Centuries before Al Capp started the Sadie Hawkins Day fad in his Li’l Abner comic strip, women in Scotland and Ireland asked men to marry them during Leap Years.
At least, that’s how the story goes.
Legend has it that in Ireland in the 5th century, St. Brigid complained to St. Patrick that Irish women had to wait too long to marry. (Irish men being notoriously slow to propose.)
St. Patrick responded by declaring that women can ask men to marry them every four years on February 29.
Long before that, Irish monks brought it to Scotland. In 1288, the Scots enacted a law that allowed a woman to ask a bachelor to marry her, but only in a Leap Year. He would be fined one pound if he refused.
It wasn’t until 1937 that New Haven native Al Capp included the Sadie Hawkins gag in Li’l Abner. moving to November the day women catch a husband. Capp never specified which day in November. Sadie Hawkins Day first ran on Nov. 15, 1937, but over the years Capp featured it between November 19 and November 30.
“It happens on the day I say it happens,” Capp once said. Every year, he claimed, he received tens of thousands of letters from colleges, communities and church groups as early as July asking what day will be Sadie Hawkins Day so they could plan a dance.
In the comic strip, it started as a desperate ploy by Hekzebiah Hawkins, the first mayor of Dogpatch (which Capp used to say was based on Seabrook, N.H., where he had a summer home).
Hawkins wanted to marry off his homely daughter Sadie. He declared a footrace would be held on Sadie Hawkins Day, and unmarried women who caught eligible men had to marry them, ‘and no two ways about it.’
Sadie Hawkins Day dances quickly became a national fad. In 1939, Life magazine reported girls chased boys in 201 colleges.
By 1949, Capp estimated 50,000 organizations sponsored Sadie Hawkins parties and dances.
Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, held a Sadie Hawkins Day dance in November 1947. A proclamation stated that all the Bates ‘gals what ain't dated but craves somthin' awful to be can ask any unhitched man to go to dance Saturday.’ Men had to accept, ‘no two ways about it.’ The gals had to pay the admission, two cents for every inch of the man's waistline.
In 1948, the Arthur Murray Studios on Boylston St. in Boston staged a Sadie Hawkins Dance, introducing new dances based on the comic strip, including "The Skunk Hollow Hop, "The Daisy Mae Whirl," "The Scragg Shag," "The Shmoo Shlide," and the "Li'l Abner Dip."
The entire city of Dover, N.H., celebrated Sadie Hawkins Day on May 2, 1951, and Al Capp showed up for it. He said his wife's kinfolk came from Dover. Mayor Fred Smalley greeted Capp wearing glow-in-the-dark suspenders, patched overalls and a marryin' suit with a belt in the back. There was a parade, a poster contest and a square dance at City Hall, with plenty of costumes based on the comic strip characters.
Li’l Abner would continue until 1977, but Sadie Hawkins Day began to return to its roots during Leap Year. In 1952, the Harvard Club of Quincy, Mass., staged a Leap Year Sadie Hawkins dance featuring men in drag playing the Dogpatch character Daisy Mae.
The original Sadie Hawkins proclamation read:
KNOW ALL DOGPATCH MEN who ain't married by these presents, and 'specially Li'l Abner Yokum:
WHEREAS there be a passel o' gals what ain't married up but what craves somthin' awful to be, and
WHEREAS these gals' pappies and mammies have been shoulderin' the burden of their board and keep for more years than is tolerable, and
WHEREAS they is plenty of young men what could marry these gals but acts ornery and won't,
IT IS HEREBY PROCLAIMED AND DECREED that Saturday, Nov. 19, 1940, shall be known as SADIE HAWKINS DAY
WHEREAS a foot race will be held, and all unmarried gals who chase unmarried men -- and catch them --- have got to be married up wif each other, and no two ways about it."