Nostalgia Is Not What It Used To Be

Yogi Berra? Simone Signoret? Peter De Vries? Tommy Handley & Ronald Frankau? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Holidays sometimes make me nostalgic. They also remind me of the following clever quip:

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

These words are often attributed to the famed baseball quotemaster Yogi Berra, but recently I learned of an autobiography by the prominent French actress Simone Signoret titled:

Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be.

Could you explore the origin of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this expression known to QI was published in a 1959 novel titled “The Tents of Wickedness” by Peter De Vries. This citation is given in the key reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press. De Vries was a popular humorist who worked at “The New Yorker” magazine and published many novels: 1 2

No. Nostalgia, as his Uncle Joshua had said, ain’t what it used to be.
Which made it pretty complete. Nothing was what it used to be — not even nostalgia.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1901 “The Pall Mall Magazine” printed a remark about the popular London humor magazine “Punch”. The subphrase “not what it used to be” was employed to construct a joke accenting the transformation of memories over time. The jest later crafted by De Vries about nostalgia displayed thematic congruities: 3

“Punch is not what it used to be,” we hear people grumble every day. “No,” replied a witty contributor; “but then Punch never has been what it used to be.” The memory, in short, is a sieve through which the pains, annoyances, and boredoms of the past slip easily away, while its pleasures are retained and glorified.

In 1905 the joke about “Punch” was modified to apply to a symphony orchestra: 4

… so I have read repeatedly in the London press—the Queen’s Hall orchestra is not what it was. Perhaps like “Punch” it never was.

In 1921 a joke with a template matching the quip about “Punch” was used: 5

It is an old complaint that our humor is not what it used to be, and, as a humorist remarked, “it never was.”

In 1959 Peter De Vries published a version of the joke about nostalgia in a novel as noted previously:

Nostalgia … ain’t what it used to be.

In September 1963 a version of the saying was used in an academic journal in a parodic letter addressed to a new dean. The attribution was anonymous: 6

Well, that was long ago—and, as some one has remarked, even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be—yet it’s an old, happy friendship I invoke to justify my writing you in this vein.

In October 1963 De Vries remark was remembered in a Massachusetts newspaper, and the phrasing was slightly altered: 7

Even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
—Peter de Vries, novelist.

In 1964 the Los Angeles Times also ascribed a version of the saying to De Vries: 8 9

Peter de Vries is the man who said, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” No matter how we might miss porch swings and prop books and playing out of sight and out of mind, the change in summer has to be for the better.

In 1969 an article in a Virginian newspaper discussed many examples of graffiti found on the campus walls at Virginia Commonwealth University. An instance of the saying was listed as a graffito. It was also included in the 1971 compendium: “Graffiti: Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing”: 10 11

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

In 1978 the French movie star Simone Signoret released an autobiography which was translated into English. The following titles were used in the two languages: 12

La Nostalgie N’est Plus Ce Qu’elle Était
Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be

In June 1989 a variant of the saying was tentatively attributed to the quotation magnet Yogi Berra in an Atlanta, Georgia newspaper: 13

“Baseball nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”
If Yogi Berra hasn’t said it, he shoulda. Baseball mementos, once totems of hero-worshiping kids and lifelong fans, have become big business – a billion-bucks-a-year industry by some estimates.

One day later in 1989 the saying was again ascribed to Yogi Berra in a New York newspaper: 14

Wasn’t it that great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, who once said: “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be?”

In 1995 the version of the adage with the word “ain’t” was credited to Yogi Berra in an Illinois newspaper: 15

And, as Yogi Berra so eloquently put it, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.”

In 2001 a writer in “The Guardian” newspaper of Great Britain discussed a comedy routine that he stated was broadcast roughly 60 years ago, i.e., around 1941. The writer stated that he heard an exchange between two comics that was similar to the joke about “Punch”. But the word “nostalgia” was substituted for “Punch”: 16

‘Nostalgia,” says Mr Murgatroyd to Mr Winterbottom, “is not what it used to be.” “It never was,” sighs Mr Winterbottom in return. It is 60 years or so since I heard this exchange on my family’s bulky HMV radiogram, which commanded more space in our dining room than the table and chairs did.

The protagonists were a fictitious crosstalk team invented by fellow comedians Tommy Handley and Ronald Frankau…

In conclusion, currently the earliest evidence indicates that the jest about nostalgia was created by Peter De Vries. A writer in “The Guardian” raised the possibility that the joke was already being told by the 1940s as a modification of a joke about “Punch”. The evidence supporting this possibility is currently weak because it is based on a memory from decades ago.

Simone Signoret did use the expression by 1978, but it was already in circulation. The attribution to Yogi Berra is unsupported.

(In Memoriam: Thanks to my brother Stephen who asked about quotations attributed to Yogi Berra and enjoyed them whether they were real or fake.)

Notes:

  1. 1959, The Tents of Wickedness by Peter De Vries, Quote Page 6, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro Page 179, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1901 January, The Pall Mall Magazine, Volume 23, Number 93, The Drama: An Optimistic Survey, Quote Page 102, George Routledge & Sons, Ltd, London. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1905 May 13, The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Volume 99, The Queen’s Hall Orchestra by John F. Runciman, Quote Page 624, Column 1, Published at the Office, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1921 November 21, Times-Picayune, American Humor, Quote Page 6, Column 7, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1963 September, AAUP Bulletin, Volume 49, Number 3, Letter to a New Dean by Edward Rosenheim, Jr., Start Page 226, Quote Page 226, Published by: American Association of University Professors. (JSTOR) link
  7. 1963 October 8, Berkshire Eagle, Quotes, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 14, Column 6, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1964 July 26, Los Angeles Times, Lazy Days of Summer Ain’t What They Used to Be by Art Seidenbaum, Quote Page B13, Los Angeles. (ProQuest)
  9. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Peter De Vries, Page 196, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1969 February 16, Richmond Times Dispatch, Graffiti: An Important Social Indicator by Tom Luce, Quote Page B-2, Column 8, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1971, Graffiti: Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing by Robert Reisner, Section: Sarcasm and Cynicism, Quote Page 177, Cowles Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. Titles listed in Worldcat and OpenLibrary databases: (1978, Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, Harper & Row, New York), (1978, [1976 copyright] La nostalgie n’est plus ce qu’elle était by Simone Signoret, Seuil, Paris) (Accessed worldcat.org and openlibrary.org on July 6, 2013)
  13. 1989 June 3, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Players Are Selling Off Baseball’s Soul, Unsigned editorial, Quote Page A/22, Atlanta, Georgia. (NewsBank Access World News)
  14. 1989 June 4, The Buffalo News, Melody Fair The Feeling Is Gone at Dick Clark Concert by Anthony Violanti, Quote Page C13, Buffalo, New York. (NewsBank Access World News)
  15. 1995 April 28, Daily Herald, Movie Review: ‘Village’ is uninspiring clone of original by P.S. Colbert, Quote Page 30, Arlington Heights, Illinois. (NewsBank Access World News)
  16. 2001 March 31, The Guardian (UK), “I say, I say, I say” by Bob Monkhouse, (Review of “The Comedy Man by D. J. Taylor), London, United Kingdom. (Accessed online at guardian.co.uk on July 6, 2013) link