Detective. Private eye. PI. Shamus. Gumshoe. So many names for the ever-popular crime sleuth! As the Free Library delves into the art of mystery and detection with the We the Detectives initiative, we found ourselves wondering, Why ‘gumshoe’?
For those who haven’t heard this term before, ‘gumshoe’ is a colloquial word for ‘detective’—typically one who is undercover or in ‘plain clothes’, with a connotation of ‘stealthiness’. Here is what we learned about this funny-sounding sobriquet:
Some shoe soles at the turn of the 19th century were made from gum rubber—a soft-soled precursor of our modern sneaker bottoms. (Some shoes are still made with this.) ‘Gumshoes’ were shoes or boots made of this gum rubber. Such soft-soled shoes allowed for a quiet step. “To gumshoe” came to mean to sneak around quietly as if wearing gumshoes. It did not initially only apply to detectives; it could mean anyone being sneaky or stealthy, robbers and thief-catchers alike.
A “gumshoe man” or “gumshoe worker” was originally slang for ‘thief’. One of the earliest uses of the term in print is in Clarence Louis Cullen’s slangy collection of fictional tales, More Ex-Tank Tales, published in 1902: "I thought you were a daylight gum-shoer for a minute," meaning a daytime thief.
But eventually, the term came to stick (ha!) to police detectives. The first documented use was in the 1904 book of tales Little Citizens: The Humours of School Life East of the Bowery, by Myra Kelly: "The Associate Superintendent for her vicinity was the Honourable Timothy O’Shea, known and dreaded as ‘Gum Shoe Tim,’ owing to his engaging way of creeping softly up back stairs and appearing all unheralded and unwelcome, upon the threshold of his intended victim."
It was also used as both an adjective and a verb, in addition to its more-common noun form:
In 1904, the Omaha Bee newspaper described, “No gumshoe democratic campaign in Nebraska,” meaning a political campaign not carried out stealthily or quietly.
An example of its verb form, meaning ‘to work as a detective’ or ‘to creep around’, can be found in the 1915 Sewell Ford book Shorty McCabe on the Job: "Is it the style where you come from [...] to gumshoe around and peek in the windows to see old friends?"
So now we know! Phew. We hope you will come gumshoe around with us at We the Detectives! To learn more about this unique, multifaceted, and immersive intellectual and creative experience, visit freelibrary.org/detectives.
Our We the Detectives initiative continues with Clever Criminals and Daring Detectives at the Rosenbach and Becoming the Detective: The Making of a Genre in Parkway Central Library's Rare Book Department. Check out the exhibitions now through September 1!
And experience the GUMSHOE immersive adventure by New Paradise Laboratories using your mobile phone any time, now through September 1.