Q From Jonathan McColl: I used the expression take a powder in front of my wife (who understood it) and my son (who didn’t). It’s American I’m sure, and I feel it’s wild 1920s American gangster slang. Why would one take a powder when one goes on the lam?
A If a character was instructed to take a powder in old-time hard-boiled US fiction, he was expected to immediately leave, depart or absent himself, often to avoid a difficult situation. It could also mean to escape or abscond. As you’ve discovered, the idiom isn’t much known these days. Your dating is about right and this is an example from its heyday:
Feeney smiled grimly. “He was yeller — tried to take a powder on you, didn’t he?” “He was talking of quitting,” said Perelli indifferently.
On the Spot, by Edgar Wallace, 1931.
Having said that, the brief answer to your question has to be, “I don’t know”. But then, neither does anybody else, though we aren’t short of theories.
One suggestion is that the person is being told to powder his nose, as a dismissive reference to the polite female euphemism for going to the place variously known as the bathroom, restroom, toilet or loo. He may instead have been told to literally take a powder, with the idiom being based on a medical instruction that is at least as old as the eighteenth century. But what sort of powder? The medical references were most commonly to headache remedies or to purgatives. The latter, as Eric Partridge once suggested, might refer to the “moving” powers of the remedy. This might be supported by slightly older versions of the phrase: to take a walk-out powder or take a run-out powder.
Readers of the newsletter recalled elderly relatives taking headache powders, common in the days before pills became widely available, and felt that they were a strong possibility for its origin. Several mentioned in particular BC powder, a pain reliever first sold in the US in 1906 and still available today. This was popular enough early in its history that it may have been part of the background for the figurative expression. Donald Kaspersen remembers an extended version of the expression, based on a deliberately paradoxical logic that’s linked to headache powders: “The oldtimers in New York City, if they were annoyed with you, would sometimes say, ‘Yer givin’ me a headache. Why don’t ya go take a powder?’ But, more often, the first sentence would be dropped, as, at least at one time, everyone knew it anyway.”
Intriguingly, other readers commented that they knew a different sense of the expression also linked to these powders. John Roland Elliott commented, “I always thought that take a powder was an invitation to self-administer some pain relief product to relieve one’s apparent agitation. I thought it would roughly translate to ‘chill out’.” Missy Gaido Allen remembers it used this way: “My grandmother, born in Florida in 1908 and raised in Texas, used take a powder as a variation of ‘relax’. She explained it to me as taking medication. I grew up in Texas in the 1970s and we used that phrase — it was understood as ‘calm down’.”
There is another possibility. Powder is on record as an Northern English and Scots regional word meaning a hurry or rush; something done with a powder was in great haste or forcefully. It might be a variation on pother, a commotion or fuss, or it might be a shortened form of gunpowder. It is said that powder in this sense was still known in the US early in the twentieth century and might be the origin of take a powder.
Or possibly not.