April 8: Connecticut Settles the Nickname Question


What’s in a name? Or… a nickname?

Over its nearly 400 year history, Connecticut has had a diverse set of nicknames  — some more flattering than others.

During the American Revolution, the colony and soon-to-be state of Connecticut became known as “The Provisions State” because of its outsized contributions of both men and supplies to the Continental Army. Connecticut was home to several crucial Continental Army  munitions depots, and Connecticut  governor, Jonathan Trumbull, was the only governor in the 13 American colonies openly committed to the Patriot cause at the start of the war. This put Connecticut in the unique position of having a government that could actively help coordinate and support troop recruitment and supply efforts from the very beginning of the conflict.

At the turn of the 19th century, in the early years of the new nation, the epithet “Land of Steady Habits” began appearing in newspapers and literature as a nickname for Connecticut. This nickname had both positive and negative connotations. When used in a complimentary way, it referred to Connecticut residents’ reputation for upholding traditional Puritan values and genteel decorum. The derogatory implications came  when the nickname was  used to express frustrations with Connecticans’ legendary  resistance to change.  Given the state’s time-honored tendency to perpetually re-elect Federalist politicians from the same wealthy, powerful old Connecticut families, the negative uses of the term, especially in the years before the state Constitution of 1818, were more common.

An illustration from a 1891 British guide to American travel, labeling Connecticut “The Land of Steady Habits.”

Later in the 19th century, the clever young Connecticans who  traveled the country peddling dry goods and exotic wares manufactured by Connecticut’s early industrial “manufactories” earned the state another and less charming nickname. Legend has it that these “Yankee peddlers” would swindle unsuspecting customers by selling them jars of whole nutmegs — a prized and expensive spice — containing  peddler-carved wooden counterfeits in the middle of the jar.  The peddlers would be long gone by the time the customer discovered the forgeries and relearned the importance of the ancient expression caveat emptor – “let the buyer beware.”  The nickname generated in response to the Connecticut peddlers sharp practices  — “the Nutmeg State” — has always had a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality to it; some Connecticut boosters have derided the nickname as an insult to the state’s character, while others find it an amusing homage to its clever Yankee forbears’ frugality and dedication to profit.

A facsimile of the first page of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, written in 1639. (Connecticut State Library)

Connecticut’s defense industries’ remarkable productivity during the nation’s armed conflicts  produced a pair of hard-earned nicknames for the state: “the Munitions State”; and the “Arsenal of Democracy.”

With so many contenders for state moniker, contention over which nickname should be the state’s “real” nickname surfaced repeatedly over the years. To end the debates, the Connecticut General Assembly voted on April 8, 1959 to give  yet another nickname,  “The Constitution State,” official status. This phrase, an homage to the state’s colonial history, is a reference to the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut: a compact among  Connecticut’s earliest European settlers to form a government in 1639,  long touted as one of the first written constitutions in recorded history. Since then, the official appellation has decorated countless pins, coins, souvenirs, and especially, the state’s license plates

One  particular nickname, in a state rich in both history and nicknames,  gained official preeminence, today in Connecticut history.

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Further Reading

Connecticut’s Nicknames,” Connecticut State Library

Wesley Horton, “The Land of Steady Constitutional Habits,” Connecticut Explored

The Debate over Connecticut as the Constitution State,” National Constitution Center