People are Like Tea Bags. You Never Know How Strong They Are Until You Put Them in Hot Water

Hillary Clinton? Eleanor Roosevelt? Rita Mae Brown? Phyllis Schlafly? Lowell Bruce Laingen? Armand J. Gariepy? Anonymous?

roosevelt06Dear Quote Investigator: I read in the New York Times that one of the favorite adages of Hillary Clinton, former Senator and Secretary of State, is the following statement attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt:

Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they get into hot water.

When did Roosevelt use this expression? Was she the person who coined it?

Quote Investigator: Precursors to this expression were in circulation in the 19th century. Instead of tea bags the sayings were based on similes with eggs and potatoes in hot water. For example, in 1858 the Irish Miscellany newspaper of Boston, Massachusetts printed the following: 1

Relieve misfortune quickly. A man is like an egg, the longer he is kept in hot water the harder he is when taken out.

Also, in 1870 The Shamrock newspaper of Dublin, Ireland printed this adage: 2

Men are like potatoes—they do not know how soon they may be in hot water.

Both these expressions have meanings that are distinct from the adage being explored, but they do share similarities and may have facilitated the emergence of variants. QI thanks researcher Barry Popik for notifying him about these precursors.

The earliest evidence of a strong match located by QI was published in 1915 in a Seattle, Washington newspaper. This version referred simply to tea instead of tea bags and was applied to men: 3 4

“Men are like tea.”
“How so?”
“Their real strength is not drawn out until they get into hot water.”—Times-Picayune.

The maxim obtained further distribution in 1916 when it was printed in the book “Wit and Humor for Public Speakers”: 5

The Boston Transcript says men are like tea—their real strength isn’t drawn out until they get into hot water.

In 1958 a version using the term “tea bags” was spoken during a training speech for sales people. The phrasing was closer to modern instances, but the maxim applied to men and women: 6

“People are like tea bags,” a specialist on salesmanship declared here Thursday: “They never know their own strength until they get into hot water.”
Too many salesmen never get into hot water, said Armand J. Gariepy, director of Sales Training International, Barre, Mass. They simply sell by accident, he declared.

Top researcher Ralph Keyes discussed this saying in “The Quote Verifier”, and he was unable to find support for the linkage to Eleanor Roosevelt. Keyes stated that the archivists at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York have searched for the expression in the writings of Roosevelt and have not found it. 7

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1960 a columnist writing under the name Pertinax printed an instance of the saying without attribution: 8

Will you give a thought to how people are like tea bags. That they don’t know their own strength until they’re in hot water?

In July 1961 a Los Angeles Times writer titled his column “Some People Are Like Tea Bags” and printed an instance that had been sent in by a reader: 9

From Harriett Burnham of Orange: “People are like tea bags — they don’t know their own strength until they get into hot water.”

In December 1961 the saying appeared in the widely-syndicated column of Earl Wilson who provided no ascription: 10

EARL’S PEARLS: People are like tea bags—you never know your own strength till you get in hot water.

In 1963 a version tailored to women was spoken by Dorothy Elston a political delegate: 11

“Women are like tea-bags—they don’t know their strength until they are in hot water. And boy, are we in hot water.”

In 1966 an entertaining variant based on coffee was printed in a column called “What They Say”: 12

Some people are like coffee. They perk up when they get in “hot water.”

In 1967 the saying was used by the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in a speech: 13

“Women are like tea bags — you don’t know their strength until they get into hot water.”

In 1981 a newspaper feature “Quotable Quotes” credited Lowell Bruce Laingen with the adage. Laingen was held hostage in Iran after the American Embassy in Tehran was taken over in 1979: 14

L. BRUCE LAINGEN, former hostage in Iran: “Human beings are like tea bags. They don’t know their own strength until they get into hot water.”

In 1985 the author and feminist Rita Mae Brown used the expression in an essay. The words were reprinted and credited to her when the book containing the essay was reviewed in the Los Angeles Times: 15 16

Certain ideas resonate through the book as similar thoughts are expressed in distinctive ways by dissimilar people. For example, author Rita Mae Brown’s “People are like tea bags, you never know how strong they’ll be until they’re in hot water.” becomes “When an overheated vessel is plunged into cold water, it will crack or be tempered.” in the words of socio-biologist Edward O. Wilson.

By the 1990s the popular maxim had been assigned to Eleanor Roosevelt. For example, in 1995 an article in a Worcester, Massachusetts newspaper quoted a lecturer named Donna Lasko who ascribed the phrase to Roosevelt: 17

Lasko said her grandmother had tea on occasion with Eleanor Roosevelt, and quoted one of the former first lady’s sayings: “Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until you get them in hot water.”

In 2000 the actress Jane Alexander published a memoir in which Hillary Clinton presented a variant of the aphorism. The words were credited to Eleanor Roosevelt by Clinton: 18

Hillary Rodham Clinton related one of her favorite Eleanor statements: “Women are like tea bags—put them in hot water and they get stronger.”

In 2007 a profile of Hillary Clinton in the New York Times Magazine discussed her appearance on a television show called “The Insider” with Lara Spencer. Clinton reportedly mentioned “one of her favorite adages” which she ascribed to Eleanor Roosevelt: 19

… cites an uncharacteristically fortune-cookie-like saying of her beloved Eleanor Roosevelt as one of her favorite adages: “‘Women are like tea bags,'” quotes this New York Senator, who has spent the last decade and a half honing her adversarial “I am woman, hear me veto bills” persona. “‘You never know how strong they are until they get into hot water.'”

In conclusion, a variant of this popular simile was being shared by 1915. New versions of the saying evolved over the decades. The earliest examples of the simile featured “tea”, and “tea bags” were incorporated in the adage by the 1950s. A wide variety of people have used the aphorism including Rita Mae Brown, Phyllis Schlafly, Lowell Bruce Laingen, and Hillary Clinton. Oddly, there is currently no direct evidence that Eleanor Roosevelt employed the statement though it is often credited to her.

(Special thanks to Barry Popik for pointing out the existence of precursor maxims based on eggs and potatoes.)

Update history: The citations in 1858 and 1870 were added on February 4, 2013.

Notes:

  1. 1858 February 20, Irish Miscellany, Volume 1, Number 2, The Odd Corner, Quote Page 26, Column 1, Boston. Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1870 December 31, The Shamrock, Volume 8, Diamond Dust, Quote Page 207, Column 2, Irish National Newspaper and Publishing Company, Limited, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1915 January 15, Seattle Daily Times, Where They Resemble, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 13, Column 7, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1915 November 1, The Sabbath Recorder, Volume 79, Number 18, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 550, Column 2, A Seventh Day Baptist Weekly Published by The American Sabbath Tract Society, Plainfield, New Jersey. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1916, Wit and Humor for Public Speakers by Will H. Brown (William Herbert Brown), Section: Pithy Points, Quote Page 324, Standard Publishing Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1958 December 4, Milwaukee Journal, Section: Part 2, Leap Before You Look–Sales Advice, Quote Page 23, Column 5, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)
  7. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 97, 98 and 298, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1960 October 21, Lowell Sun, “The Rambler: So What’s New?” by Pertinax, Quote Page 7, Column 5, Lowell, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1961 July 10, Los Angeles Times, Some People Are Like Tea Bags by Art Ryon, Quote Page B5, Los Angeles. (ProQuest)
  10. 1961 December 13, St. Joseph Gazette, No Rift With Sinatra, Reports Peter Lawford by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 6, Column 7, St. Joseph, Missouri. (Google News Archive)
  11. 1963 October 29, Dallas Morning News, Section: 1, 1-Termer Favored by GOP, (Associated Press), Quote Page 12, Column 1, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1966 August 6, Anderson Daily Bulletin (Anderson Herald Bulletin), What They Say, Quote Page 13, Column 3, (NArch Page 35), Anderson, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  13. 1967 April 17, State Times Advocate, GOP Women Chief Has Missile Worry by Frances Lewine, (Associated Press), Page 16-A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  14. 1981 September 18, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 17-A, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  15. 1985, The Courage of Conviction, Edited by Phillip L. Berman, Section: Rita Mae Brown, Start Page 22, Quote Page 23, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  16. 1986 March 19, Los Angeles Times, The Chutzpah of a Philosophical Spirit by Bob Sipchen, (Review of the book “The Courage of Conviction” by Phillip Berman) Start Page OC_D1, Quote Page OC_D13, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  17. 1995 August 3, Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Tea Party is Made Just for Little Girls by Carol Campbell, Page B1, Edition: South County, Section: Local News, Worcester, Massachusetts. (NewsBank Access World News)
  18. 2000, Command Performance: An Actress in the Theatre of Politics by Jane Alexander, Quote Page 306, PublicAffairs, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  19. 2007 August 26 (Fall 2007), New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, (Supplement: Women’s Fashion Fall 2007), The Politics of Appearance by Daphne Merkin, Start Page 306, Quote Page 309, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest; Online New York Times Archive)