Mark Twain? Robert Frost? Ambrose Bierce? Ben Bernanke? Philippe Girardet? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: It is remarkably difficult to obtain a loan in a difficult economic climate. This notion can be expressed with the following adage:
A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.
Mark Twain is sometimes credited with this remark, but I know that means little. It seems every clever remark is eventually attributed to Twain. Could you figure out who really said it?
Quote Investigator: You are correct to doubt the ascription of the saying to Mark Twain. The invaluable TwainQuotes website of Barbara Schmidt has a webpage dedicated to this adage with the following warning notice: 1
This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but until the attribution can be verified, the quote should not be regarded as authentic.
1905 is the date of the earliest citation found by QI expressing the kernel of the idea in the maxim. The following words were published in a London-based weekly for chartered accountants: 2
A customer who was not getting what he wanted, once said to me: “You bankers only lend a man an umbrella when it is a fine day,” and I thought he expressed it exactly.
A version very similar to the questioner’s expression appeared in January 1930. The first cite found by QI attributing the remark to Mark Twain is dated 1944. In 1949 the adage was credited to the famous poet Robert Frost.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1907 a different type of quip with a similar theme was published in a Pennsylvanian newspaper in a section called “Funny Side of Life”. This joke did not mention bankers, but it used wordplay on the term “fair-weather”. A “fair-weather friend” was unwilling to lend an umbrella in poor weather: 3
Borrowell—Bjones is what I would call a fair-weather friend.
Wigwag—Ah, he has sense enough not to lend you his umbrella, eh?—Philadelphia Record.
In October 1928 a variant of the maxim appeared in a journal called “Books Abroad” published in Norman, Oklahoma. The journal is described thusly: A Quarterly Publication Devoted to Comments on Foreign Books.
A book written in French by Philippe Girardet was reviewed by Harold A. Larrabee, and the reviewer translated a version of the maxim under investigation into English: 4
Thanks may properly be tendered to M. Girardet, however, for his definition of a banker as “a man who will gladly lend you a parasol when the sun shines, but who pitilessly refuses you an umbrella when it rains.”
Union College. —Harold A. Larrabee.
This version was more elaborate than the common saying because it mentions a parasol and an umbrella. The parasol corresponds to a loan that is easy to obtain when economic conditions are favorable, and the umbrella corresponds to a loan that is difficult to obtain when conditions are unfavorable.
In January 1930, “The Journal of Business of the University of Chicago” included a version of the saying that was similar to the modern expression: 5
Some person of shrewd wit has given a definition of a banker which, though a bit severe, nevertheless strikes a responsive chord. A banker, according to this definition, is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and insists upon its return as soon as it starts to rain.
In December 1930 a periodical on foreign affairs called “The International Digest” used the maxim. This citation was located by top researcher Barry Popik whose website lists several others. Here the metaphor is extended to explain and justify the behavior of bankers: 6
A banker, it has been said jestingly, is a man who lends you an umbrella when the weather is good and takes it back when it rains. It would be more correct to say that the banker, at the beginning of a storm which might turn the umbrella inside out, demands that you do not open it, but stay indoors.
In 1944 Bennett Cerf who published several volumes of anecdotes credited Mark Twain with the maxim: 7
He defined a banker as a man who “loaned you an umbrella when the sun was shining and demanded its return the moment it started to rain.”
In 1948 the adage was again attributed to Twain; this time by a prominent financial columnist: 8
This tends to oversimplify the situation, and accepts the Mark Twain definition which holds that a banker lends an umbrella when the sun is shining and takes it back when it rains.
In 1949 the quotation collector Evan Esar decided that acknowledgement for this adage should not be monopolized. In his book “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” he included an entry ascribing a version of the words to Mark Twain and another entry crediting the renowned poet Robert Frost: 9
TWAIN, Mark, 1835-1910, pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, American humorous writer and wit.
A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain.
FROST, Robert, born 1875, American poet.
A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back again when it begins to rain.
Also, in 1949 the saying appeared in a Salt Lake City newspaper with a humorous addendum: 10
Definition of a banker: A man who loans you an umbrella when the sun is shining, asks for it back at the first sprinkle of rain, and doesn’t own the umbrella in the first place.
In 1999 Ben Bernanke, former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, used the adage in a paper he co-wrote with the economist Mark Gertler. The phrase was attributed to the satirist Ambrose Bierce: 11
The world in which we live, as opposed to the one envisioned by the benchmark neoclassical model, is one in which credit markets are not frictionless, i.e., problems of information, incentives, and enforcement are pervasive. Because of these problems, credit can be extended more freely and at lower cost to borrowers who already have strong financial positions (hence, Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a banker as someone who lends you an umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back when it starts to rain).
In conclusion, the first instances of this maxim are anonymous. Years later, famous people such as Mark Twain, Robert Frost, and Ambrose Bierce were implausibly attached to the quotation. The core idea appeared by 1905, and the full fledged quotation entered circulation by 1930. Thanks for your question, and I hope you obtained favorable terms for your loan.
Image Notes: Image showing the painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat circa 1884. Image showing the painting “Paris Street; Rainy Day” by Gustave Caillebotte circa 1877. Public domain images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped, resized, and retouched.
- TwainQuotes editor Barbara Schmidt, TwainQuotes.com website, Banker quotation and attribution warning, “A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella…” (Accessed 2011 April 06) link ↩
- 1905 April 15, The Accountant: The Recognised Weekly Organ of Chartered Accountants, [A paper read at a meeting of the Manchester Chartered Accountants Society on March 10th 1905], Notes on a Banker’s Accounts by John Moodie, Page 464, Column 1, Gee & Co., The Accountant Office, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1907 May 16, New Oxford Item, Funny Side of Life, page 2, Column 4, New Oxford, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1928 October, Books Abroad: A Quarterly Publication Devoted to Comments on Foreign Books, Books in French, “Les Affaires et les Hommes by Philippe Girardet: Reviewed by Harold A. Larrabee”, Page 13-14, Volume 2, Number 4, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link ↩
- 1930 January, The Journal of Business of the University of Chicago, The Banks and the Stock Market Crisis of 1929 by Lionel D. Edie, Page 21, Volume III, Number 1, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1930 December, The International Digest: a Monthly Review of Foreign Affairs, The Installment Plan in the United States by Edouard Julia, Page 41, Column 1, Volume 1, Number 3, International Digest, Flushing, New York. (Google Books snippet; Verified with scans; Many thanks to the librarian of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Ohio: Main branch) ↩
- 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 241, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1948, National Industrial Conference Board Presents: An Appraisal of Official Economic Reports: an Evening with the Economists, Series: Studies in Business Economics, [Speaker: Merryle S. Rukeyser, Economic Commentator, International News Service], Page 23, number 16, New York: National Industrial Conference Board, New York. (Google Books snippet; Great thanks to Stephen Goranson and the Duke library for verification) link ↩
- 1989, [Reprint of 1949 edition by Doubleday, Garden City, New York] The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations by Evan Esar, Page 78 & 200, Dorset Press, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint) ↩
- 1949 November 9, Deseret News, Deseret News, Scene Today by Swen Teresed, Page F1 [GNA Page 18], Salt Lake City, Utah. (Google News archive) ↩
- 1999 Fourth Quarter, Economic review: Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Volume 84, Number 4, “Monetary Policy and Asset Price Volatility” by Ben Bernanke and Mark Gertler, Page 20, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri. (HathiTrust) link ↩