[PW] origin of quote about "taking in each other's washing"

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com
Tue Dec 20 16:31:05 PST 2011

Thanks to Dennis Lien for the fascinating original query and the
follow-up information from Nigel Rees; and thanks to John Cowan for
mentioning the version of the saying with the phrase "eked out"

Here is an instance with "eked out" that refers to the Scilly Islands in 1876.

Cite: 1876 November 11, The Saturday Review, Mr. Froude on Landed
Gentry. Page 592, Column 1, John W. Parker and Son, Published at the
Office of the Saturday Review, London. (Google Books full view)


[Begin excerpt]
If this is a state of things which he approves it is difficult to
understand his reason for introducing an account of the doings of the
late Mr. Augustus Smith in the Scilly Islands. The natives of that
group, before Mr. Smith's time, are popularly said to have eked out a
precarious livelihood by taking in each other's washing. Now things
are very different, and the people are well fed, well lodged, and well
[End excerpt]

In 1885 a periodical called The Critic printed a story titled "The
American Humorists" which it stated was reprinted from the London
Daily News. This article mentioned three popular American writers:
Josh Billings, Artemas Ward, and Mark Twain and included a version of
the joke:

Cite: 1885 December 5, The Critic, The American Humorists,
[Acknowledgement to London Daily News], Page 274, Column 1, The Critic
Company, New York. (Google Books full view)


[Begin excerpt]
In American country newspapers there is usually one column entirely
devoted to facetiae, which appear to have been clipped out of the
columns of other country papers. They live on each other, just as the
natives of the Scilly Islands are feigned to eke out a precarious
livelihood by taking in each other's washing.
[End excerpt]

The 1885 date is shortly before the publication date of the William
Morris piece, and the Critic author did not credit Twain or any of the
three humorists with this joke.

The cite dated 1866 is still the earliest that I've located, and it
refers to Isle of Man. Variants refer to the Scilly Islands and the
Orkney Islands. There are multiple matches in the Hansard database,
but nothing this early.
[Typos possible; please double-check before using this information.]

Garson O'Toole

On Tue, Dec 20, 2011 at 2:11 PM, Dennis Lien <d-lien at umn.edu> wrote:
> I'd also passed my query on to Nigel Rees, who replied (and gave
> permission for me to post here):
> ******
> Dennis -
> In my Brewer's Famous Quotations, I seem to have printed the Morris
> text - but I can't remember where I acquired it.  I put the quote
> under Twain but when you read the Morris, he is not really saying it
> is by him - just fancifully suggesting it might come from that
> direction.  (snip)
> Regards,
> Nigel Rees
> Earned a precarious living by taking in one another’s washing
> Customarily ascribed (with slight hesitancy) to Mark Twain.  In The
> Commonweal (6 August 1887) an article entitled ‘Bourgeois Versus
> Socialist’ signed by William Morris ends: ‘A bourgeois paradise will
> supervene, in which everyone will be free to exploit – but there will
> be no one to exploit ... On the whole, one must suppose that the type
> of it would be that town (surely in America and in the neighbourhood
> of Mark Twain) that I have heard of, whose inhabitants lived by taking
> in each other’s washing.’
>  Two years later, George Bernard Shaw wrote that ‘The inhabitants [of
> Bayreuth] either live in villas on independent incomes or else by
> taking in one another’s washing and selling confectionery, scrap books
> and photographs’ – from The Hawk (13 August 1889).  Slightly after
> this, ‘E.W.C.’ wrote in Cornish Notes & Queries (First Series) (1906):
> ‘I have certainly heard the phrase in connection with the Scilly
> Islands.  And some go so far, and are so rude, as to suggest “Hence
> their name”.’  Similarly, in the forward to his Poems 1938-1945)
> (1946), Robert Graves declared: ‘I write poems for poets, and satires
> or grotesques for wits ... The moral of the Scilly Islanders who
> earned a precarious livelihood by taking in one another’s washing is
> that they never upset their carefully balanced island economy by
> trying to horn into the laundry trade of the mainland; and that
> nowhere in the Western Hemisphere was washing so well done.’
>  Benham (1960) lists the well-known joke with the attribution ‘origin
> unknown’, and adds: ‘It is said that a society was formed (circa 1900)
> for the purpose of discovering the origin of the phrase, but without
> result.’
> *********
> forwarded from Nigel Rees by Dennis Lien / U of Minnesota Libraries //
> d-lien at umn.edu
> On Mon, Dec 19, 2011 at 4:02 PM, Dennis Lien <d-lien at umn.edu> wrote:
>> The patron is me, and my own only excuse is curiosity, and there is no rush...
>> On one of my other lists (Comics Curmudgeon) the question recently
>> came up as to the origin of the joke about a community so poor that
>> its economy was based on members taking in each other's washing. (snip)
> _______________________________________________
> Project Wombat - Project-Wombat
> list at project-wombat.org
> http://www.project-wombat.org/

More information about the Project-Wombat-FM mailing list