A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why do they call the cheap seats "bleachers"?

August 10, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

I've noticed that you've got an incredible ability to research words and their origins. (Please try not to be TOO amazed by my observational skills.) In any event, here's something I don't get, and I thought maybe you could help me with it. Why are the stands at football games called "bleachers?" There's no obvious reason for this. I've never stood up and found that the seat of my pants had turned a weird shade of white, and I'm sure bleachers wouldn't work well if I threw them in the wash with my dirty socks. (And who's got a washer that big, anyway?) So hey, if you've got an explanation for this, I'll not only be impressed (not the British sailor kind of impressment, I mean the good kind) but I'll also be stunned, amazed and gripped with happiness.

SDStaff Dogster replies:

While we here at the SDSAB would like to stun and amaze you, we have no desire to grip your happiness. What we will do is take a (ahem) whack at your question. Turning to our trusty, dog-eared Oxford English Dictionary, we examine the word "bleacher." Four part definition. The first part states, "One who bleaches." Duh. Second part: "A vessel used in bleaching." So far, so simple. Third part: "One of a roofless set of benches for spectators at outdoor events such as baseball and football games; also, an occupant of these benches." The first recorded printed use is from the Chicago Tribune on May 6th, 1889: "The grand stand and bleachers were well filled with something over 2000 spectators." No doubt to watch the Cubs lose again. The final usage of bleacher is as an agent for bleaching a negative or print. Not helpful.

But let's speculate a little here. It seems possible bleacher derives from "bleached," meaning, "whitened or blanched from exposure to light and air." Bleaching techniques in the late 19th century often involved the sun's light and heat. And, sitting in the bleachers, that's what you'll be exposed to as you try to get your beer down before the wax cup becomes too frayed to hold its shape.

Aha, you're thinking, there he goes again, winging it. Not at all. Turning to our other dictionary, the American Heritage — not as impressive as the OED, but not bad — we find bleacher defined as "an unroofed outdoor grandstand ... [ ... from the bleaching effect of exposure to sun.]"

Then again, maybe they just liked the way it mated with "creature."

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