You Have an Idea. I Have an Idea. We Swap. Now We Each Have Two Ideas.

George Bernard Shaw? SYSTEM magazine? Stanley B. Moore? Charles F. Brannan? Jimmy Durante? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a very valuable insight in the following saying that is credited to George Bernard Shaw:

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.

I’ve seen this quotation mentioned several times during discussions about intellectual property rights, open source software, and copyright. But I have never seen a precise reference. Could you track this one down?

Quote Investigator: QI has not located any compelling evidence that George Bernard Shaw made this remark. The earliest citation found by QI closely conforming to this theme was dated 1917. Apples were not mentioned in the following advertisement titled “The Difference Between Dollars and Ideas” for a magazine called SYSTEM that was printed in the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Instead of apples, dollars were swapped without perceptible advantage [CTSY]

You have a dollar.
I have a dollar.
We swap.
Now you have my dollar.
We are no better off.
• • •
You have an idea.
I have an idea.
We swap.
Now you have two ideas.
And I have two ideas.
• • •
That’s the difference.
• • •
There is another difference. A dollar does only so much work. It buys so many potatoes and no more. But an idea that fits your business may keep you in potatoes all your life. It may, incidentally, build you a palace to eat them in!
• • •
It was some such philosophy as this that brought the magazine SYSTEM into being sixteen years ago. SYSTEM was (and is) a swapping-place for business ideas.

The same advertisement for SYSTEM magazine was printed in other periodicals such as the New York Times [NYSY]. In succeeding decades the saying was rephrased and reprinted in a variety of publications and books.

The earliest evidence found by QI of apples being used for illustrative purposes instead of dollars was dated 1949, and the speaker was a Secretary of Agriculture in the United States. The words appeared in an education news journal which cited a television broadcast [NBCB]:

… if you have an apple and I have an apple, and we swap apples — we each end up with only one apple. But if you and I have an idea and we swap ideas — we each end up with two ideas.

— Charles F. Brannan, Secretary of Agriculture, from a broadcast over NBC, April 3, 1949

George Bernard Shaw was a famously witty individual and many adages of uncertain provenance have been credited to him. His name is powerfully magnetic in the world of quotations, and it attracts stray attributions. By 1974 the version of the saying with apples and ideas was ascribed to Shaw. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1813 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter that used a wonderful metaphor to discuss the transmission of ideas. This quotation is included because it is thematically related to the saying under investigation. In the following text a taper refers to a slender candle [TJUC] [TJYQ]:

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson: August 13, 1813

In 1917 an advertisement including the saying was printed in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times as noted previously in this post. The adage was reprinted in numerous publications, and sometimes acknowledgments to other periodicals were given. For example, when the core text appeared in “The Mentor” it was credited to “Exchange” [TMWS], and when it appeared in “The Disston Crucible” it was credited to the “Modern Retailer” [DCSD].

In 1918 an article in the periodical “The Mailbag” discussed advertising strategies to increase the number of attendees at a convention meeting. The story included a sample advertisement to attract convention participants that contained a rephrased version of the saying [MBRJ]:

If you have a dollar and I have a dollar and we swap, neither one is any better off.

But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we swap, then both of us have two ideas. That is the convention spirit, and you can hardly come without striking brand new sparks from the flint and steel of give and take.

Typically no precise ascription was given for the saying, but sometimes an individual was credited. For instance, in December 1918 a person named F. J. Smolka received credit during a convention of insurance underwriters. This version used the word “exchange” instead of “swap” [MLFS]:

“If I have a dollar and you have a dollar and we exchange we will be even, but if I have an idea and you have an idea and we exchange you will have two ideas and I will have two ideas” –F. J. Smolka

In May 1919 “The Inland Printer” reprinted an article from the March issue of “The American Magazine” titled “Never Sell What You Don’t Believe In” by Albert Sidney Gregg. The piece profiled Stanley B. Moore who was the owner of a printing and advertising company. The author Gregg claimed that Moore was the originator of the text used in the SYSTEM advertisement [IPSM]:

You have a dollar. I have a dollar. We swap. Now you have my dollar and I have yours. We are no better off. You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now we have two ideas. That’s the difference. But there is another difference: a dollar does only so much work. It buys so many potatoes, and no more. But an idea that fits your business may keep you in potatoes all your life. It may, incidentally, build you a palace to eat them in. Are you plowing, fertilizing, planting and cultivating your field with Moore service? Don’t set an ox pace when rapid transit is available.

The man who got out this original bit of advertising is Stanley B. Moore, of Cleveland Ohio.

In 1922 the first volume in a series of books featuring the popular character Pee-wee Harris was published by the author Percy Keese Fitzhugh. Harris was a fictional Boy Scout whose many adventures involved his scouting skills. In the following passage Harris attempted to explain to a friend the word “reciprical” (a misspelling of reciprocal). The example was based on the exchange of apples, but the author Fitzhugh’s intentions were humorous [PWPF]:

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and you give me yours, that’s a good turn, isn’t it? And if I give you mine that’s another good turn, isn’t it? And we’re both just as well off as we were before. That’s recip—” He had to pause to lick some trickling lemon juice from his chubby chin, “rical.”

In 1925 a Texas newspaper ran an abbreviated version of the saying without mentioning dollars. The words were attributed to an agricultural publication, and an addendum stated that the participants were “richer” and “did not lose” [BSSI]:

You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now, you have two ideas and so do I. Both are richer. What you gave you have. What you got I did not lose. This is cooperation.

Missouri Pacific Agricultural Development Bulletin.

In 1944 a television interview with Charles F. Brannan, Secretary of Agriculture was broadcast, and he discussed sharing knowledge with other countries. Brannan employed a version of the adage based on apples and ideas. Here is a longer excerpt [NBCB]:

An American expert shows a foreign expert how to apply new methods and skills. He, in turn, teaches others. Eventually some of his students come to the United States to study in our universities, or on our farms. Moreover, the skill we send abroad isn’t lost in the transfer. It isn’t consumed. It doesn’t deteriorate. Usually it’s improved. Mr. Harkness, if you have an apple and I have an apple, and we swap apples — we each end up with only one apple. But if you and I have an idea and we swap ideas — we each end up with two ideas.

— Charles F. Brannan, Secretary of Agriculture, from a broadcast over NBC, April 3, 1949, “The United States in World Affairs,” in cooperation with the Department of State.

In 1951 a biography titled “Schnozzola” of the famous comedian with a prominent proboscis, Jimmy Durante, was published. Durante was so impressed by the saying that he tried to construct a song based on it [JDGF]:

Jimmy’s files still hold some of these roughly sketched song ideas. One of them reads: “You have a dollar. I have a dollar. We swap. Now you have my dollar and I have your dollar. We are not better off. You have an idea. I have an idea. We swap. Now you have two ideas, and I have two ideas. Both are richer. When you gave, you have. What I got, you did not lose. That’s cooperation.”

In 1974 a speaker at a Library Administrators Conference in Illinois suggested that the saying was a form of Shavian wit [GSNR]:

Was it not George Bernard Shaw who once said, in words I perhaps paraphrase: “If two men each give one another an apple they still each have only one apple. But if each of them gives the other an idea, they each have two ideas.”

In conclusion, the quotation using “apples” was probably derived from an earlier quotation using “dollars” to illustrate different types of exchange. The earliest known instance with “dollars” was found in an advertisement, but the attribution was not clear and antedating is still possible. Charles F. Brannan spoke a version of the quotation with apples in 1944. He probably popularized this version and may have originated it. The attachment to George Bernard Shaw is unsupported at this time.

[CTSY] 1917 September 10, Chicago Tribune, The Difference Between Dollars and Ideas, [Advertisement for SYSTEM magazine], Page 7, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[NYSY] 1917 September 17, New York Times, The Difference Between Dollars and Ideas, [Advertisement for SYSTEM magazine], Page 3, New York. (ProQuest)

[NBCB] 1949 October 1, News Bulletin of the Institute of International Education, A Little Money Brings A Very Big Return, Page 4, Volume 25, Number 1, Institute of International Education, New York. (Verified with scans from the University of Florida, Gainesville, Education Library; Great thanks to the librarians at UF)

[TJUC] The Founders’ Constitution: The Web Edition, Volume 3, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, Document 12, University of Chicago Press and the Liberty Fund. (Accessed press-pubs.uchicago.edu on 2011 December 13) link

[TJYQ] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Thomas Jefferson, Page 394, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[TMWS] 1917 December, The Mentor, The Difference Between Dollars and Ideas, Page 72, Volume 16, Number 2, State Prison, Charlestown Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link

[DCSD] 1918 May, The Disston Crucible: A Magazine for the Millman, Saw Dust, Page 64, Volume 7, Number 4, Published by Henry Disston & Sons, Inc., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link

[MBRJ] 1918 July, The Mailbag: A Journal of Direct-Mail Advertising, Edited by Tim Thrift, Direct Advertising for Conventions By R. L. Jenne, Start Page 80, Quote Page 81, Column 2, Volume 2, Number 4, The Mailbag Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (Google Books full view) link

[MLFS] 1918, Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Session, National Convention Mutual Life Underwriters, Held at La Salle Hotel, Chicago Illinois on the 6th and 7th of December 1918, Mutual Insurance Clubs by O. K. Dorn, Start Page 31, Quote Page 35, Mutual Life Underwriters. (Google Books full view) link

[IPSM] 1919 May, The Inland Printer, “Never Sell What You Don’t Believe In” by Albert Sidney Gregg, Start Page 156, Quote Page 156, Published by The Inland Printer Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link

[PWPF] 1922, Pee-Wee Harris by Percy Keese Fitzhugh, Page 121, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[BSSI] 1925 November 20, Big Spring Herald, Page 15, Column 2, Big Spring, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

[JDGF] 1951, Schnozzola: The Story of Jimmy Durante by Gene Fowler, Page 207-208, Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

[GSNR] 1974 March, Illinois Libraries, Libraries & Society by Norman Ross, Start Page 189, Quote Page 189, Column 2, Volume 56, Number 3, Springfield, Illinois. (Verified on paper)

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