James Kirkwood Jr.? Ronald Reagan? Ken Kesey? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous joke about a child who wakes up on Christmas morning and is surprised to find a heap of horse manure under the tree instead of a collection of presents. Yet, the child is not discouraged because he has an extraordinarily optimistic outlook on life. His parents discover him enthusiastically shoveling the manure as he exclaims, “With all this manure, there must be a pony somewhere!”
New York Times language maven William Safire stated that the entire joke would be brought to mind for many readers by simply mentioning the punchline: 1
There must be a pony in here somewhere.
Safire connected the tale to Ronald Reagan who enjoyed telling a version, but I know that the Broadway playwright James Kirkwood Jr. also wrote a semi-autobiographical 1960 novel referencing the tale with the title:
There Must Be A Pony!
Would you please trace this comical anecdote?
Quote Investigator: There are many versions of this joke, and it has been evolving for more than one hundred years. The telltale sign of a pony seen by the expectant child has varied, e.g., horse dung, a horse shoe, horsehair, and a bale of hay. Sometimes one child was featured, and sometimes the divergent behaviors of an optimistic child and a pessimistic child were contrasted. This high variability makes the story difficult to trace. Also, the earliest instances located by QI used a different punchline.
In 1902 a state senator in Illinois addressed a banquet of business people in the advertising industry and presented the following narrative: 2
Three little children were hanging up their stockings. They were Rebecca and Rachel and Ikey. The old man had licked Ikey the night before and told him that Santa Claus was no good and wouldn’t bring him anything.
“Oh, yes,” said Ikey, “Santa Claus will; my father is an old friend of his; Santa Claus is a nice fellow; he will bring me something.”
By the way, I should tell you what a mean daddy the father was. He went out into the street and got a piece of frozen earth that hadn’t been left there by an automobile [laughter], and he put that—deliberately took and put it in poor little Ikey’s stocking. In the morning the three children were up early to find out what Santa Claus had left them. “What you got?” was the first question as each examined the contents of the stockings. Rachel had a little diamond ring and Rebecca had a gold watch. “And you, Ikey. What did you get?”
But Ikey was faithful.
“Well, Santa Claus is all right,” he said. “I think he brought me a pony, but he must have got away.” [Laughter and applause.]
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1917 a New York banker named Herbert T. Magruder told an introductory joke before delivering a formal paper at a conference. The pony clue was a “small horseshoe” instead of manure, and there were two brothers receiving dissimilar gifts: 3
Perhaps it is because I am a bit fearful that you may discover a sort of pervading tone of pessimism in this paper that I want to tell you this story about the two brothers—small boys—one of them a confirmed pessimist, and the other a thoroughly “blooming optimist.”
The father of these boys had tried in every way possible to equalize the natures of the boys, but with no success at all. So, when Christmas time came around he was very careful to purchase for the pessimistic one everything in the line of toys and outfit that he had at any time expressed a wish for. In the stocking of the optimistic youngster, he put only a small horseshoe, as an omen of Good Luck.
Christmas morning came; and the pessimist, who was the first downstairs, looked wearily over the huge display of gifts provided for him; and then settled back with a sour look and this gloomy expression, “Oh, what’s the use. These things will all be broken up in a day or two.”
Shortly afterwards, the optimist came bounding down; took one look into his stocking, and lifting out the horseshoe, exclaimed, “Oh, papa, look Santa Claus brought me a dandy pony, but it got away.”
In 1927 a book about the life and work of a pastor named George R. Stuart was published. In the following story the existence of a pony is suggested by a horsehair instead of dung or a horseshoe: 4
This story is one of his illustrations on the subject of optimism: “John and Jim were two brothers—John a decided optimist and Jim an extreme pessimist. Their father became alarmed over the pessimism of Jim and decided to try an experiment at Christmas. John wanted a pony and Jim a gold watch. The night before he put a beautiful gold watch in Jim’s stocking and a horsehair in that of John. He hid next morning to see the effect.
Jim came in, took out the watch and said: ‘Looks like a gold watch. 0, I know it is not; must be brass. I bet the works won’t be any good.’ John followed, looked at the lone horsehair and laughingly said, ‘Gee, Santa brought me a pony, but he got away.’ His optimism failed to furnish the pony, but it saved the reputation of Santa Claus and gladdened the heart of John more than the gold watch did the heart of Jim.”
In his philosophy of life optimism and humor are fruits of the same tree if not interchangeable.
In 1934 a newspaper columnist in the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York relayed a version of the tale told by a comedian named Stanley Lupino. This instance featured a girl instead of a boy: 5
As the story goes—there was a nice old man who had a little daughter named Winifred. But he was a poor man and when Christmas came around he hadn’t enough money to buy his little daughter a gift.
So he decided to get her a horseshoe and tell her about the wonderful luck it would bring. Came Christmas morning. The little girl ran down the stairs to the fireplace, reached into her stocking and brought forth the horseshoe.
Her father came in a few minutes later, “Well, honey,” he said, “was Santa Claus nice to you this morning?”
And the little girl, her face beaming, exclaimed, “Oh, yes, daddy, he was. He brought me a pony—but it got away…”
In 1949 a New York newspaper reported on a speech delivered by the President of Union College who addressed the members of Rotary International. In this instance the parents of eight-year-old identical twins gave sharply different gifts to their two children. One child reacted sourly to his valuable gifts: 6
The pessimist immediately cried, “Look what you’ve done. A baseball bat with Babe Ruth’s name on it. He’s dead. Why didn’t you get one with Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams on it? And look at the sled—green. Who ever heard of a green sled? If it ain’t red it ain’t a sled. And the tricycle! I’m eight years old and you get me a three wheeler. I want a two-wheel bike.”
The other child reacted happily to a bucket of manure:
Imagine their surprise when they saw the boy putting on his overcoat and hat and head for the back door. . . . “Where are you going?” they called out, “What do you mean ‘Where am I going?’ Can’t you see? Santa has brought me a pony and he must be out in the back yard. Oboyoboyoboy!”
In 1950 the tale was told during a committee hearing of the United States Senate. During the past sixty years psychologists and psychiatrists are often mentioned: 7
Mr. MARVIN. This is a story about a father who had two sons. He was something of a psychologist. He thought he would give them a little task to see how they reacted. Christmas morning he prepared the stockings for the boys and for the pessimist he filled it up with the finest toys that could be found. And the stockings of the optimist he filled them with horse manure. Christmas morning the two boys came down. The pessimist arrived, grabbed his stocking full of beautiful toys. In a few minutes he was crying his eyes out. The father said, “What is wrong, son?” He said, “Father, just think, in a few days all these beautiful toys will be broken.”
Later, in comes the optimist, grabs his stocking with a whoop of joy, and said, “Father, isn’t it wonderful: Santa gave me a pony, only he got away.”
In 1951 the joke was presented in a Texas newspaper with this introduction: 8
Just before Christmas a harried mother with two small sons in tow paraded into a psychiatrist’s office. One boy, she said, was a confirmed pessimist. The other an out and out optimist. Wasn’t there some treatment the doctor could prescribe to get both boys on an even keel? After examining the two lads and talking with them, the psychiatrist took the mother aside and told her that he believed Christmas and the visit of Santa Claus was the perfect time to bring both boys back to normal.
The pessimist dismissed his toys on Christmas day with this remark:
“I’ll probably break-my arm riding the bicycle, and bust my leg roller skating and get my eye shot out with the BB gun.”
The psychiatrist spoke to the child who was given a bag of manure and obtained the following reaction:
“Oh, he brought me a pony,” shouted the little optimist with glee, holding up his paper sack for the doc to see. “But I’m having an awful lot of trouble finding him.”
At last, in February 1953 the popular punchline discussed in the original question was employed in an instance of the joke. This example was printed in a Newsletter of an Ohio group affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous. A psychiatrist was consulted regarding identical twins. The parents were told to give the pessimist a room filled with wonderful toys while the room for the optimist was filled with “fertilizer-and maybe a shovel-but that’s all”. The disparate reactions were recounted: 9
The kid was slouched in a chair with a dejected look on his face. He hadn’t even removed the gift wrappings. “What’s the use?” he asked glumly, “I probably won’t like what I find-and if I do, I won’t get to keep it.”
A marked contrast greeted them in the other room. With a broad grin on his face, the optimist was shoveling for all he was worth. “With all this fertilizer,” he declared, “there’s got to be a pony somewhere.”
In December 1953 the Greensboro Record of North Carolina printed a version with two psychologically mismatched children. The optimist was given only a bale of hay, but was unfazed: 10
“Santa brought me a pony,” he said with eyes shining. Then he added somewhat wistfully: “But he got away…”
In 1955 Wes Morgan, the 15-year-old cast member of the television program “The Life of Riley”, was profiled in a newspaper. A fellow actor told this short variant of the pony anecdote: 11
“Wes is the happiest kid I know. Show him a dark cloud and he’ll look forward to having fun in the rain. He reminds me of the story of the youngster who got himself clouted on the head by a horseshoe. When he came to, his first words were, ‘Well, there must be a pony around here to go with this shoe’!”
The counterculture figure Ken Kesey who authored the popular novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” also wrote the 1964 book “Sometimes a Great Notion” which included the following brief version of the gag: 12
The story is told that when Joe was a child his cousins emptied his Christmas stocking and replaced the gifts with horse manure. Joe took one look and bolted for the door, eyes glittering with excitement. “Wait, Joe, where you going? What did ol’ Santa bring you?” According to the story Joe paused at the door for a piece of rope. “Brought me a bran’-new pony but he got away. I’ll catch ’em if I hurry.”
In conclusion, this joke has a long history and many variations. The most common punchline has shifted over time. This article represents a snapshot of what QI has discovered. Earlier examples will probably be discovered in the future.
(Special thanks to Professor Laurence Horn and Professor Jonathan Lighter whose discussion on a mailing list motivated QI to construct this question and perform this investigation. Any errors are QI’s responsibility.)
- 1984 March 11, New York Times, On Language: Punch-line English by William Safire, Quote Page A28, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1902 January, Advertising Experience, Volume 14, Number 3, Agate Club Banquet of December 20th, (Speaker: William E. Mason, Illinois State Senator), Start Page 3, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Published and Edited by W.G. Souther, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1917 May, Bulletin (N.Y. State Safe Deposit Association), Volume 6, Number 5, (Introductory remark by Herbert T. Magruder of Hanover Safe Deposit Co., New York before the presentation of his paper “The Human Side of the Safe Deposit Business”), Quote Page 128, Published by New York State Safe Deposit Association, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1927, George R. Stuart: Life and Work by W. W. Pinson (William Washington Pinson), Quote Page 161 and 162, Cokesbury Press, Nashville, Tennessee. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1934 November 13, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, With Art Arthur: Eddie Cantor Loves to Tell the Story of a Prank He played on Pullman Train, Quote Page 12, Column 8, Brooklyn, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1949 May 13, Orangetown Telegram, Could Be by Jack Pesner, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Pearl River, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1950, Hearings of the United States Senate Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Volume 2, Eighty-First Congress, Second Session, Hearing: Prototype Aircraft Development, Held on May 16, 1950, United States Senate Subcommittee on Aviation of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, (Speaker: Langdon P. Marvin Jr., Former Chairman Interdepartmental Air Cargo Priorities Committee), Start Page 153, Quote Page 163, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1951 April 26, San Antonio Express, Voice of the Peebles by Dick Peebles (Sports editor), Page 2B, Column 1, (NArch Page 22), San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1953 February, Central Bulletin, Volume 11, Number 4, (Newsletter for Alcoholics Anonymous subgroup), A Giggle with a Moral, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Published by Cleveland Central Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous, Cleveland, Ohio. (Online repository at silkworth.net; PDF of scanned pages; accessed November 17, 2013) link ↩
- 1953 December 24, Greensboro Record, Off the Record by Jo Spivey, Section B, Quote age B1, Column 1, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1955 December 18, The Hartford Courant, Happy Young Wes Morgan Really Lives A Riley Life, Quote Page F7, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1965 (Copyright 1964), Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, Quote Page 282, Bantam Books, New York. (Bantam Books 1965 paperback edition of Viking Press hardback 1964 edition) (Verified with scans of 1965 Bantam Books edition) ↩