The term loco-foco denoted in the mid-1830s a member or supporter of a radical faction within the Democratic Party which advocated social justice and opposed vested interests, monopolies and banks; it was later applied to a member of the Democratic Party as a whole.
The literal meaning of loco-foco was a match tipped with an inflammable substance ignitable on a roughened or specially prepared surface. This is an advertisement from the Democratic Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) of 8th July 1835:
LOCO FOCO, & LUCIFER MATCHES.—A few Loco Foco Matches, a new article, and far superior to any in use, just received, and for sale, by H. A. NAGLEE,
N° 69, Jefferson Avenue,
nearly opposite the Farmers & Mechanics’ Bank.
Detroit, June 30, 1835. w10
The term also denoted a ‘self-igniting’ cigar, described in this advertisement published in The Evening Post (New York, N.Y.) on 30th January 1835:
SOMETHING NEW FOR SEGAR SMOKERS!!!—Marck’s Loco Foco or self-igniting Segars, by the use of which smokers need not be at the trouble of carrying matches, nor ever be at a loss for fire. Nothing could render a segor [sic] more convenient or perfect than the immediate connexion with it of the means of lighting it, which hitherto being often without the reach of the smoker, deprives him the pleasure of smoking perhaps at the time when he feels the greatest desire for it. The purchaser of the Loco Foco Segar will not be in this predicament, nor will he in lighting his segar impair or destroy its flavour by the smoke of a lamp, candle, or paper drawn into the segar in the usual way of lighting, since the attached match lights the segar without smoking. The patentee has confined his improvement to segars of the first quality only, and is determined to proceed in such a way as to induce connoiseurs [sic] to purchase his segars not only for the sake of the attached light, but in reliance on the quality of the segar; the additional cost of the light being but a trifle.
The term loco-foco is apparently a rhyming compound in which the first element seems to reflect Latin locus, a place, and the second element Latin focus, a hearth, the intended meaning being perhaps fire in place, i.e. fire that does not need to be introduced from elsewhere.
In The History of Political Parties in the State of New-York (Albany, New York, 1842), the American physician, lawyer, author and politician Jabez Delano Hammond (1778-1855) explained how loco-foco became a political term; he wrote that “the Equal Rights […] party in the city of New-York”
resolved, at the meeting which was to be held a few days before the election in November, 1835, at Tammany Hall, to hear and act on the report of the nominating committee, and to resist the confirmation of the nomination of Mr. Lee and others, of whose principles they disapproved. The friends of these candidates anticipated opposition, and of course, at the hour appointed for the meeting, an immense crowd collected. The first question which arose, and which would test the strength of the parties, was the selection of a chairman. The friends of Mr. Lee, whom we will call Tammany men, supported Isaac L. Varian, since mayor of New York; and the anti-monopolists supported Joel Curtis. The Tammanies entered the hall as soon as the doors were opened, by means of back stairs, while at the same time the equal rights party rushed into the long room up the front stairs. Both parties were loud and boisterous; the one declaring that Mr. Varian was chosen chairman, and the other that Mr. Curtis was duly elected the presiding officer. A very tumultuous and confused scene ensued, during which the gas lights, with which the hall was illuminated, were extinguished. The equal rights party, either having witnessed similar occurrences, or having received intimations that such would be the course of their opponents, had provided themselves with loco-foco matches and candles, and the room was re-lighted in a moment.
The next day both parties claimed the victory, but the mass of the democratic party in the city, supported at the election which took place a few days afterwards, the Tammany nomination as the regularly formed ticket.
Immediately after this outbreak at Tammany Hall, the Courier and Enquirer, a whig, and the Times, a democratic, (afterwards conservative,) newspaper, dubbed the anti-monopolists with the name of the Loco-Foco Party, a sort of nick-name which the whigs have since given to the whole democratic party.
The Star and North Carolina Gazette (Raleigh, North Carolina) of Thursday 12th November 1835 had given this account of the meeting at Tammany Hall:
Row in Tammany Hall.—A most amusing scene took place in this Temple of Jacksonism, on Thursday last. There seem to be two Van Buren factions in New York, as well as elsewhere. The Times leads the regular—the Evening Post the irregular party—and on this occasion, the latter were triumphant. Shortly after the meeting had been organized, the lights were extinguished, and in the hubbub, the meeting was again called to order, a new Chairman appointed, and the conspirators drawing candles from their pockets, ignited them with loco foco matches throwing a new light upon the aspect of affairs. By this melo-dramatic clap-trap, the regulars were put down, and the irregulars carried their resolution and their ticket.—This must have been very amusing recreation for the grown children of the commercial emporium.