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Lead pipe cinch

Posted by Josh Drexler on October 09, 2008 at 10:07

I believe "Lead pipe cinch" has confused students about its origin because of the use of "pipe" in the term. This has apparently lead most commentators to assume some sort of initial association with the plumbing trades. I agree with the idea of a trades origin for the term, but would point those interested to an entirely different line of buidling trades, one which happens to have developed rapidly and synchronously with the sudden and mysterious appearance of "lead pipe cinch" in the common corpus.

I interpret the word "pipe" to be a poetic substitution and language simplification for the more prosaic and technically-minded term "jacketed." As in, the original turn of phrase would have actually been "lead *jacketed* cinch." This puts it in nearly perfect synchrony with a contemporaneous variant: "copper riveted cinch," which is cited in this web site's article on the origins of "lead pipe cinch."

If re-substituting "jacketed" for "pipe" does turn out to be the key, can we locate a logical reference in the 1880s which might account for pairing a thing which would have been "lead jacketed" with the concept of a cinch or something tightly and securely bound? I believe the answer can be found in the emergence of the electrical and telepone industries, their associated building trades and their humble but ubiquitous enabling technology: electrical cable. Lead jacketing was in use almost from the beginning of the industry as a critical environmental sealant. Consider how newly invented lead-jacketed electrical cable would have looked to contemporaries of the 1880s who were utterly unfamiliar with electrical technology-- their point of reference would have been to the similar and familiar look and feel of lead pipe. Here, for instance, is a brief description of lead jacketed cable technology from that era taken from, of all places, a NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservati!
on document on remediating a historical lead-jacketed cable manufacturing site:

"India Rubber Gutta Percha Insulating Co. (1890 to 1915) - a wire and cable manufacturer [occupied this site, now known as the BICC Cables site, manufacturing wire and cable].

1915 to 1930. At the beginning of their occupancy, Habirshaw Wire Company manufactured paper insulated, lead-jacketed cables at the Site. Materials for these cables included: paper insulation wound over a conductor, then oil impregnated, and covered by a lead sheath, bitumen and rubber.

Later on Habirshaw expanded their cable and wire product line. They included rubber insulated and jacketed cables that required rubber mixing equipment and continuous vulcanizing steam lines and armored submarine cable that required the use of asphalt and jute to provide water resistance along with braided steel sheathing to protect the cable from mechanical damage."

But that still leaves us pondering the question: was lead-jacketed cable a "cinch?" It certainly wasn't in the sense of being easy to install or work with. Find some remarks by modern electrical contractors, posted in 2007, regarding lead-jacketed cable at the following web site:

Lead-jacketed cable may not have been easy to work with, but on the other hand it was apparently remarkably tight and secure. Herewith one comment from contractor "MDShunk" who lists his location only as central Pennsylvania:

"There's quite a bit of lead jacketed cable in my area. Forerunner to UF cable. I normally find it run to detached garages, post lights, fountains, and other places where we'd typically run UF cable today. It sure lasted a lot longer than UF. I use a UF splice kit when I have to fit the stuff. Works okay, since the repair will last as long as the rest of the cable considering the rest of the cable is probably on its last leg." Bear in mind that what MDShunk means by "last leg" is the last leg of a 5 0-to-100 year in-ground installation! Truly remarkably *tight* and durable stuff.

I would submit to Phrase Finder that the novelty of lead-jacketed elec trical or telephone cable emergent in the period of the 1880s would have perfectly matched our modern era's understanding of the meaning of the phrase "lead pipe cinch." And that the new cabling technology emerged rapidly at precisely the same moment in time when "lead pipe cinch" was also appearing suddenly in our lexicon.