Will Smith? Walter Winchell? Robert Quillen? Edgar Allan Moss? Tony Wons? Ken Murray? Emile Gauvreau? Walter Slezak? Will Rogers? Chuck Palahniuk? Tyler Durden?
Dear Quote Investigator: Have you ever purchased an item and wondered the next day what motivated your inexplicable action? Here are two versions of an entertaining saying about consumerism:
1) Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.
2) We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.
Statements like this have been credited to the famous comedian Will Rogers, the powerful columnist Walter Winchell, the Hollywood star Will Smith, and the movie “Fight Club”. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a June 1928 column by the syndicated humorist Robert Quillen in which he labelled the expression “Americanism”: 1
Americanism: Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1905 a precursor fragment was published in a journal called “Ad Sense” where it was presented as a definition for the word “Advertising”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2
Advertising—The gentle art of persuading the public to believe that they want something they don’t need.
Interestingly, seven years before Robert Quillen published the full expression, he crafted a partial match that he placed in his column titled “Editorial Epigrams”. This 1921 version omitted the final element of impressing disliked persons. Hence, Quillen may have constructed the 1928 saying by embellishing this earlier remark: 3
Hard times: A season during which it is very difficult to borrow money to buy things you don’t need.
In 1928 Quillen put the full saying in his column called “Paragraphs” as previously noted:
Americanism: Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.
In January 1929 the syndicated column “Office Cat” published an instance; the author was Edgar Allan Moss who used the pseudonym Junius as a byline: 4
How many people do you know who are spending money they have not yet earned for things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like?
Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the “Office Cat” citation and unearthed other valuable items of information.
In July 1929 a simpler instance was used as a caption for a one-panel cartoon of the syndicated “Flapper Fanny”: 5
People often spend money on things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.
In 1931 the well-known star Will Rogers performed in a movie titled “A Connecticut Yankee”, and during one scene he delivered a line about advertising that partially matched the saying: 6
Mr. Rogers says among other things, that “advertising makes you spend money you haven’t got for things that you don’t want.”
In 1933 the widely-distributed columnist Walter Winchell attributed an instance aimed at Broadway people to a popular radio personality named Tony Wons: 7
Tony Wons describes Broadway’s best—where people use money they haven’t earned to impress people they don’t like.
In 1935 credit was transferred directly to Winchell in a Texas newspaper which cited an Oklahoma newspaper: 8
Soper (Okla) Democrat: Walter Winchell describes Broadway as a place where people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like. We are not so sure that the condition described is confined altogether to Broadway.
In May 1939 gossip columnist Hy Gardner ascribed the quip to a well-known comedian and actor of the era named Ken Murray: 9
The Rambling Reporter quotes Ken Murray as summing up Hollywood thusly: “Hollywood is a place where you spend more than you make on things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like!
Also in May 1939 Walter Winchell expressed irritation that the joke was being ascribed to Ken Murray: 10
The Hollywood Reporter quotes Ken Murray as saying: “Hollywood is a place where you spend more than you make on things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like. . . . Hey, Berle! Move over!
In 1941 Emile Gauvreau who was a path-breaking editor at a New York tabloid published a memoir titled “My Last Million Readers”. He used an instance of the saying but disclaimed credit: 11
I was now definitely a part of that strange race of people, aptly described in an editorial in the Herald Tribune, as spending their lives doing work they detest to make money they don’t want to buy things they don’t need in order to impress people they dislike.
Readers of Gauvreau’s book began to credit the statement directly to him. For example, in 1941 a book reviewer in a Texas newspaper said the following: 12
The high tension of life in tabloidia was getting under Gauvreau’s skin, and he realized that he was part of that strange race of people who spend “their lives doing work they detest to make money they don’t want to buy things they don’t need in order to impress people they dislike.”
Also in 1941 Ken Murray continued to receive credit. A book about “Hollywood: The Movie Colony” by Leo C. Rosten included the following passage: 13
“Hollywood,” said the comedian Ken Murray, “is a place where you spend more than you make, on things you don’t need, to impress people you don’t like.” It is not enough to be wealthy: wealth must be put into material evidence, in forms determined by the canons of prestige. Money is a tool with which to create social distance between those who possess it and those who do not.
In 1956 actor Walter Slezak was given credit for a version by syndicated Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham: 14
Walter Slezak’s idea of keeping up with the Joneses: “Spending money you don’t have for the things you don’t need, to impress people you don’t like.” How true.
In 1975 the adage was ascribed to Will Rogers in a New Mexico newspaper: 15
THOUGHT FOR TODAY: Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like. — Will Rogers
In 1996 the popular book “Fight Club” by Chuck Palahniuk included a partial match: 16
You have a class of young strong men and women, and they want to give their lives to something. Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don’t need. Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don’t really need.
In 1999 “Fight Club” was transformed into a movie, and the character Tyler Durden played by Brad Pitt spoke a compressed version of the lines in the book: 17
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.
In 2010 a concise biography of the star Will Smith stated that he liked to employ the expression which the author incorrectly ascribed to Will Rogers: 18
Smith doesn’t let Hollywood’s glamour influence him. He likes to quote Will Rogers, a famous American performer in the 1930s. Rogers said, “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.”
In conclusion, this saying has been difficult to trace because the phrasing was highly variable. Based on current evidence, QI would credit Robert Quillen with crafting the full expression. This may change if compelling new information is uncovered. Other candidates such as Walter Winchell and Emile Gauvreau helped to popularize the saying but did not coin it. The linkage to Will Rogers was probably based on a misunderstanding. He did speak a line in a movie that partially matched the saying. Edgar Allan Moss, Tony Wons, Ken Murray, Will Smith and others apparently used the line, but only after it was already in circulation.
Image Notes: The two images depicting a figure with shopping bags and with money were from 3dman_eu on Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Ian Gray and Dean Malachi whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Barry Popik for his pioneering efforts. Special thanks to Helena Blaschke who pointed to the line in the “Fight Club” movie and suggested that it should be included in the article. Blaschke also pointed out the attribution to alter Walter Slezak.)
Update History: On March 21, 2019 the 1996 and 1999 citations from the “Fight Club” book and movie were added. Also, the 1956 citation for Walter Slezak was added.
- 1928 June 4, The Detroit Free Press, Paragraphs by Robert Quillen, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1905 August, Ad Sense: A Journal of Advertising and Business Building, Volume 19, Number 2, Advertising Definitions by W. T. O’Connor, Start Page 121, Quote Page 121, Ad Sense Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1921 August 18, The Evening Repository, Editorial Epigrams by Robert Quillen, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1929 January 17, The Cambridge City Tribune, Office Cat by Junius (Syndicated, Edgar Allan Moss), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Cambridge City, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1929 July 24, Omaha World Herald, Flapper Fanny Says (Caption of one panel comic), Quote Page 16, Column 4, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1931 April 18, The Evening Star From the Front Row: Reviews and News of Washington’s Theaters, (Movie Review of Will Rogers in “A Connecticut Yankee”), Quote Page A4, Column 2, Washington, District of Columbia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1933 September 26, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell (Syndicated), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1935 November 18, The Paris News, Press Comments: What Other Newspapers Have to Say, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Paris, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1939 May 5, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Broadway Newsreel: Brenda Frazier Engaged to Howard Hughes Soon? by Hy Gardner, Quote Page 19, Column 5, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1939 May 11, Morning World-Herald (Omaha World Herald), On Broadway by Walter Winchell (Syndicated), Quote Page 8, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1941, My Last Million Readers by Emile Gauvreau, Quote Page 193, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York; Replica 1974 edition from Arno Press, New York. (Verified on paper in 1974 replica edition) ↩
- 1941 September 28, Galveston Daily News, Book Reviews: Stanley E. Babb’s Literary Comment and Criticism, Emile Gauvreau and His Last Million Readers: An Uncensored Report from the Strange Realm of Tabloidia, Quote Page 20, Column 3, Galveston, Texas, (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1941 copyright, Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers by Leo C. Rosten, Quote Page 103, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Facsimile produced on demand in 1973 by University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan)(Verified on paper in facsimile) ↩
- 1956 June 19, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hollywood by Sheilah Graham, Quote Page 22, Column 4, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1975 September 25, Albuquerque Journal, High & Inside: Lobo Gridders on Schedule for 8-3 Season Mark by LeRoy Bearman (Journal Sports Editor), Quote Page F2, Column 4, Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1996, Fight Club: A Novel By Chuck Palahniuk, Chapter 19, Quote Page 149, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- YouTube video, Title: Fight Club Best Scenes – Speech About Modern Life, Uploaded on Feb 23, 2015, Uploaded by: VideoSiesta, (Quotation starts at 0 minutes 25 seconds of 1 minutes 14 seconds) (This video excerpt is from the 1999 movie “Fight Club”; line is spoken by character Tyler Durden played by Brad Pitt), (Accessed on youtube.com on March 21, 2019) link ↩
- 2010, Today’s Superstars: Will Smith by Joe McGowan, Chapter 5: More Than an Actor, Quote Page 30, Gareth Stevens Publishing, Pleasantville, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩