybe someone at the Republican gave me their number, or maybe their names were in the story. In any case, I got one of them on the phone, and I asked clever journalistic questions like, “What on earth were you thinking?” and “How in heck did you get this past the editor?”

After all, Americans generally do not make July Fourth a day for hoaxes.

The co-author of the hoax had a fascinating explanation. I forget whether I checked it with his editors in Waterbury. By then, my deadline was probably approaching. And, after all, all that I needed was a paragraph for the “People” column. But, from memory, here’s what the writer said:

He and his partner had written the story as a joke, he said, but not for July Fourth. He said they wrote it months earlier, for April Fool’s Day. They turned it in, then didn’t hear back from the paper, so they assumed an editor thought it was a stupid idea, even for April 1st, and threw it away. It hadn’t been the first time they gave the paper something silly.

After the story appeared in July, he speculated that instead of reading enough to get the joke back in April, someone at the paper must have seen “red, white and blue” as a theme and filed the item in a “follow” folder for possible use on a patriotic holiday, without doing a lot of critical thinking or fact-checking… or, perhaps, without even reading it.

Then along came the July 4 weekend — notorious as a “slow news day” and as a day when the “A-team” staff takes a vacation. Again, it’s easy to conclude that not a lot of critical thinking went on at the Waterbury news desk that day… And the same apparently was true at the wire service office…

Or at papers like the Sarasota one that fell for it, hook, line… and pickle.

Today, with the Internet as a research tool, you can even learn that the red-white-and-blue hoax wasn’t original in Winsted. Decades earlier, another journalist from that quiet community had faked a story about a chicken’s red-white-and-blue eggs, presumably to get through yet another slow holiday weekend. According to that item, he went on to be general manager of the Winsted Citizen, and had a bridge over Sucker Creek named for him.

As for my own story, the Courant does not provide free online archives  and I don’t feel like paying $3.95 for an old pickle story. If that search link found the right item, my memory is correct that the pickle story didn’t even lead the People column. The column’s first paragraph, which is all the Courant search engine lets you see for free, was, “Italians are dancing the praises of Pope John Paul II to a disco tune. A record called the ‘Wojtyla Disco Dance’ is said to have sold 30,000 copies in Italy in the last two weeks….”

I hope that wasn’t a hoax, too.

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in Connecticut, editors, Google, History, humor, Newspapers, Stepno, The Hartford Courant

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