Outside of a Dog, a Book is Man’s Best Friend. Inside of a Dog, It’s Too Dark to Read

Groucho Marx? Ted Atkinson? Jimmy Husson? Jim Brewer ? Mary Stuart? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: You have researched some quotes credited to Groucho Marx, so I am hoping that you will be able to look into a saying that interests me. I work in a library and have long enjoyed the following quip:

Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.

I have seen it on websites associated with libraries where the saying is credited to Groucho. Is this attribution accurate?

Quote Investigator: This joke evolved during several years beginning in 1947. Groucho only received credit by 1973; hence, it is unlikely that he originated this quip.

In May 1947 the “Nashville Banner” of Tennessee printed a column containing a variant of the jest based on a horse instead of a dog. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Probably because he is well-read and articulate, Jockey Ted Atkinson has been credited with the following “observation”: “Outside a horse, a book is man’s best friend—inside it’s too dark to read.”

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

In June 1947 a columnist in the “Long Beach Independent” of California printed the same gag and attribution: 2

But let Atkinson be today’s guest star with his observation: “Outside a horse, a book is man’s best friend—inside it’s too dark to read.”

In December 1948 columnist Phil Willon of the “Binghamton Press” in New York published a variant with a different punchline and the word “policeman” instead of “book”: 3

Outside of a dog, a policeman is a boy’s best friend. Inside of a dog, a boy isn’t likely to meet one anyhow.

In January 1950 columnist Phil Willon published a version from the point of view of a dog. The text contained a typo with the word “man” appearing instead of the correct “man’s”: 4

Outside of me, a book’s a man best friend. Inside of me, he probably couldn’t read it anyhow.

In September 1950 Phil Willon printed the gag yet again. This instance used “diamond” instead of “book”: 5

Movie stars are wearing jeweled collars to match those of their dogs. Outside of a dog, of course, a diamond is a girl’s best friend. Inside of a dog, you can’t see it anyhow.

In November 1952 a columnist in “The Nashville Tennessean” published this: 6

Clever comic Jimmy Husson’s observation: “Book is man’s best friend, outside of a dog. Inside, it’s too dark to read, anyhow.”

In February 1954 the quip appeared in a section of “Boys’ Life” magazine called “Think and Grin” that printed humorous material sent in by readers. The attribution listed after the quote likely corresponded to the name and location of the individual who sent in the joke: 7

A book is man’s best friend outside of a dog, and inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.—Jim Brewer, Cleveland, O.

The earliest attribution to Groucho known to QI appeared in April 1973 within a gossip column published in the “Philadelphia Daily News” of Pennsylvania: 8

Groucho Marx on friendship: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. That’s because inside a dog it’s too dark to read.”

In January 1974 Groucho received credit in the “Los Angeles Times” within a review of a museum exhibit titled “Word Show–An Experience in the Possibilities of Language”. The author described the words and phrases on the walls: 9

Some were riddles, some aphorisms:

Why are elephants wrinkled? Did you ever try to iron one?

Outside of a dog a book is man’s best friend because inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.—Groucho.

In 1978 a text, “The Art Museum as Educator”, examined the same show from a pedagogical viewpoint. The Groucho quote was presented but the wording given was slightly different: 10

“The Word Show,” January through March 1974, was a cooperative venture of the staff artists and the gallery’s curator. The result was a wild and educational exhibit based on the origin, form, perversity, and delight of words. It was full of verbal and visual puns, jokes, riddles, and images. For example, from Groucho Marx,

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend because inside of a dog is too dark to read.

In conclusion, a version of this quip credited to jockey Ted Atkinson appeared in May 1947; however, the animal friend was a horse instead of a dog. During the following years several variants appeared. Groucho received credit in April 1973, but that was a very late date. Thus, the evidence supporting an ascription to Groucho is very weak.

(This question was inspired by a discussion on the ADS mailing list. Thanks to the participants especially Laurence Horn for initiating the discussion. Many thanks to Andrew Steinberg who located the crucial May 31, 1947 citation. Special thanks to Bill Mullins who located valuable evidence, e.g., citations dated December 2, 1948; September 6, 1950; November 23, 1952; and April 5, 1973. Additional thanks to John Baker who located the February 1954 citation.)

Update History: On March 13, 2015 the 1965 citation was added, and the top image was redone. On August 13, 2021 many citations were added to the article including items with the following dates: May 31, 1947; December 2, 1948; September 6, 1950; November 23, 1952; and April 5, 1973. The 1965 citation was deleted, and the top image was deleted. The conclusion and other parts of the article were rewritten.

Notes:

  1. 1947 May 31, Nashville Banner, Sideline Sidelights by Fred Russell, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1947 June 8, Long Beach Independent, Busher Recovered From Leg Ailment, Set To Return by Frank Neill, Quote Page 41, Column 4 and 5, Long Beach, California. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1948 December 2, Binghamton Press, All in Fun by Phil Willon, Quote Page 21, Column 6, Binghamton, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1950 January 11, The Sunday Press (Binghamton Press), The Lurking Lensman by Phil Willon, Quote Page 3C, Column 1, Binghamton, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1950 September 6, Binghamton Press, All in Fun by Phil Willon, Quote Page 25, Column 3, Binghamton, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1952 November 23, The Nashville Tennessean, Top O’ the Mornin’ by Red O’Donnell, Quote Page 8A, Column 1, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1954 February, Boys’ Life, Think and Grin, “Man’s best friend” joke attributed to Jim Brewer, Page 78, Column 1, Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1973 April 5, Philadelphia Daily News, More Wit, Wisdom from Famed Philosophers by Charles Petzold, Quote Page 25, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1974 January 28, Los Angeles Times, A Fascinating Play on Words by Jack Smith, Page D1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  10. 1978, The Art Museum as Educator edited by Barbara Y. Newsom, Adele Z. Silver, Page 369, University of California Press. (Google Books limited view; Verified on paper) link

2 thoughts on “Outside of a Dog, a Book is Man’s Best Friend. Inside of a Dog, It’s Too Dark to Read”

  1. Your article on Jim Brewer’s quote about the inside of a dog contains some typos. The column in which Mr. Brewer’s comment appears was published in February, 1954, not 1958.

  2. Thanks very much. I’ve changed the date to 1954 in the body of the post. The bibliography listed the correct date, at least. I appreciate your help and apologize for the error

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