Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes

Oscar Wilde? Frank Harris? Irish Barrister? Wilton Lackaye? Margaret Waters? Well-Known Young Clubman? Gustav Traub? Mike Romanoff? Samuel George Blythe? Arthur M. Binstead? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The scintillating conversationalist Oscar Wilde enjoyed modifying dusty platitudes to construct comical alternatives. For example, he permuted an old complaint about the working class to yield:

Work is the curse of the drinking classes.

Oddly, I have not found a citation for this statement dated before the death of Wilde. Would you please examine the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in November 1900. The earliest published instance of this quip located by QI occurred in the caption of a newspaper cartoon in 1902. The details are given further below.

Yet there is good evidence that Oscar Wilde did craft this statement. In 1916 the writer and outsized personality Frank Harris who was a friend of Wilde’s published a biography titled “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions”. Harris described a party he threw during which Wilde delivered the remark. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

A little later I gave a dinner at the Savoy and asked him to come. He was delightful, his vivacious gaiety as exhilarating as wine. But he was more like a Roman Emperor than ever: he had grown fat: he ate and drank too much; not that he was intoxicated, but he became flushed, and in spite of his gay and genial talk he affected me a little unpleasantly; he was gross and puffed up. But he gave one or two splendid snapshots of actors and their egregious vanity. It seemed to him a great pity that actors should be taught to read and write: they should learn their pieces from the lips of the poet.

“Just as work is the curse of the drinking classes of this country,” he said laughing, “so education is the curse of the acting classes.”

Yet even when making fun of the mummers there was a new tone in him of arrogance and disdain. He used always to be genial and kindly even to those he laughed at; now he was openly contemptuous.

The accuracy of the above ascription to Wilde depends on the veracity of Harris who was a direct witness. Harris explained the long delay before the appearance of his book in the introduction. Wilde was a controversial figure and Harris’s sympathetic work condemned the harshness of Wilde’s punishment. Harris waited more than ten years hoping that someone else would write a comparable book. He acted when he finally felt compelled to present his own viewpoint.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1902 the “Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier” of Ottumwa, Iowa printed a one-panel cartoon with a caption containing the original adage about the working classes together with the transformational joke about the drinking classes. 2 See the accompanying image. QI does not know the name of the artist. In May 1902 “The Kalispell Bee” in Kalispell, Montana printed the same cartoon and caption: 3

“I tell you, my friend, drink is the curse of the working classes.”
“And I tells you work is the curse of the drinkin’ classes.

In 1905 “The Sporting Times” of London reported that the jest was told by an “Irish barrister”: 4

Coming out of the “Victoria” they were discussing Admiral Rodjestvensky and the Russian people.

“It’s just this in Russia,” said an Irish barrister from Calcutta, “it’s just this way. In Russia work is the curse of the drinking classes!”

In June 1906 a newspaper in Utica, New York described a party scene at a club in New York City that included the popular actor Wilton Lackaye who was best known for playing the role of Svengali. The quip was incorporated into a rhyming verse: 5

At the “Washing Day” of the Lambs Club of New York, yesterday, all the members sang, with Wilton Lackaye improvising and repeating the words in advance:

Too much toil with no vacation
Justifies a slight libation;
So here’s a toast, now drain your glasses,
Work is the curse of the drinking classes.

There was also a stanza denouncing both war and work as needless.

In July 1906 a group of revelers in Atlantic City, New Jersey sang the same song: 6

Four well-known young clubmen, two of whom were married, and all hailing from Washington, came to Atlantic City on a bit of a tear the other day, and at a prominent cafe one evening one of them repeated the following toast, apropos of their cases:

“Too much toil with no vacation,
Justifies a slight libation;
So here’s a toast, now drain your glasses,
Work in the curse of the drinking classes.”

In 1907 “The Sun” newspaper of New York described the financial, physical, and moral disintegration of a one-time waiter named Gustav Traub: 7

After that there was little work that had attractions for Traub. Instead of working he used to spend most of his time in the saloons talking about his property and spending the money his wife made over the washtub. Work, he told his neighbors was the curse of the drinking classes.

In 1908 the “The Chicago Sunday Tribune” reported that actor Wilton Lackaye had published a book containing the joke: 8

According to John Pierre Roche of the Show World, Wilton Lackaye has written a volume of verse entitled “Ballads of Broadway,” said to display the White Way knowledge of Lee Harrison and the versification powers of Kipling in his palmiest salad days. One of the gems of the collection starts:

“All together! Raise your glasses!
Work is the curse of the drinking classes!”

In 1909 Margaret Waters published a compilation of toasts, and she included a slight variant of the toast listed previously: 9

Too much work and no vacation
Justifies a slight libation;
Here’s a toast, boys, raise your glasses
Work is the curse of the drinking classes.

In 1913 Samuel George Blythe published a book designed to help individuals stop drinking alcohol titled “Cutting It Out: How To Get On the Waterwagon and Stay There”. He included the saying: 10

When you are drinking you are never too busy to take a drink and never too busy not to stop. You are busy all the time—but get nowhere. Work is the curse of the drinking classes.

In 1915 a newspaper in Wellington, New Zealand ascribed the expression to the journalist Arthur M. Binstead although his name was misspelled as “Brinstead”: 11

Mr. A. M. Brinstead, the immortal “Pitcher,'” died the other day in London at the comparatively early age of 51. He was a scholar of brilliant attainments and the ablest Bohemian journalist in the Empire. He said that “Work is the curse of the drinking classes?” but he worked hard himself and drank little. He died in harness.

In 1916 the Wilde received credit for the saying in the biography “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions” by Frank Harris as noted previously:

“Just as work is the curse of the drinking classes of this country,” he said laughing, “so education is the curse of the acting classes.”

In 1942 H. L. Mencken expressed uncertainty about the remark in his massive compilation “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”: 12

Work is the curse of the drinking classes.
Author unidentified

In 1946 a different biography of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson attributed the remark to Wilde: 13

What other people took seriously he dealt with humorously; what they dismissed as trivial he treated with great solemnity. His favourite method of ridiculing conventional standards was to change a word or two in a proverb or cliché, and so add an aspect to truth. Here are some good examples of his conversational flings:

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”
“One of those characteristic British faces that, once seen, are never remembered.”
“Everyone should keep someone else’s diary.”
“It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.”

In 1979 “The Book of Quotes” compiled by Barbara Rowes assigned the saying to Mike Romanoff, 14 and in 1984 “The Cynic’s Lexicon” compiled by Jonathon Green made the same assignment. Romanoff was an American restaurateur who lived between 1890 and 1972 according to Green; 15 hence, the saying was in circulation when he was twelve years old.

In conclusion, QI believes that the ascription to Oscar Wilde is the most plausible. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that the expression was crafted after his death. In that case, the artist responsible for the 1902 cartoon becomes the top candidate.

Image Notes: Picture of colored alcoholic drinks from acekreations at Pixabay. Picture of workers in scaffolding from 3112014 at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Shapiro is the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations” which contains the key 1916 ascription to Oscar Wilde. Special thanks to top researchers S. M. Colowick and Stephen Goranson who located valuable citations in 1909, 1911, and 1915. Thanks also to discussant Laurence Horn.)

Notes:

  1. 1916, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, Volume 1, Quote Page 166, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1902 April 08, Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, Cartoon Title: VICE VERSA (One-Panel Cartoon Caption), Quote Page 10, Ottumwa, Iowa. (Chronicling America) link
  3. 1902 May 07, 1902, The Kalispell Bee Cartoon Title: Hitting Him Back (One-Panel Cartoon Caption), Quote Page 7, Column 4, Kalispell, Montana. (Chronicling America) link
  4. 1905 January 28, The Sporting Times, Sporting Notes, Quote Page 1, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive.co.uk)
  5. 1906 June 27, Utica Herald Dispatch, (Brief untitled item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Utica, New York. (Old Fulton)
  6. 1906 July 22, The Philadelphia Inquirer, A Fin. Ricki’s Chat About: Clubs and Clubmen, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (The original text contains the misprint “Work in the curse” instead of “Work is the curse”) (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1907 January 13, The Sun, Traub’s Vision of Wealth: Caused Him To Drink and To Threaten Murder, New York. (Old Fulton)
  8. 1908 May 24, The Chicago Sunday Tribune (Chicago Tribune), Notes of Plays and Players, Quote Page H1, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  9. 1909 Copyright, Toasts, Compiled by Margaret Waters, Unnumbered Page (31), Barse & Hopkins, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  10. 1913, Cutting It Out: How To Get On the Waterwagon and Stay There by Samuel G. Blythe (Samuel George Blythe), Quote Page 59, Forbes & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (HathiTrust) link
  11. 1915 January 21, The New Zealand Free Lance, All Sports of People, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Wellington, New Zealand. (paperspast.natlib.govt.nz)
  12. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Work, Quote Page 1330, Column 2, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Quote Page 170, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1979, The Book of Quotes, Compiled by Barbara Rowes, Quote Page 23, A Sunrise Book: E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper)
  15. 1984, The Cynic’s Lexicon by Jonathon Green, Section: Mike Romanoff, Quote Page 166, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified on paper)