25 March 2009

Tales of the "Short Snorter"

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Recalling her flying career in the late 20's and early 30's, Florence "Pancho" Barnes used to say, "I flew high in the skies during the day and high in the bars at night."  She had a lot of fun, that's for sure, and quite a bit of it was with a group of Hollywood stunt pilots.  Pancho was the only woman flier accepted into their midst, in part because she was a social whirlwind and party organizer.  She created a group called the "Short Snorters".  Their membership card -- also called a "short snorther" -- was a dollar bill that was signed by everyone in the group.  The "card" was actually an excuse for all sorts of fun.  A member caught without his dollar bill would be forced to pay for the bar tab.  If everyone had their membership cards with them, then the person with the fewest signatures would be forced to pay.  According to Lauren Kessler's book The Happy Bottom Riding Club, there were other antics as well.  Pancho might approach a young, wet-behind-the-ears pilot with an inflated view of himself, and offer to let him join the group in exchange for a large membership fee.  After the fee was paid Pancho would say, "that's all there is.  Now go out and try it on someone yourself"!

Turns out, the practice of using a signed dollar bill as a membership card or memento probably preceeds Pancho's club.  According to the website shortsnorter.org the idea started with Alaskan bush pilots.  The History Detectives TV show claims it all started in 1925, thanks to an air circus pilot named Jack Ashcroft, who Short Snorterallegedly wrote a humorous note on a dollar bill given to his boss.  Whatever version of its creation you want to believe, the "snorter" became widely popularized by WWII.  In fact, there are examples of dollar bills signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, General George Patton, and many other famous people.  The term even appeared in that most American of things, a Coca-Cola ad.

At first blush the term "short snorter" might seem quite nefarious -- people who do not know any better often assume it has something to do with rolled up bills, snorting noses, and cocaine.  The real story is that a "snort" is an old slang word for a drink or shot.  A dollar might buy a not-quite-full glass or "short" drink or drinks.  So the term is actually the kind of affectionate name for a dollar bill that could have been coined by an alcoholic or a comedian like W.C. Fields.

Short SnorterThe Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive contains a beautiful example of a "short snorter".  It's signed not only by Pancho, but by one of her best friends and frequent flying companions, Nels Griffith.  It's also signed by a couple of pilots, including Hell's Angels stunt pilot Roy Minor.