A Little Tar-and-Feather Party, Anyone?

A tar and feathers victim in 1917, Wikipedia photo.

The main purpose of tar and feathering, the stories of which are so commonplace that the expression has developed an idiomatic life of its own today, was humiliation in a somewhat humorous vein.  Hard to believe, I know.  In my research for The Loyalist’s Wife, which takes place from 1778 to 1780, I ran across many factual accounts of tar and feathers being used.  Of course, I thought of the tar of today which must be heated very hot before it liquefies, and, therefore, these stories were particularly horrifying. The tar would have been boiling.

Imagine being chased by a crowd, finally caught, stripped to the waist and painted with boiling tar and doused in the nearest pile of feathers.  (From your own pillow, no doubt, the making of which represented hours of work to create in the first place.)  Boiling tar?  How could a person survive that?

As is so often the case, the actual practice was not quite so cruel as its reputation.  Tar was much more viscous in that time period because it was used for keeping ropes on ships pliable (among other things) and needed to be easily applied by sailors’ bare hands.  Obviously, it was not the boiling tar we are used to picturing, but still fairly warm.  So.  What was the point?

In the Boston of tea-party fame, Loyalists were discouraged from supporting the king by a little ‘friendly’ tar and feather party.  This was usually done by vigilante groups and not officially sanctioned.  Those who did this began to take the whole thing too far, actually injuring more than their victims’ pride.  Excessive heating of the tar could seriously blister the skin and lead to devastating burns.  By the time matters had progressed this far, the Patriot leaders began to discourage tar and feathering as its practice was giving them a very bad reputation.

Still, the practice was used off and on over hundreds of years and may even happen now and again today.  Of course those foam pillows just would not work.  Maybe we should be a little kinder to their inventors.

Do you know of any such practices from days gone by?  What is the best fact you’ve found in your research?  Did you use it in your book? 


21 thoughts on “A Little Tar-and-Feather Party, Anyone?

  1. I remember in Diana Gabaldon’s outlander books, her main character Claire who is transported back in time witnesses a tar and feathering from a 20th century perspective, and it truly was a horrifying account. Not an innocent prank by any stretch.

    You do learn a lot when writing a historical!


  2. Interesting how it started out as “not that bad” and then took such a turn for the worse. That was a really interesting little tidbit, thanks for sharing.


  3. I thought too, wouldn’t it have left them badly burned and when they depict it in the movies it seems to always be so violent. I’m glad you cleared that up for me. My problem with research is that I can spend too much time on it and before I know it, there is no time left for writing.


  4. I had always envisioned very hot tar, too. I’m glad it was usually not that bad. I love to find these obscure bits and bites of info. Something that always bothered me, too, was the stocks people were put into in the middle of the village or town. And if whipping was also on the agenda, it must have been horrible. I wonder what possessed people to dream up these kinds of punishment? Since I have never written historical fiction and don’t expect to in future (though I love to read it), I don’t suppose there will ever be an opportunity to use any of this. But I can get caught up in doing research. I had to do some for part of my novel. One of the characters is from Wales, so I had to learn about the place he was from. That was fun. It is amazing what you come up with in the search. But it can be distracting and very time consuming.


    • Right on, Diane! That research can get so fascinating you forget what your purpose was in the first place. Wales! Now there’s a place. We drove the Rhonda Valley and all I could think of was How Green Was My Valley. Did you read that?
      Thanks for your comments!


      • No, I never read the book, but I did see the movie but can’t remember much about it except I think it was sad. I always wanted to go to Wales, but I don’t suppose that will happen now. The church I belonged to years ago began in Wales after the 1904 revival and there were quite a few Welsh people in the congregation.

        “That research can get so fascinating you forget what your purpose was in the first place.” How true! It’s the same when I look up a word in the dictionary. I read more definitions of words I don’t need then nearly forget the word I was looking up. It’s not quite so bad if you use the online dictionaries because you only have that word in front of you rather than whole pages of words. But I still like the “real” dictionaries of which I have quite an assortment (including Volume II of one published over a century and a half ago).


      • When I first saw this picture I thought, ugh! That is so scary, but why does he look alive and unburnt? Thanks for the clarification. I’ve read about tarring and feathering before, but no one bothered to tell me it wasn’t hot, hot tar. I’m very much relieved. I know our ancestors were bloodthirsty, but this makes me feel better. 🙂


  5. Glad to allay your fears, Jessica, and those of a lot of other people. Of course, we know that the process COULD be very hot and punishing to the point of death. Just not always. Thanks for visiting!


  6. I love finding out the history behind common sayings. And I must say I always envisioned the boiling pitch. I thought of it as a torture, more than a humiliation. Like the stocks (chained so that your hands and head protruded on the one side) was also meant for humiliation but was converted to a torture device.

    Your ending made me laugh. Tar and foaming? Well if you survived that, at least you’d be protected from harm should you bump into something…


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