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When did we start calling Michigan "the Mitten State?"

Dec 17, 2015

It’s not hard to see why Michigan is often referred to as “the Mitten State,” but it is a little more difficult to figure out when folks actually started calling it that.

Stateside production assistant Cass Adair tells us he became curious about Michigan’s nickname over a Thanksgiving trip to Tennessee.

“The name ‘the Volunteer State’ in Tennessee is a little bit debated in that they don’t know which war people volunteered to fight,” he says. Whether it was the War of 1812 or the Mexican War, Adair tells us a lot of people from Tennessee volunteered, and the nickname stuck.

“It’s a fairly straightforward story, and I was thinking about it, and I was like, not all states have very straightforward historical events that spur their nicknames, so I started wondering about the origin of Michigan’s mitten nickname,” Adair says.

These days Michiganders have very accurate maps that clearly display the state’s mitten-like shape, but Adair tells us that wasn’t always the case.

“Early maps of Michigan didn’t really look like mittens at all,” he says. “I found some early historical maps, and it turns out that early European explorers were not that good at making maps.”

This map from 1718 highlights the approximate area that would become Michigan. From "Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississipi" by Guillame de L'Isle
Credit Public Domain

He describes one map from 1718 that makes Michigan look like “an arrowhead or like a weird parallelogram.”

By the mid-1800s, Adair says “the Map of Michigan kind of looks like an open-mouthed shark … It’s not a very attractive look for Michigan, I think.”Adair tells us it wasn’t just the limits of technology that made finding Michigan’s shape a challenge. He explains that the territorial boundaries were still in flux, and no one would be sure where Ohio stopped and Michigan began until after the Toledo War.

With those two factors in mind, Adair was able to narrow down the origin of the mitten nickname to sometime in the late 1800s, by which time the Territory of Michigan was settled and “we got a little better at making maps.”

Adair tells us he found a lot of articles about “the great Wisconsin and Michigan mitten controversy from 2011,”  Michiganders bristled at Wisconsin’s use of “mitten” in some of their tourism ads, though none of those articles managed to nail down the origin of the nickname in order to prove that Michigan had laid claim to it first.

Historical map of Michigan from 1801
Credit Public Domain

But Adair managed to get his hands on a number of sources from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that he thinks can help narrow it down even further.

The first mention he found of Michigan as “the Mitten State” appears in the Michigan State Cyclopedia published in 1901.

“That book lists ‘the Mitten State’ alongside ‘the Wolverine State’ and also, for some reason, ‘the Summer State’ as Michigan’s nicknames,” Adair says. He tells us there are sources from slightly earlier that compare Michigan to a mitten, but don’t outright say that Michigan is “the Mitten State.”

The earliest mention he found dates back to 1891, “in a scanned copy of a book that was originally owned by Henry Ford,” which references “the thumb of the mitten,” but doesn’t explicitly extend the likeness to the rest of the state.

“My personal favorite,” Adair says, “in 1900 … there’s this really awesome book of poems that was released by a writer called J.Q. Faulk.”

He tells us this is likely Faulk’s sole literary work, and its title is a mouthful: A Poem on Michigan: Giving a statement, in part, of its Resources, Products, Scenery, Natural Advantages; Also Industries of the Largest Cities.

Adair says that in one of the smaller poems that makes up the larger “Poem on Michigan,” Faulk uses the phrase “the Wolverine State,” but also goes to great lengths to associate Michigan with the mitten.

“This is the awesome stanza from 1900 that mentions Michigan as a mitten:

"Though much on her physical form has been written,
You will note the lower part is like a mitten,
And when around her shores you come.
Please note the cities near her thumb."

A map of Michigan and its railroads published in 1876.
Credit Public Domain

Underrepresented in all of this, however, is the Upper Peninsula. Adair tells us he found one source from the 1920s in which someone from Marquette mentioned that “there was logging happening at the tip of the mitten,” so he reached out to the Marquette Historical Society.

He asked a staff librarian whether that writer might have been referring to the entire state or singling out the Lower Peninsula, “and she said that it is extremely unlikely that someone from Marquette would have called all of Michigan ‘the mitten,’ because after all, there are two peninsulas in Michigan, and only one of them is mitten-shaped.”

She told Adair she prefers to use Michigan’s more inclusive nickname, “the Great Lakes State.”

– Ryan Grimes, Stateside