Today a Reader; Tomorrow a Leader

Margaret Fuller? W. Fusselman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular motivational quotation that is usually attributed to Margaret Fuller and is displayed on many educational websites:

Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

Wikiquote lists an extensive collection of quotations from Fuller, but I was unable to find this one. Fuller’s opus “Woman in the Nineteenth Century” is in the Google Books database, but I cannot find the quotation within it. Fuller died in 1850 and stylistically the quotation sounds anachronistic for her time period. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI was unable to find any substantive support for crediting Margaret Fuller with this motto. The earliest evidence appeared in 1926 in an intriguing report published in a journal called “The Library” from the Newark Public Library in New Jersey. The head of the library had received a collection of 43 slogans constructed by students, and that set included the statement under investigation. The creator of the slogan was a student named W. Fusselman. Here is an excerpt from the journal article: [ref] 1926 April, The Library, Volume 2, Number 4, Slogans for a Library, Page 56, Column 2,  Newark Public Library, Newark, New Jersey. (Verified with scans; Thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system) [/ref]

Invented by Vocational School Boys

Max S. Henig, of the Essex County Vocational School for Boys, in Irvington, N.J., sends me a list of 43 “library slogans” and says “these slogans were written by the members of my classes at the West Orange Essex County Vocational School. They were originated and used as part of a campaign planned to arouse interest in the growth and use of a school library which some of the boys had created by generous donations of books.”

The article noted that the books were lent for four days with a fee of one cent. The expressions were created as part of a classroom exercise, and the journal editors were impressed enough that they reprinted eight of them. Here are the first four together with the names of the students who crafted them:

Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.  W. Fusselman.
A library is an education on a shelf.  H. Ohlandt.
If you read to learn you’re bound to earn.  M. Tremper.
A good book read puts you ahead.  Howard Fraebel.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Catchphrases using the two words “leaders” and “readers” existed before 1926. For example, in 1917 an advertisement in an Illinois newspaper for a bookseller used a compact expression of three words:[ref] 1917 October 12, The Rockford Morning Star, [Advertisement for H.D. McFarland Co.], Page 12, Column 4, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]


The slogan printed in “The Library” in 1926 was arguably distinct from “Leaders are readers” and the student ascription was not forgotten. In 1959 a compilation titled “New Treasury Of Stories For Every Speaking And Writing Occasion” by Jacob M. Braude included the following numbered entry in the category “Reading”:[ref] 1959, New Treasury Of Stories For Every Speaking And Writing Occasion by Jacob M. Braude, Section: Reading, Quote Number 2264, Page 331, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Scans in Internet Archive) [/ref]

2264. Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

In 1963 an advertisement for a reading program developed by Science Research Associates included the following: [ref] 1963 March 24, Boston Herald, [Advertisement for Boston Traveler], Section: IV, Page 11 (GNB Page 94), Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]


In 1987 Scouting magazine from the Boy Scouts of America printed another saying with “leader” and ‘reader”:[ref] 1987 September, Scouting, Each One Teach One by Robert Hood, Start Page 50, Quote Page 52, Column 2, Published by Boy Scouts of America, Irving, Texas. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

‘If you’re going to be a leader,’ he said, ‘you’ve got to be a reader.’

In 2001 a newspaper in Ohio reported that the slogan being examined was printed on the side of a bookmobile without attribution:[ref] 2001 April 26, Dayton Daily News, Edition: Greene County, Section: Neighbors, Greene County Library Fires Up Bookmobile Page Z4-1, Dayton, Ohio. (Access World News NewsBank) [/ref]

The driver’s side of the van displays the project’s motto: Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.

By 2005 the saying had been assigned to Margaret Fuller in an Illinois newspaper:[ref] 2005 March 5, Journal-Standard, Section: Pulse, “for love of community” by Roland Tolliver, Page number not given, Freeport, Illinois. (Access World News NewsBank) [/ref]

Today a reader; tomorrow a leader. – Margaret Fuller

Yet, the connection to the student of 1926 was not lost. In the same year, 2005, a Florida newspaper preserved the ascription:[ref] 2005 July 23, Florida Times-Union, Column: How I See It, “If books are like gold, a library is Fort Knox” by Kathy Marsh, Page M-14, Jacksonville, Florida. (Access World News NewsBank) [/ref]

There is much truth to Author W. Fusselman’s quote: “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”

In conclusion, based on current evidence this slogan was probably created during a classroom exercise by a student named W. Fusselman. His teacher then sent the phrase to a journal focused on libraries where it was printed in 1926 and began to achieve wider distribution.

A follow-up question received by QI wondered if there was an explanation for the curious shift of credit from W. Fusselman to Margaret Fuller. Here is one speculative hypothesis for this change. The names Fusselman and Fuller are close to one another in an alphabetical listing. In a small collection of quotations about education or libraries the sayings from the two individuals might have been placed adjacent to one another. The name Margaret Fuller might have appeared above a quote by W. Fusselman, and an inattentive reader might have assumed that Fuller deserved credit. Another example illustrating this possible mechanism is given here.

(Thanks to Udo Helms whose inquiry was used by QI to fashion this question. Also, thanks to Dennis Lien for verifying the 1926 citation.)

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