In his best-known satire of 1726, Jonathan Swift confects a historical account of the “civil commotions” which have claimed eleven thousand Lilliputian and Blefescusian lives and at the centre of which stands the deadly matter of the end, big or little, at which an egg is to be broken. The passage, which casts a withering gaze over English religious history from the time of Henry VIII forward, merits a generous citation:
It began on the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs before we eat them, was upon the larger end: but his present Majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his Father, published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of the eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one Emperor lost his Life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles have always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed, that eleven thousand persons have, at several times, suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published on this controversy: but the books of the Big-Endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments.
This week’s anniversary of the first recorded appearance of the sundae (in an Ithaca Daily Journal advertisement for the Platt & Colt Cherry Sunday, on April 5, 1892) is an egg unto itself, and the opening of it releases a thick yolk of historical controversy. So let’s get cracking.
Both the eventual spelling of this confection’s name as well as the treat itself were outcomes of legalistic sleights of hand. In the Ithaca of the late nineteenth century, as elsewhere across the Union, Sunday was a compulsory day of rest during which the consumption of soda, and in particular of the sinfully indulgent ice cream soda, then much in fashion, was forbidden. The omission of the soda, and the substitution of topping, together created a new comestible which circumvented the precise terms of the prohibition. The rendering of Sunday as “sundae” was furthermore an effort to placate those who took offense to a perceived misuse and abuse.
This sort of legalistic cynicism returns us to Swift, who in 1708 wrote a pamphlet called “An Argument against Abolishing Christianity,” one of the thrusts of which was a defence of the obligatory day of rest. Swift argued that the day of rest ought not to be abolished, as on this day so much valuable work was accomplished. The opening of coffee houses and taverns would divert the people from attendance at church, and as Swift notes, “Where are more appointments and rendezvouses of gallantry? Where more care to appear in the foremost box, with greater advantage of dress? Where more meetings for business? Where more bargains driven of all sorts? And where so many conveniences or incitements to sleep?” The invention of the sundae, as do Swift’s satires, amply discloses the ability and inevitability of human effort against anything impeding the indulgence of appetite.
This business of the state-sponsored Sunday observance has its origin in the Emperor Constantine. Himself a product of the magnificent confluence of Roman, Byzantine, and Turkish cultures (he placed his capital Constantinople at the Bosporus, where Europe and Asia meet), Constantine’s veneration of the sun in this instance nicely coincided with his larger and paradoxical agenda to effect a religious orthodoxy through syncretization and the official tolerance of religious belief. He put an end to the terrible persecution of Christians he had witnessed under his predecessors, by the establishment of the Edict of Milan, while for a time continuing to patronize the rival pagan cults. It is a historical irony that Constantine would launch the first campaign of brutal intra-faith persecution, leading an army of the faithful against the Donatist heresy. It is furthermore ironic that the man credited with first establishing the official observation of the Sunday Sabbath (Saturday being the seventh day rest refered to in Genesis, as well as at Exodus 20:8) more likely had in mind a “dies solis,” a day reserved for deference to Sol Invictus.
Christendom’s enforcement of the sabbath approached a zenith under the “Protectorate” regime of Oliver Cromwell. It is from his early supporters in parliament — the so-called “blue stockings” — that the generic term Blue Law, to denote the class of regulations which enforces religious observation or religious moral standards, is derived. Such laws have concerned a wide range of activities, and as they pertain to the Sabbath in Christian countries have focused on singing, commerce, and even walking. And of course the prohibition against soda, as well as against any sinful pleasure. The Sabbath laws, many of which in their absurdity and deadliness today remind one of Swift’s egg controversy, were enforced well into the twentieth century. In some cases these laws although unenforced are still, as they say, on the books.
As I have already suggested, law or no law, the human species is infinitely creative and will not be indefinitely penned in. A way around, beneath, or through the walls erected by the self-appointed enforcers of religious correctness will be found. The human spirit has always rebelled, and always in the end with success, against Puritanism — defined by H. L. Mencken as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” And really, what is a sundae if not an innocent indulgence designed for the mere production of happiness?