The Strength of the Sole Leather Has Passed into the Fibre of Your Body

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation about the value of exercise is attributed to the transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the shoe leather has passed into the fiber of your body.

I searched for this expression in a database of writings by Emerson and was unable to find it. Neither the Wikiquote main page nor the discussion page for Emerson listed the saying. Would you be willing to explore these words?

Quote Investigator: A version of this statement did appear in the “Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson with Annotations: 1849-1855”, but some crucial words were different. Emerson spoke of “sole leather” and “fibre” instead of “shoe leather” and “fiber”. These small differences can cause a database search to fail. Even a search for a phrase that exactly matches a phrase that is present in a large-scale text database can sometimes fail for a variety of complex reasons.

Here is an excerpt from a journal page written in 1851 when Emerson was 48 years old. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Economy. Nature says thou shalt keep the air, skate, swim, walk, ride, run. When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the sole leather has passed into the fibre of your body. I measure your health by the number of shoes and hats and clothes you have worn out. He is the richest man who pays the largest debt to his shoemaker.

The multi-volume edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals was edited by his son, Edward Waldo Emerson, and his grandson, Waldo Emerson Forbes. Publication was spread across several years, and the volume containing the excerpt above was released in 1913.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1888 Emerson’s son published the book “Emerson in Concord: A Memoir Written for the ‘Social Circle’ in Concord, Massachusetts”. Edward knew his father loved to walk, and he recounted the adage he heard spoken by the sage of Concord: 2

Walking was his exercise and he was an admirable walker, light, erect and strong of limb. He almost always refused offers to ride in a carriage, and seldom on journeys availed himself of omnibuses or cabs. He would walk across the city to his train, carrying usually his rather heavy leathern travelling bag in his hand at such a speed that a companion must run to keep up with him, and this without apparent effort or any noticeable effect of overheat or shortness of breath. “When you have worn out your shoes,” he said, “the strength of the sole-leather has gone into the fibre of your body.”

In 1889 the Boston Herald newspaper reviewed the son’s memoir and reprinted an excerpt containing the quotation. Hence, the words were further disseminated. 3

In 1892 a book titled “Physical Education in the Public Schools” printed the saying and credited Emerson: 4

Emerson is said to have been an admirable walker—light, erect, and strong of limb. He always preferred to take his exercise in that way, and once said: “When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the sole-leather has gone into the fiber of your body.”

In 1913 the volume covering 1849 to 1855 of the ten-volume “Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson” was published and it included the quotation. The words were originally written back in 1851 as noted previously.

In recent decades the phrase “shoe leather” has often replaced “sole leather”. For example, in 1999 the Boston Globe published the following: 5

“When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the shoe leather has passed into the fiber of your body,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In conclusion, Ralph Waldo Emerson did write a version of this adage in one of his journals in 1851. He also told it to his son who recorded it in a memoir published in 1888. Most modern instances have slightly modified the original wording.

(Great thanks to Paula MacKay whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1913, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson with Annotations: 1849-1855, Edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, (Age 48, 1851), Quote Page 232, Published by Constable & Co., London, and Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Internet Archive archive.org) link
  2. 1888, Emerson in Concord: A Memoir Written for the ‘Social Circle’ in Concord, Massachusetts by Edward Waldo Emerson, Quote Page 156, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust) link link
  3. 1889 May 5, The Sunday Herald (Boston Herald), Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Biography Completed by His Son, (Review of the Emerson Biography), Quote Page 20, Column 8, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1892 copyright, Physical Education in the Public Schools: An Eclectic System of Exercises, Including the Delsartean Principles of Execution and Expression by R. Anna Morris, Quote Page 33, American Book Company, New York. (Google News Full view) link
  5. 1999 July 29, Boston Globe, Peak experience Hike up 48 mountains – and you’re in the club by Denis Taylor, Quote Page 12, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)