Mark Twain? Heinrich Heine? Otto von Bismarck? George Bernard Shaw? James Boswell? Will Rogers?
Dear Quote Investigator: As a one-time resident of Cincinnati I knew that Mark Twain once worked in the city, and I always enjoyed the comment he reportedly made about it:
When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.
But this quip is also attributed to the popular humorist Will Rogers. Can you determine who created this joke?
Quote Investigator: The early evidence located by QI points to a different part of the globe. In 1886 The Atlantic Monthly printed an article about King Ludwig II of Bavaria that contained a version of the jape; however, the length of the time lag and the location were distinct [BVAM]:
It is a common saying in Germany that Bavaria will be the best place to emigrate to at the approaching end of the world, since that event, like everything else, will be sure to come off there fifty years later than in any other country. The Bavarians will be behind the times even as to the point when time shall be no more, and will enter as laggards upon the eternal life.
This citation suggests that a version of this gag expressed in the German language probably predates 1886. Over a period of many decades multiple variants appeared. The remark was modified to target other locales, e.g., Dresden, Netherlands, Mecklenburg, Cincinnati and Ireland. The humor was credited to a variety of people including: Heinrich Heine, Otto von Bismarck, Mark Twain, and George Bernard Shaw.
The earliest Cincinnati-based citation found by QI was dated 1978, and the words were attributed to Mark Twain. Details are given further below. Note that Twain died in 1910, so this is a very late piece of evidence.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
As noted above this type of quip was in circulation in the English language by 1886. In 1894 a music magazine printed a version with a Bavarian setting [BVWP]:
It must be remarked that Bavarian trains, as well as other affairs, make a specialty of being behind time. There is a current proverbial saying in Germany to the effect that Bavaria will be a good place to live in when the end of the world approaches, as the event will surely be fifty years later there than elsewhere.
In 1910 a book published in London included a version of the comical remark that referred to Dresden [RCDG]:
Some forty years had elapsed since I had seen Dresden, had bidden it good-bye with childish delight when our family returned to Ireland, after a three years’ exile in Saxony. How the old-world town had changed from the Dresden formerly said to be fifty years behind the rest of Europe, whither every one might flock when the end of the world came, and claim another half century of time.
Also in 1910 a time-bending joke was attributed to Mark Twain. The quip was a satirical jab aimed at the perceived conservatism of churches. Although this joke is different than the one under investigation it has been included here because it is thematically related [DNMT]:
“Do not set your watch by that church clock,” said Mark Twain to a friend visiting him at Hartford. “It is 200 years behind the time.” Too many good and worthy people set their watches by the clock of an industrial and social conservatism which is at least 50 years behind the times.
In 1963 a publication about television and radio broadcasting in Europe printed a version of the comment and attributed the words to the prominent poet Heinrich Heine. This is the earliest instance located by QI of a famous name being attached to the saying. Note that Heine died in 1856 many years before 1963 [EBHH]:
As Heine once said: “When the end of the world comes make your way to Holland. There everything happens fifty years late!”
In 1964 a partial version of the statement alluding to the full joke was ascribed to Heine in a journal about mass communications [HHMC]:
In the Netherlands where, according to Heine, everything happens fifty years later, the first efforts to establish a newsweekly have been made in 1957.
In 1969 a New York Times reporter spoke to a Dutchmen in a bar in Amsterdam who repeated the quip [HHNY]:
“Ah, Holland,” he remarked. “Heine, you know, said that if the end of the world were announced, he’d go to Holland, because everything happens there 50 years later.”
Also in 1969 a version of the remark was printed in the periodical “New World Review” during a discussion of the former East Germany or the German Democratic Republic. The words were assigned to the statesman Otto von Bismarck and not Heine. The duration of the time lag was specified as only two years instead of fifty, and Mecklenburg replaced Holland [OBNW]:
It comprises that part of the old Reich that Otto von Bismarck, the reactionary Prussian politician of the last century, once described this way: “Should the world come to an end,” Bismarck is quoted as saying, “I would like to be in Mecklenburg, because there events are always two years behind the times.”
In 1970 the witticism was cautiously ascribed to Heine by a writer in The New Yorker magazine [HNYK]:
The nineteenth-century German poet Heine is alleged to have said, “If the world comes to an end, I shall go to Holland. There everything happens fifty years later.” I thought that today it might be possible to reverse Heine’s remark—that one might be able to see in Holland some aspects of the world fifty years from now …
In 1975 the New York Times published an article titled “Letter from East Germany” by Stefan Heym. The author included a version of the saying [SHNY]:
Bismarck once quipped, “Come the end of the world, I shall move to Mecklenburg because everything happens 50 years later there.”
In 1976 a New York Times story assigned the joke to another famous individual [JBNY]:
James Boswell once wrote that if he ever knew that the world was coming to an end he would move to the Netherlands, “because everything happens 50 years later there.”
In 1977 a version of the saying with a setting in Cincinnati was attributed to Mark Twain. This is the earliest citation that QI has located, so far, connecting the remark to Cincinnati and Twain. The words were spoken in a speech at an education conference held at the University of Houston. The speaker was presenting a fanciful near-future history with a glacier in Cincinnati [MTWB]:
That catastrophe finally put to rest Mark Twain’s prediction about this particular city, having once said that “If the world ever comes to an end, l want to be in Cincinnati, because it will happen there ten years later.”
In 1979 the Cincinnati remark ascribed to Twain was printed in the journal “American Literary Realism: 1870-1910”, but the author warned the reader that it was “probably apocryphal” and included a footnote about provenance [MTAL]:
Cincinnati has no Twain tradition, as there is along the Mississippi, except perhaps for his alleged statement, probably apocryphal, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati–it is always ten years behind the times.” 3
Footnote 3: Suggested by Frances Forman, Librarian, Cincinnati Historical Society, to whom I am indebted for many kindnesses.
Cincinnati Magazine printed the quip attributed to Twain multiple times. Here is an example in October 1980 [MTCM]:
Mark Twain, who had several of his books printed in Cincinnati and who had worked at Thomas C. Wrightson’s printing office at 167 Walnut Street in the 1850s, once said of our city: “If the world would end, I would come to Cincinnati, for everything happens here ten years later.”
In 1998 President William Clinton delivered a speech in Limerick, Ireland that contained a version of the joke which he ascribed to the Irish wit George Bernard Shaw [BSWC]:
You know, George Bernard Shaw once quipped that he hoped to be in Ireland on the day the world ended, because the Irish were always 50 years behind the times. [Laughter] Well, Ireland has turned the tables on poor old Mr. Shaw, for today you are in the forefront of every change sweeping the world.
By 2004 the comment was being ascribed to funnyman Will Rogers in “The Mammoth Book of Zingers, Quips, and One-Liners” [WRZQ]:
If the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati. Everything comes there ten years later. WILL ROGERS
In conclusion, the earliest examples currently known to QI of this type of joke were set in Germany in the 1800s, and the creator was anonymous. The quip has been evolving for more than one-hundred years, and a large cast of luminaries have had their names attached to the saying during this process. But the ascriptions usually occurred many years after the supposed speaker had died. There is no compelling evidence known to QI at this time that the joke was crafted by Twain, Heine, Bismarck, Shaw, Boswell, or Rogers.
(Many thanks to Mike whose inquiry on this topic at the Freakonomics website inspired the construction of this question and the initiation of this exploration.)
[BVAM] 1886 October, The Atlantic Monthly, A Mad Monarch by E. P. Evans, Start Page 449, Quote Page 452, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link
[BVWP] 1894 November, Music: A Monthly Magazine, Bayreuth II by William Morton Payne, Start Page 58, Quote Page 59, The Music Magazine Publishing Company, Chicago. (Google Books full view) link
[RCDG] 1910, Rodolphe Christen: The Story of an Artist’s Life by His Wife [Sydney Mary Christen], Page 207, Longmans, Green and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
[DNMT] 1910 September 11, Duluth News-Tribune, United Labor and the Church, GNB Page 6, Duluth, Minnesota. (GenealogyBank)
[EBHH] 1963 July, EBU Review Part B – General and Legal, The use of television in agricultural information services by J.A. van Nieuwenhuijzen, Start Page 23, Quote Page 26, Column 2, Number 80, Administrative Office of the European Broadcasting Union, Geneva. (Verified on paper)
[HHMC] 1964 4th Quarter, Gazette: International Journal for Mass Communications Studies, ‘Haagse Post’, A Dutch Newsweekly by H. M. Reijzer, Amsterdam, Start Page 269, Quote Page 271, Volume 9, Number 4, H. E. Stenfert Kroese N.V., Leiden, Holland. (Verified on paper)
[HNHY] 1969 Jan 11, New York Times, Avant-Garde Right at Home in Amsterdam: City of Canals and Bicycles Is Also a Hippie Haven by John L. Hess, Page 12, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
[OBNW] 1969 Third Quarter, New World Review, The Two Germanys Celebrate Their Twentieth Anniversaries by Margrit Pittman, Start Page 52, Quote Page 55, N.W.R. Publications, New York. (Verified on paper)
[HNYK] 1970 August 8, The New Yorker, Profiles: Holland: The Little Room – 1 by Anthony Bailey, Page 34, Column 1, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (New Yorker online archive; Accessed March 20, 2012)
[SHNY] 1975 March 23, New York Times, Letter from East Germany by Stefan Heym, Start Page 34, [PQ Start Page 232], New York. (ProQuest)
[JBNY] 1976 August 22, New York Times, Innocence Lost: The Stouthearted Dutch by Gordon F. Sander, Page 14, [PQ Page 176], New York. (ProQuest)
[MTWB] 1978, Focus on the Future: Implications for Education, Edited by B. Dell, [Half-Century Conference of the University of Houston, College of Education, Held in 1977, Keynote Address by Warren Bennis titled “Backing Into The Future”], Quote Page 25, University of Houston, College of Education. (Many thanks to the librarians at the Carrier Library of James Madison University for verifying this cite on paper)
[MTAL] 1979 Autumn, American Literary Realism: 1870-1910, Volume 12, Number 2, “Mark Twain in Cincinnati: A Mystery Most Compelling” by William Baker Start Page 299, Quote Page , University of Illinois Press. (JSTOR) link
[MTCM] 1980 October, Cincinnati Magazine, Nothing But the Facts: Cincinnati As Seen By Literati by Lilia F. Brady, Page 128, Column 4, Published by Emmis Communications. (Google Books full view) link
[BSWC] 2000, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Administration of William J. Clinton: 1998, Remarks in Limerick, Ireland on September 5, 1998, Start Page 1537, Quote Page 1539, Column 1, Office of the Federal Register, Government Printing Office. (Google Books Preview) link
[WRZQ] 2004, The Mammoth Book of Zingers, Quips, and One-Liners, Edited By Geoff Tibballs, Category: World, Page 571, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York. (Reprint 2005; Google Books Preview)