MEANING AND EARLY OCCURRENCES OF THE PHRASE
In U.S. Army slang, the phrase Maggie’s drawers denotes a red flag waved to indicate a complete miss on a target range.
The earliest occurrences that I have found are from the Fort McClellan Section of The Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama) of Wednesday 1st July 1936:
Trainees Palpitatingly Learn About Shooting Over McClellan Range
The Kick Is Not So Bad, And Maybe The Appetite Causes Those Misses
By H. H. Overton
[…] Trainees of Company A and C received their “baptism of firing” last week.
Many found that a good score was not hard to make if one did all the prescribed things. But the fellows who waved “Maggies’ [sic] Drawers” (red flag signalling complete miss) must have been very tired before the day was over.
Still others might have blamed their Maggies’ Drawers on their appetites, which were not much respected during the week of firing.
The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from Artillery Rumbles, published in News of Interest to the Services in Hawaii, in The Honolulu Advertiser (Honolulu, Hawaii) of Sunday 23rd October 1938:
“Bulls-eye,” “Nine-o’clock four,” “three-o’clock three” and the inevitable “Maggie’s Drawers,” rang out from the vicinity of the three small arms target practice ranges all during the past week.
The regiments of the Hawaiian Separate Coast Artillery Brigade, commanded by Brig. General Philip B. Peyton, have been busy completing their annual pistol, rifle, automatic rifle and machine gun target practices.
The phrase occurs in The Military “If”, a poem by Private First Class Leslie C. Carter, Headquarters Detachment, 7th Engineer Battalion, published in 5th Division News: Official Organ of 5th Division Camp, Fort McClellan, in The Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama) of Sunday 3rd March 1940:
If he [= the soldier] shot Expert, he was “Santa Claused,”
And if he didn’t, he was “bolo” 1 ridiculed.
If he emerges a Sharpshooter, he gets a shiny pin,
But if he “bolo’s,” it’s “Maggie’s Drawers” he weaps [sic] in.
1 The following explanation of bolo is from an article about Army slang, published in the Wilmington Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) of Wednesday 6th August 1941:
When a soldier fails to qualify with the pistol or rifle on the firing range, he is dubbed a bolo. According to an old sergeant, the Army picked up this term in the Philippines, where the native, if unable to handle a gun properly, would be put to cutting paths through the jungle with bolo knives 2.
2 A bolo is a kind of cutlass used in the Philippine Islands for agricultural and domestic work and as a fighting weapon.
In With Company “L” At Fort Jackson, published in The Robesonian (Lumberton, North Carolina) of Monday 16th December 1940, Bugler Sergeant Bill Williamson explained that the phrase Maggie’s drawers was new to him:
The red flag which waves when you miss the target has a new name, “Maggie’s Drawers.”
ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE
The origin of Maggie’s drawers is uncertain. Two different explanations have been given, the more plausible being—in my view—the first one.
A letter published in The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) of Monday 17th August 1942 mentions the first explanation:
I was somewhat surprised to read in an article by a trainee, on your editorial page the other day, “that for some unexplained reason the red flag that is waved across the target on misses was called Maggie’s Drawers.” This name is hung on the flag from the song of rather ancient vintage, “Those Little Red Drawers That My Maggie Wore.” I would bet that many old-timers could supply the words.—E. A. McGinity.
One version of the song Those Little Red Drawers That My Maggie Wore occurs in a letter that one William F. Burroughs wrote from DuBois, Maryland, on Sunday 12th December 1926—letter recorded in The Robert W. Gordon “Inferno” Collection in the Archive of Folk Song, Library of Congress 3 (Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress):
[Gordon pagination: 482]
December 12, 1926
THOSE LITTLE RED DRAWERS THAT MAGGIE WORE
When Maggie died
She called me to her side
And willed to me
Those little red drawers
That Maggie wore
They were tattered
They were torn
You could tell they had been worn
They were baggy at the knees
And the cracks were filled with cheese
Those little red drawers
That Maggie willed to me.
“We used to sing it up and down the C. & O. canal about twelve years ago.”
William F. Burroughs
3 The Robert W. Gordon “Inferno” Collection consists of original correspondence and typescript copies of letters that either Robert Winslow Gordon (1888-1961) or someone else separated out—because of their bawdy and scatological subject matter—from the materials he received and compiled as first head of the folklife department at the Library of Congress.
The second explanation is that Maggie’s drawers alludes to the character of Maggie in Bringing Up Father 4, a comic strip created in 1913 by the U.S. cartoonist George McManus (1884-1954). The following is from an unsigned article about Army slang, published in the Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey) of Friday 26th September 1941:
Maggie’s drawers—red flag used on rifle range to indicate a miss. Name derived from “Bringing Up Father” character.
4 In George McManus’s comic strip, Jiggs, an Irish immigrant who has recently acquired wealth, longs to revert to his former lower-class lifestyle, while his wife, Maggie, who has pretensions to middle-class gentility, aims to bring “father”, i.e., Jiggs, “up” to social respectability—hence the title Bringing Up Father.
John Lancaster Riordan gave the same explanation in American Naval “Slanguage” in the Pacific in 1945, published in Vol. 5, No. 4 (October 1946) of California Folklore Quarterly (Published for the California Folklore Society by the University of California Press – Berkeley and Los Angeles):
When a would-be marksman entirely misses the target, the shooting-range attendant waves a red flag. This the servicemen call Maggie’s drawers, after the famous comic-strip character’s red-flannel underwear.
However, I don’t think that the phrase Maggie’s drawers alludes to Maggie in Bringing up Father, because, in this comic strip, it seems that only Jiggs is characterised as wearing red-flannel underwear.
For example, on Monday 8th June 1925, The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction, Colorado) reported that during a meeting of the Y’s Men’s Club, Ralph Kullerstrand made an appeal for justice on the part of the audience in recognising how badly Jiggs was daily treated by Maggie:
He pointed out the natural desire of Jiggs—a common man in every sense of the word—to live with his “low brow” pals, scatter ashes around the house from his corn-cob pipe and appear in his socks and red flannel underwear as a man of leisure and money. In contrast to this, he showed Maggie’s “high brow” nature—always trying to curtail Jiggs’ just liberties, make it necessary for him to sneak out at night to be with his pals and face a barrage of rolling-pins and crockery upon coming home in the small hours of the morning.
George McManus himself characterised Jiggs, not Maggie, as wearing red-flannel underwear; this is what he explained in How to Draw Comics Like Mine, an article published in several U.S. newspapers in October 1930—for example in The Shamokin Dispatch (Shamokin, Pennsylvania) of Tuesday the 14th:
If things were always as they seem, the fashion world would be about the farthest thing from comic art that could be imagined. But it is not. The comic artist must be almost as familiar with styles as a dress designer herself.
This is especially true in cartoons of the type of “Bringing Up Father.” Once we make Jiggs a man of sufficient means to go through all the experiences we have laid out for him, we must dress him and his family to suit the occasions. You couldn’t imagine him, for instance, in old clothes. He may wear a red-flannel undershirt in the privacy of his room, but if Maggie let him get out in anything but a top hat, cutaway and spats, then she wouldn’t be Maggie.
This is one of the drawings illustrating How to Draw Comics Like Mine:
From the Start Maggie’s Fate Has Been to Look Ridiculous in the Height of Fashion. Maggie Is Shown in Last Year’s Mode.