Dago Dazzler: History
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Subjects: Management

A dago dazzler is an elaborately decorated document used to identify its bearer, usually an academic, as someone with an official association with an institution, usually a university or college, with the purpose of impressing low-level bureaucrats, usually of a foreign nation, so that they will allow the bearer to gain access to archived material or to perform some other action. The document is given more than the usual amount of decoration—often with colored ribbons and shiny seals—solely for the purpose of impressing bureaucrats. The term, used by academics and sometimes by government officials, is meant to disparage the bureaucrats, who are usually located in another country. The first word (dago) is an ethnic slur for Italians (and sometimes Spaniards and Latin Americans), but dago dazzlers have been used in other countries, including China . Dago dazzlers were created as early as the late 19th century in the United States , but examples have been referred to in recent decades. Published references nowadays are often accompanied by a statement by the writer that the word "dago" in the term is an ethnic slur.

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1. History

1.1. 19th to Early 20th Century

In 1898, when United States Department of Agriculture scientist David Fairchild left the United States for a plant-collecting expedition in Europe and Asia, he was equipped with letters of introduction and enormous certificates of identification. "The papers," Fairchild recalled, "were wonderful creations, hand-printed on parchment, bedecked with ribbons, and emblazoned with the gold seal of the Department of Agriculture. Nothing the Department of State ever produced could compare with them, and they soon became affectionately known as 'Dago Dazzlers.'"[1]

A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University, in 1920 gave a minor university official, Reginald Coggeshall, a dago dazzler "with a great gold seal of the University", according to the recipient.[2]

In August 1929, an associate of Lincoln Kirstein had "what she called her 'Dago Dazzler'. Bearing the gold stamp of Harvard, this official looking piece of paper identified its bearer as a worthy and accredited scholar of art history who should be permitted to see any and all artworks, whether they were sequestered in private houses, or locked in minor chapels." In that situation, the bearer presented her document to a doorman at a private villa in Venice, and the villa's owner soon let her and her two companions inside to inspect frescos.[3]

In 1940, Thomas Barbour, an official at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, sent biologist Archie Carr, then planning an expedition to Mexico, a dago dazzler, in this case a letter on Harvard stationery that he hoped would facilitate Carr's collecting activities in Mexico. He wrote facetiously: "I send you herewith a dago dazzler which may help." "Dazzlers" are any official looking document on impressive stationery, [...] In effect, a dazzler legitimizes a scholar's efforts by association. The term is still in use today.

The dazzler was meant to help with "bureaucrats or border guards who could impede the collection and export of scientific specimens".[4]

In 1937, Lawrence Griswold described dago dazzlers in Tombs, Travel and Trouble, his book of anecdotes about his travels in Latin America and Southeast Asia:[5]

"When posed with an obdurate official whose ignorance is his best armor, the Dago Dazzler is called into play. With great dignity, the tube is brought forth and opened in the presence of the official. The Dazzler is then withdrawn carefully and unrolled slowly with impressive reverence. When the officer, who has been watching all this with increasing apprehension, finally sees the iridescent and beribboned prodigy, awe overcomes him. Sometimes he faints."

In his book Panamexico,also published in 1937, Carveth Wells mentioned that the Geographic Society of Chicago issued him a dago dazzler.[6]

1.2. Mid to Late 20th Century

Fernando Belaúnde Terry, president of Peru from 1963 to 1968 and again from 1980 to 1985, at some point gave Everett Ellin, an art expert, a dago dazzler to help Ellin with bureaucrats in that country. Ellin later described the document this way:[7]

[H]e gave me a proclamation with his seal and a red sash on it that said that the president endorsed this, and that it'd been taken up with the legislature and had the full blessings of the country; and it was good for the nation; and anybody who sees this, I ask to be very cooperative with these people. And we took this document with us whenever we called on people, and we would bring it out. [Laughs.]
Belaúnde himself "called it a 'dago dazzler' [...] which I thought was a very vulgar—because I couldn't think of calling a Latino a dago, but—but he called it a 'dago dazzler.' And, boy, it opened every door. [Laughs.] And that's how we got everywhere. If we ever needed anything—if we needed a helicopter to go to some remote village, the army sent a helicopter, and we were taken care of.

Journalists have also been known to use dago dazzlers. The National Geographic magazine's art department created "dazzlers" for use by its roving correspondents, including one which seemed to help get a photographer past customs officials in India in one incident in the early 1970s, when a clerk:[8]

studies Steve's passport and Geographic ID card. he studies another document Steve has slipped before him — a letter addressed 'To Whom It Might Concern', explaining in ornate calligraphy the benevolent purposes of our mission, embossed with the seal of the National Geographic Society, and adorned with a blob of sealing wax holding a blue-and-white ribbon. This masterwork of pomposity, contrived by the magazine's art staff and designed to overwhelm the most paranoid official, is known in-house as a 'dazzler'. it is the ultimate weapon in the stalled staffer's arsenal.

An anonymous writer for The Weekly Standard in 2004 recalled use of a dago dazzler at some point in the past when the writer was a student. In this case, the document was part of correspondence between university officials, not taken with the individual on a trip abroad. The writer[9]

was enrolled in the junior-year-abroad program of a school that shall remain nameless. But before our year-long scholarly pub-crawl across Europe could begin, a bureaucratic correspondence had to be carried on between the American university and its European counterpart. We noticed that, instead of using our university's usual, tasteful red-on-buff official stationery, these letters went out sporting a gaudy, saw-toothed gold seal, with red and blue ribbons affixed. One day a secretary, pointing to the decoration, whispered to us, "We call this the dago dazzler."

The document, according to the writer, was "calculated to impress the rubes".[9]

The content is sourced from: https://handwiki.org/wiki/Dago_dazzler


  1. Stross, Randall E. (1986). The Stubborn Earth: American Agriculturalists on Chinese Soil, 1898-1937. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 21–22. https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft2g5004m0&brand=ucpress. 
  2. Blanchard, Wells, ed (1922) (in en). Harvard College Class of 1916: Secretary's Third Report (published June 1922). p. 74. https://books.google.com/books?id=KscnAAAAYAAJ. 
  3. Weber, Nicholas Fox (1995) (in en). Patron Saints: Five Rebels who Opened America to a New Art, 1928-1943. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 74. ISBN 9780300064483. https://books.google.com/books?id=cM0Jv1P9Z80C. Retrieved 2010-09-06. 
  4. Davis, Frederick (2007-07-02) (in en). The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles: Archie Carr and the Origins of Conservation Biology. Oxford University Press. pp. 39–40. ISBN 9780198042471. https://books.google.com/books?id=QyV0CLz5drQC. 
  5. Griswold, Lawrence (1937) (in en). Tombs, Travel and Trouble. Hillman-Curl, Inc.. p. 119. https://books.google.com/books?id=4sifAAAAMAAJ. 
  6. Wells, Carveth (1937) (in en). Panamexico. R. M. McBride. p. 25. ISBN 9781258410193. https://books.google.com/books?id=H1UZMAEACAAJ. 
  7. Ellin, Everett (2004-04-27). "Oral history interview with Everett Ellin, 2004 April 27-28" (transcript of audio recording). Interviewed by Liza Kirwin. Washington, D.C.: Archives of American Art. Archived from the original on 2011-11-03. Retrieved 2019-11-04. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-everett-ellin-12188
  8. Canby, Thomas Y. (1998) (in en). From Botswana to the Bering Sea: My Thirty Years with National Geographic. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. p. 87. ISBN 1559635177. OCLC 191951246. https://archive.org/details/frombotswanatobe00canb/page/87. 
  9. "Iraqi documents, direct-mail excesses, more" (in en). The Weekly Standard. 2006-03-06. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/weekly-standard/iraqi-documents-direct-mail-excesses-more. 
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