Friday, March 18, 2011

Hidden History: How The Pillow Got Its Name

The pillow.  You lay your head down on one every night when you go to sleep, but do you know how it got its name?  Actually, the pillow was not known by that name until 1847.  Prior to that date, it was known in English as the “feathersack.”  How the feathersack came to be called the pillow is one of the most fascinating untold stories in American history.

In 1846, a dispute over the Texas border erupted into war between the United States and Mexico.  One of the most remarkable events of that war involved Gideon J. Pillow, a brigadier general in the United States Army.  Born in Tennessee, Pillow practiced law and served in the state militia before joining the Army at the war's outbreak.  Pillow commanded a division of troops in an army led by General Winfield Scott, which by September 1847 had won a series of engagements and penetrated to within miles of Mexico City.

Standing between the American forces and the Mexican capital was the fortress Chapultepec Castle, which was garrisoned by Mexican troops under General Nicolas Bravo.  On September 13, 1847, the Americans charged Chapultepec Castle in three columns, one of which was led by Brigadier General Pillow.  Initially impeded by the Mexican artillery, the Americans were aided by the arrival of ladders that helped them scale the walls.  While a brigade of troops under James Shields advanced on the fortress from the north, Pillow’s division gained momentum and advanced from south.  Caught between two fronts, the main part of the Mexican army under General Bravo began to retreat to Mexico City, but a small group of soldiers under Lieutenant Juan de la Barrera refused to leave its post and continued to defend the fortress. 

Though in a hopeless position, Barrera refused to raise the white flag.  Instead, he sent a message to the American lines boldly stating that he would surrender his forces only if an American officer could defeat him in single combat.  Eager to avoid the casualties that would result from a prolonged siege of the fortress, Pillow immediately sent word to Barrera that he accepted the challenge.  The two officers met outside the fortress, and Barrera invited Pillow to choose the weapon they would use. 

In a surprise move that would reverberate throughout history, Pillow chose the feathersack.  Though dumbfounded by Pillow’s choice, Barrera acquiesced and ordered that two feathersacks be brought from inside the fortress.

Armed with their feathersacks, the two officers squared off as their men cheered them on.  Upon the signal of a pistol fired into the air, the duel began.  Pillow quickly gained the upper hand, wielding his feathersack with expert skill and overwhelming Barrera with a barrage of blows.  But Barrera soon struck back and connected with a vicious feathersack strike to Pillow’s jaw.  With Pillow momentarily stunned, Barrera twirled his feathersack above his head, winding up for a finishing blow.  When he swung, however, Pillow suddenly ducked.  With Barrera off balance, Pillow delivered a quick strike to the chest.  Barrera stumbled and fell to the ground, whereupon Pillow beat him continuously with the feathersack until he cried out in submission. 

Following Pillow’s heroic victory, Barrera and his men surrendered. The Americans subsequently released the captives, but only after Barrera had been tarred and feathered with the feathers from the very feathersacks that had been used in the duel.  After capturing the fortress at Chapultepec, the Americans would soon go on to take Mexico City and win the war. 

Thrilled with Pillow’s valiant efforts in the service of his country, President James K. Polk promoted him to major general and issued a proclamation declaring that the feathersack would henceforth be known as the “pillow.”  From that day forward, young children would forestall their bedtimes by joyfully reenacting the epic duel between Pillow and Barrera in games known as “pillow fights.
---- JAMES J. HAMILTON is a writer & comedian in Pittsburgh - and he sounds like he should be on a campaign poster from 1888.
Check out his blog.
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