The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent Was a Summer in San Francisco

Locale: San Francisco, California? Paris, France? Duluth, Minnesota? Milwaukee, Wisconsin?

Originator: Mark Twain? Horace Walpole? James Quin? R. Q. Grant? Lord Byron? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Living in Menlo Park near San Francisco I have heard the following witticism credited to Mark Twain many times:

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.

I actually enjoy the weather here, so this saying always seemed implausible to me. Also, the San Francisco Chronicle once printed an article that cast doubt on the Twain attribution. Can you figure out who created this joke? Also, was the remark originally about SF or some other locale?

Quote Investigator: There is no evidence in the papers and speeches of Mark Twain that he ever made this remark about San Francisco. There is a letter discussed below from Twain in which he commented on a similar type of jest, but he expressed unhappiness with the weather of Paris and not San Francisco.

Top-flight researcher Stephen Goranson located the earliest known evidence of this joke-type in a letter written by Horace Walpole, a prominent literary figure and politician in England. Walpole attributed the remark to James Quin, a leading actor in London in the 1700s. This jest is distinct but it is closely related to the quip given by the questioner. The location of the cold weather was not specified. The letter was written during the summer of 1789 in July [HWJQ]:

Quin, being once asked if he had ever seen so bad a winter, replied, “Yes, just such an one last summer!”—and here is its youngest brother!

This comical observation and its ascription reached the attention of Mark Twain who mentioned it in a letter in 1880 while criticizing Parisian climate. The text of the letter is viewable at the authoritative Mark Twain Project Online [MTJQ]:

… for anywhere is better than Paris. Paris the cold, Paris the drizzly, Paris the rainy, Paris the Damnable. More than a hundred years ago somebody asked Quin, “Did you ever see such a winter in all your life before?” “Yes,” said he, “Last summer.” I judge he spent his summer in Paris.

Several fine researchers have noted the existence of this letter linking Twain to the quip about cold weather including Ralph Keyes [NGRK] [QVRK], Fred Shapiro [YQMT], and Barbara Schmidt [TQSF].

The modern phrasing of the saying was used by the beginning of the 1900s, but the initial target of the barb was not San Francisco. Instead, the joke was directed at a genuinely frosty locale: Duluth, Minnesota. The Duluth News-Tribune in 1900 recounted a version of the saying while using a belligerently defensive tone [DNDM]:

One of these days somebody will tell that mouldy chestnut about the finest winter he ever saw being the summer he spent in Duluth, and one of these husky commercial travelers, who have been here and know all about our climate, will smite him with an uppercut and break his slanderous jaw. The truth will come out in time.

The above instance in 1900 used the word “finest” instead of “coldest”. In June 1901 in a Kentucky newspaper an employee of the weather bureau deployed a version of the saying that closely matched a modern template. Once again the weather in Duluth was the subject [KYDM]:

In a recent conversation with Mr. R. Q. Grant, of the State College Weather Bureau, a Herald reporter learned that the life of the employes of the United States Weather Bureau service is one filled with interesting experiences. …

Later Mr. Grant was sent to Pike’s Peak, where he established the station now there. Another assignment was to Duluth, Minn., where he learned to appreciate rapid changes in temperature. He says the coldest winter he ever experienced was the summer he spent in Duluth.

Over a span of more than one hundred years many locations were substituted into this jest including: Milwaukee, Two Harbors, Grand Marais, Puget Sound, Buffalo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

Note that Mark Twain lived until 1910, so the expression was being used while he was still alive. Yet, the words were not attributed to him in any of the early instances. The first citation found by QI in which Twain’s name was invoked was dated 1928 and the subject was Duluth. The details are recorded further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

James Quin, a popular actor and wit, lived from 1693 to 1766 according to The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance [OTJQ]. A book titled “The Life of Mr. James Quin, Comedian” was released during the year of his death, but the bon mot about the weather was not included in this initial publication. A revised enlarged edition published much later in 1887 did include the joke, and the 1887 work is discussed further below.

In 1840 the six volume collection titled “The Letters of Horace Walpole” was published, and it contained a missive from Walpole dated 1789 that included the humorous remark about the weather credited to Quin. The details were given previously in this article [HWJQ]. Multiple editions of Horace Walpole’s letters were printed over the decades and this helped to disseminate the joke.

In 1880 Mark Twain wrote a letter that contained a mention of the jest credited to James Quin. Twain formulated a statement that referred to the weather of Paris as noted previously in this article [MTJQ]. Twain’s expression differed appreciably from the modern saying about the weather in San Francisco often ascribed to him. Yet these words are the closest known match from his pen to the modern adage.

In 1882 a version of the comical dialog was printed in Littell’s Living Age magazine. The article author, Tom Balbus, gave no attribution [LLTB]:

“Did you ever see such a winter as this?” asked one sufferer of another. “Yes, last summer,” was the answer.

In 1887 “The Life of Mr. James Quin, Comedian” was published with a supplement that included a version of the witticism credited to Quin. In this instance the roles of summer and winter were reversed, but the hinge of the joke was preserved because a very cold summer was equated to winter [LJQC]:

Bon Mot of Quin.—One summer, when the month of July happened to be extremely cold, some person asked Quin if he ever remembered such a summer. “Oh yes,” replied the wag, “last winter.”

In 1890 the humor of the remark was analyzed in a book titled “Studies in Jocular Literature”. The author discussed the “fons et origo” (Latin for source and origin) of the joke. It was compared to other sayings used by the essayist Charles Lamb and the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Lord Byron [JLWH]:

The fons et origo of witticisms is often very difficult to reach—nearly as much so as the source of the Nile. In one of his Letters, Charles Lamb quotes, as a good saying of Coleridge, the joke, “That summer has set in with its usual severity.” The curious point is that Byron had made the same facetious remark just before; but Lamb and he belonged to different sets. It matters little, however, for Walpole had anticipated them both; and the present mot appears to be the Joseph Miller query, “When did you ever see such a winter?” To which a wag retorts, “Last summer.”

The term “Joseph Miller” in the passage above referred to a famous collection of humor called “Joe Miller’s Joke Book” or “Joe Miller’s Jests”. This work was printed in a variety of editions for many years and was a well-known repository of time-worn levity.

Also in 1890 an edition of Horace Walpole’s Letters was reviewed in the monthly Temple Bar. As noted previously the letters were republished several times over a long period. The reviewer was impressed by the quip about weather and repeated it for his readers [TBFR]:

One of his best remarks about the weather is borrowed from Quin, who, being asked if he had ever seen so bad a winter, replied: “Yes, just such an one last summer.”

In 1893 a non-fiction article in Scribner’s Magazine about a logging camp described an exchange between two loggers [AHLC]:

But there are winters when there is no natural log-hauling, during one of which I heard this dialogue!

“Say, Billy, did you ever see such a winter as this?” “Yes, I did.” “For heaven’s sake, when?” “A year ago last summer.”

In 1900 a newspaper in Duluth, Minnesota printed a version of the jape that is very similar to the one of today. This is the earliest instance known to QI; however, the remark is labeled a “mouldy chestnut” therefore earlier examples probably exist [DNDM]:

One of these days somebody will tell that mouldy chestnut about the finest winter he ever saw being the summer he spent in Duluth …

In June 1901 a newspaper in Kentucky described a weather bureau worker named R. Q. Grant making the remark about the climate of Duluth [KYDM]:

He says the coldest winter he ever experienced was the summer he spent in Duluth.

In July 1901 a columnist in the Chicago Tribune presented the expression as a form of Irish humor about Duluth [CTIH]:

While various cities reported from 100° to 104° yesterday, Duluth pleasantly wigwagged 64°. This will be sure to revive the yarn about the Irishman who asserted that the coldest winter he ever remembered was the summer he spent in Duluth.

In 1902 an anecdote told by a Senator from Minnesota featured the jest which was attributed to a stereotypical Irishman. The spelling used for some words below is based on the original text and was meant to reflect an Irish brogue [SNBA]:

Every man sought to outdo his neighbor in tales of cold weather, until Senator Nelson, the Swede senator from Minnesota, spoke up. “The coldest cold-weather story I ever heard was told by an Irishman who worked for me once.” he said. And then Mr. Nelson proceeded to tell in his Swedish English an Irish dialect story. “The coldest winter I iver spint,” he says the Irishman said, “was wan summer in Duluth, Minnesota.”

By 1903 the joke was also being told about Milwaukee, Wisconsin as recorded in the “Typographical Journal”, a periodical for union members in the printing trade [TJWM]:

We have had peculiar weather here this “spring.” Faith, I think there is some truth in the remark of a friend of mine. He stated that “the coldest winter he ever experienced was one summer he lived in Milwaukee.”

By 1920 the quip was being told about Two Harbors, Minnesota as noted in a letter to the “The Boilermakers’ and Iron Ship Builders’ Journal” [THBS]:

And the coldest winter they ever saw
Was one summer in Two Harbors

The earliest instance located by QI that credited Mark Twain with the remark was dated 1928. A Professor of Horticulture published a research paper about growing fruit in Minnesota and included the following passage [MTWB]:

I had heard the stories about cold winters when the chimneys would not draw because the smoke froze at the chimney top, and of the coffee freezing on the farmhouse stove. I knew Mark Twain’s story that the coldest winter he ever spent was one summer in Duluth. But I soon learned that these stories were delightful exaggerations and that fruit was being grown largely as a home orchard development, but in a commercial way as well.

In 1963 a psychology textbook included a version of the joke about San Francisco that was attributed to Twain [MTSF]:

There are other related differences to conditions of weather that induced Mark Twain to observe that the coldest winter he could recall was a summer he spent in San Francisco. Such observations can have special significance only for persons who have lived in and have attitudes about the northern California city.

In 2005 an article in the San Francisco Chronicle stated that the ascription to Twain was apocryphal [TSFC]:

“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” a saying that is almost a San Francisco cliché, turns out to be an invention of unknown origin, the coolest thing Mark Twain never said.

In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that the comical remark about San Francisco evolved from a seed that was planted by the 1700s. The primal version of the joke was attributed to the actor James Quin (who died in 1766) by a letter written in 1789. Since Quin was based in Ireland and England he may have been referring to the weather in one of these two countries. Mark Twain learned of this witticism and used it in a letter he wrote in 1880. He credited James Quin, and he tailored the jest to Paris weather.

The joke was reformulated into the current-day phrasing by 1901. Evidence indicates that initially this novel version of the quip was used to comment on the weather of Duluth, Minnesota. The creator of this new jest was anonymous in the earliest citations. As the joke evolved it was applied to a variety of locales including Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Two Harbors, Minnesota.

Mark Twain died in 1910. He was attached to the quotation about the weather in Duluth by 1928, but this evidence is weak. By 1963 the locale was switched to San Francisco, and Mark Twain was again attached to the quote. QI suggests that these two attributions are probably spurious, and it is likely that Twain never used the current-day phrasing to make a remark about any city.

(Many thanks to ADS mailing list participants for help and encouragement.)

[HWJQ] 1840, The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, Volume 6 of 6, Editor John Wright, Letter to Mary Berry from Horace Walpole, Start Page 331, Quote Page 334, [The letter is dated July 29, 1789; The composition of the letter took more than one day, and the section with the quotation is dated “Friday night 31st”], Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, London. (Google Books full view) [Special thanks to Stephen Goranson who found this citation; The spelling “an” in the phrase “an one last summer” is present in the original text.] link

[MTJQ] 1880 April 28, Letter from Mark Twain to Lucius Fairchild, Hartford, Connecticut, UCCL 01794 (Union Catalog of Clemens Letters), Mark Twain Project Online. (Accessed on 2011 November 28) link

[NGRK] 1992, Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations by Ralph Keyes, Page 111, HarperCollins, New York. (Verified on paper)

[QVRK] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Pages 33-34, 232, and 279, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[YQMT] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Mark Twain, Page 775, Yale University Press, New Haven.(Verified on paper)

[TQSF] TwainQuotes, Editor Barbara Schmidt, Directory of Mark Twain’s maxims, quotations, and various opinions, Sections: Paris, San Francisco. (Accessed on 2011 November 28) link  link

[DNDM] 1900 June 17, Duluth News-Tribune, [No article title], Page 12, Column 3, Duluth, Minnesota. (GenealogyBank)

[KYDM] 1901 June 17, Morning Herald, Interesting Experiences Of Local Man Who Deals in Weather – Exciting Incidents  That Do Not Appear In His Records, GBK Page 6, Column 2, Lexington, Kentucky. (GenealogyBank) [The spelling “employes” is present in the original text.]

[OTJQ] Oxford Reference Online, “Quin, James”, The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance, Edited by Dennis Kennedy, Oxford University Press Inc. (Accessed July 15 2011)

[LLTB] 1882 November 25, Littell’s Living Age, Rolling-Stone Rambles by Tom Balbus [From The Spectator], Page 509, Volume 155, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest; also Google Books full view) link

[LJQC] 1887, The Life of Mr. James Quin, Comedian, With the History of the Stage From His Commencing Actor to His Retreat to Bath, To Which Is Added A Supplement of Original Facts and Anecdotes, Page 100, Reader, London. (HathiTrust) link link [Special thanks to Stephen Goranson who found this citation and George Thompson who noted that the original 1766 edition did not contain the quip] link  link

[JLWH] 1890, Studies in Jocular Literature by W. Carew Hazlitt, Page 125, Elliot Stock, London. (Google Books full view) link

[TBFR] 1890 February, Temple Bar, Review of Horace Walpole’s Letters by W. Fraser Rae, Start Page 188 Quote Page 194, Richard Bentley & Son, Printed by William Clowes and Sons, London. (Google Books full view) link

[AHLC] 1893 June, Scribner’s Magazine, Life in a Logging Camp by Arthur Hill, Start Page 695, Quote Page 708, Volume 8, Number 6, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[CTIH] 1901 July 11, Chicago Tribune, A Line-O’-Type Or Two by BLT, Page 6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[SNBA] 1902 June 13, Baltimore American, Summer Gossip at the Capitol, Page 8, Column 5, Baltimore, Maryland. (Google News Archive)

[TJMW] 1903 July, Typographical Journal, Section: Correspondence, Page 39, Column 1, Volume 23, International Typographical Union of North America. (Google Books full view) link

[THBS] 1920 December, The Boilermakers’ and Iron Ship Builders’ Journal, [Poem Boomer-rangs in a letter from R. L. Giles], Page 752, International Brotherhood of Boiler Makers, Iron Ship Builders, and Helpers of America, Punton Bros. Publishing Co., Kansas City, Missouri. (Google Books full view) link

[MTWB] 1929, Fifty-Eighth Annual Report of the Secretary of the State Horticultural Society of Michigan For the Year 1928, Some Phases of Fruit  Growing  in  Minnesota by Wilfrid G. Brierley, Start Page 46, Quote page 46, Michigan Horticultural Society, Printed by Franklin DeKleine Co., Lansing, Michigan. (Verified using scanned images from the William T. Young Library of the University of Kentucky in Lexington; Great thanks to the librarian at UK.)

[MTSF] 1963, The Psychology of Communication by Jon Eisenson, J. Jeffery Auer, and John V. Irwin, Page 139, Appleton-Century-Crofts Division of Meredith Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust) link  link

[TSFC] 2005 August 19, San Francisco Chronicle, Fog Heaven by Carl Nolte, [Article appeared on page A-1 of the San Francisco Chronicle], San Francisco, California. (Accessed online at 2011 November 29) link

One reply on “The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent Was a Summer in San Francisco”

  1. Glad to see this research. Since I have lived in San Francisco and have heard this many times, glad to see Twain was not that grouchy about my town.

Comments are closed.