The Origins of "Short Snorters"

A "short snorter" is a banknote or other paper money, signed by people who share a common experience.  As far as most numismatists know, the "short snorter" originated during World War II.  Typically, a soldier going home would collect a dollar bill from each of his buddies with their name on it. "When you get home, pal," they would say, "have a snort on me."

There were many ways to create a short snorter.  A platoon, battalion, or  company might be shipped out together and the men would pass their notes around, each one signing as many as he could.  Snort snorters grew as notes were taped or pasted to each other in long streamers.  Sometimes, the crew of an airplane would swap notes the first time they crossed the equator, or landed on foreign soil. Some of these became "challenges."  If you had served with someone and swapped short snorters and they ran into you again, you had to show the note or else buy the next round of drinks.

During World War II, American soldiers were paid in real money, usually in American money, often in foreign currency, depending on where they were stationed.  By September, 1943, Allied troops had taken Italy. 

From England after D-Day, Americans moved into France, Holland, Belgium and Germany. American troops in the Pacific Theater were paid in Dutch, French, British and Australian money.  I scanned, archived, and returned a set of short snorters on French signed notes by Americans moving through Tahiti. They were not soldiers or sailors or Marines but civilian contractors. These consultants from North American Aviation, Chance Vought, Bendix and other companies reported to the front to provide expertise in the maintenance, operation, and modification of their equipment.

After World War II, American soldiers were no longer paid in real money, but in Military Payment Certificates.  The scrip notes made black marketeering harder. Short snorters on MPCs are known, though they are less common than earlier notes.  World War II saw the glory days of short snorters.

The tradition actually began in the 1920s among barnstormers.  Carl Cleveland of Mercer Island, Washington provided a story that ran in Coin World on September 24, 1989.  Cleveland pinpointed a pilot named Jack Ashcraft as starting the tradition. Ashcraft flew for Van Gates and Clyde Pangborn in the Gates Flying Circus.  In August, 1925, the Gates Flying Circus was entertaining in Syracuse, New York. The flying circus had a supply of stage money.  Ashcraft tricked Clyde Pangborn into signing two notes, one real, one play, and swapping them. Ashcraft came out ahead.  Clyde Pangborn later flew into aviation history by crossing the Pacific nonstop with Hugh Herndon, Jr. Short snorters began a history of their own.

The Happy Bottom Riding Club: the life and times of Pancho Barnes, by Lauren Kessler substantiates this story.  Florence Lowe Barnes was the favorite granddaughter of Thaddeus Sobieski Lowe, who flew observation balloons for the Union army during the Civil War.  After an unhappy marriage, she got the name Pancho on a Mexican vacation.  Barnes learned to fly in the Spring of 1928.  She set a speed record and flew some cross country races. Barnes also socialized with people from Hollywood and she rounded up and organized her flying pals into a team of stunt pilots for the movies.  In the Clark Gable movie, Test Pilot, Barnes appears in one shot, dressed as a mechanic, standing behind the star.  The Great Depression cost Barnes her family home in Burbank. However, flying out over the high desert, she knew another place she could buy cheap.  When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier over Muroc, Pancho Barnes was already the engine of social life there. 

In the late 1920s, Barnes and her friends used the "short snorter" dodge to take hotshot pilots down a few notches.  They would tell the egotistical victim that a select group of pilots wanted him to be member of the "Short Snorters."  There was no such club, of course. Pancho and her friends just wanted the pilot to pay for the privilege of being humilated.

Pilots are a self-selected group. Today, there are only about 650,000 licensed pilots in the USA and a total of only about 300,000 aircraft of all kinds.  In the 1920s and 1930s, pilots were even more isolated. 

Aviators also cross borders very easily.  It would be surprising to discover that pilots in New York have a tradition unknown to pilots in California.  Therefore, it is credible that short snorters began with the Gates Flying Circus in 1925.  For fifteen years, they remained a quirky inside joke among aviators.  Then in World War II, millions more people joined the tradition.  Fifty years ago, a wounded GI going home was worth a buck to his buddies.  Today, new short snorters are extremely rare.





6 years ago

This is worthy of a blog post.

6 years ago

Thanks, Kellen! Unfortuntately, blog posts often fail. I got two loaded, but have had eight failures. It is not worth the hassle.


6 years ago
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