Local color writing, which developed in American literature after the Civil War, realistically depicts life in a particular part of the country at a particular time. Local color writers employed many specific descriptive details to capture the unique qualities of their geographical areas and the people who lived there. These descriptive details frequently included the way people dress and speak.
O. Henry's stories are known for their New York City settings at the turn of the 19th Century. That was the geographical area and the segment of American culture he captured through description. In "The Cop and the Anthem," many descriptive details specific to New York City at this time can be identified.
As the story opens, Soapy, the protagonist, is sitting on his regular bench in Madison Square, near "the spurting fountain in the ancient square." As winter nears, Soapy plans to spend the cold months on "the Island." This is a reference to Ryker's Island, a jail located in New York City's East River. Soapy then leaves Madison Square and walks to the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, two famous New York City avenues. He visits a fancy restaurant on Broadway and then makes his way to a shop on Sixth Avenue. Later in the story, Soap walks through New York City's theater district and eventually finds himself at a church:
Here was an old church, quaint and rambling and gabled. Through one violet-stained window a soft light glowed . . . .
The church is surrounded by an iron fence. The descriptive details suggest that Soapy is standing before one of New York's old historical churches. Inspired by the music he hears at the church, Soapy decides to seek work the next day, in "the roaring downtown district" where he thinks he can find work with a fur importer. Through all of these details, O. Henry captures the geography and the flavor of his New York City setting.
Other elements of local color can be found in the story, as well:
- Seal-skin coats, fur coats, four-in-hand ties, greatcoats, and silk umbrellas are in fashion.
- City shelters are available for the poor.
- A good cigar costs one dollar.
- Some streets are cobblestone.
- Policemen wear helmets and carry billy clubs.
- Manhattan cocktails are served with cherries.
- A man who propositions a woman on the street is a "masher."
- Some characters speak in vernacular style.
Through all of these details, O. Henry captures the local color of New York City in the late 1800s.