Q From Desmond Klein: Where did the phrase wildcat strike originate? That it means an illegal strike of some kind is known, but I cannot find out where it originated.
A The term began to appear in the US at the beginning of the last century. This is an early example:
Unions in all the building trades are rapidly voting in favor of the proposed Structural Building Trades Alliance of America, which aims to combine 500,000 workers in one compact body. The object is to put a stop to “wildcat” strikes.
Daily Gazette And Bulletin (Williamsport, PA), 19 Apr. 1904.
It’s a late example of an idiomatic phrase that includes wildcat. In Europe this refers to a wild species that’s a relative of the domestic feline, but in North America it’s been applied to a couple of larger cats. One is the Canadian lynx; the other has more names than any one species surely has a right to — among them puma, mountain lion, catamount, cougar and panther.
In Britain, wild cat became a term for a savage, ill-tempered, or spiteful person and this sense was carried over into North America but became attached to the native big cats of the continent. In the nineteenth century it extended to any untamed or unreliable person, or someone who undertakes a risky or unsafe project, especially one that preys on innocent people.
The earliest use from which all others followed was wildcat bank. Such banks flourished in the period before 1863 when states were allowed to set them up. They issued banknotes; at the time, these were promissory notes, convenient IOUs exchangeable at the issuing bank for real money called specie — coins, especially gold. Some technically still are — over the signature of the chief cashier, Bank of England notes quaintly say “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ...”. Banks frequently issued far more banknotes than they had capital to redeem them. A run on the bank could ruin them and many ended their short lives that way.
When Michigan became a state in 1837, it went further than most by allowing banks to be established without specific permission from the state government. Criminals flourished. This is an extract from a letter from a firm in Detroit to one of its customers:
We have had nearly sixty new Banks start into operation within about the last three months. They are called the “Wild Cat Banks” — the notes they issue are called “Wild Cat Money” — our state is full of it; if you take Five dollars to-day, perhaps to-morrow, four of the five may be good for nothing — a dollar in specie is almost as rare as a swallow in mid-winter.
Rutland Herald (Rutland, Vermont), 20 Mar. 1838.
Two stories are told about the origin of the term. One says that notes issued by one of those early Michigan banks featured a drawing of a panther. I can’t corroborate that. It seems unlikely because the term appeared too widely and too soon after statehood for it to be associated with a specific bank. The other story seems more probable, that banks were deliberately set up in out-of-the-way places, thought of as haunts of wildcats, to restrict the number of banknote holders who sought to redeem them. This fitted the prevailing view that human wildcats were cunning, stealthy predators, like the wild animal. This is one view from personal experience:
Some thirty banks or more were the fungous growth of the new political hot-bed; and many of these were of course without a “local habitation,” though they might boast the “name,” it may be of some part of the deep woods, where the wild cat had hitherto been the more formidable foe to the unwary and defenceless. Hence the celebrated term “Wild Cat”.
A New Home — Who’ll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life, by Caroline Matilda Kirkland (Mrs Mary Clavers), 1839.
A writer to the New York Tribune in April 1841 sarcastically outlined rules for a successful new bank, among them that its grand offices should be in the middle of town but that “Redemption [was] to be somewhere in the backwoods that a catamount could not climb to without breaking his neck”.
Later in the century, the term was applied more widely and loosely, for example to an extra train running outside the normal schedule, to itinerant theatrical troupes who picked up engagements as they toured and to distillers of moonshine whisky. It came most commonly to be used (as it still is) for speculators who explored for oil away from areas of known reserves.
When an operator goes into an undeveloped field, and puts down a test well, he naturally desires to have the profit of his risk. It costs him something like $6,000 to put down that wildcat well, for which in most cases, he gets no return, for the majority of wildcat wells produce nothing.
The Sun (New York), 17 Jul 1883.
The rare successful finds were wildcat strikes, which by their nature were unexpected. This last term began to appear in print in the early 1900s and it seems it was almost immediately transferred, possibly unconsciously but perhaps as a bitter joke, to a sudden and undisciplined downing of tools.