Put All Your Eggs in One Basket, and Then Watch That Basket

Mark Twain? Andrew Carnegie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Proverbial wisdom tells us never to put all our eggs in one basket, but an inversion of that advice has been ascribed to the renowned humorist Mark Twain and the business titan Andrew Carnegie. Who should receive credit?

Quote Investigator: On June 23, 1885 Andrew Carnegie addressed the students of Curry Commercial College of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He gave pungent guidance to the learners which included a repudiation of the traditional adage about baskets and eggs. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1902, The Empire of Business by Andrew Carnegie, The Road to Business Success: A Talk to Young Men, (From an address to Students of the Curry Commercial College, Pittsburg, June 23, 1885), Start Page 3, Quote page 17, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. (HathiTrust) link [/ref]

The concerns which fail are those which have scattered their capital, which means that they have scattered their brains also. They have investments in this, or that, or the other, here, there and everywhere. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is all wrong. I tell you “put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.” Look round you and take notice; men who do that do not often fail. It is easy to watch and carry the one basket. It is trying to carry too many baskets that breaks most eggs in this country. He who carries three baskets must put one on his head, which is apt to tumble and trip him up. One fault of the American business man is lack of concentration.

The text above was from a collection of speeches and essays published by Carnegie in 1902. The date and location of the speech were specified in the book. Contemporaneous news accounts also mentioned the event. For example, on August 19, 1885 “The Yonkers Statesman” of Yonkers, New York described the talk under the title “Success in Business”. The phrasing varied: “I tell you” versus “We tell you”, but the adage was identical:[ref] 1885 August 19, The Yonkers Statesman, Success in Business, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Yonkers, New York. (Old Fulton)[/ref]

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is all wrong. We tell you “put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.”

Mark Twain heard about Carnegie’s remark, and he was intrigued enough to record it in one of his notebooks. Later, he employed the reversed adage as a chapter epigraph in his tale titled “Pudd’nhead Wilson”. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order including detailed citations for Twain.

The metaphorical danger of placing eggs into too many baskets was mentioned in 1875, a decade before Carnegie’s address. The “New-York Tribune” editorialized against providing relief to merchants and others who acted unwisely:[ref] 1875 November 20, New-York Tribune, The Prospects of Inflation, Quote Page 6, Column 3, New York, New York. (Chronicling America) link [/ref]

And yet, from the striking coal miner and locked-out puddler to the bankrupt speculator and insolvent merchant who has his eggs in too many baskets, they all blame the party in power. Not only that, but Congress itself as soon as it meets falls to work on all sorts of ridiculous schemes for the “relief” of the country.

Carnegie’s speech of June 1885 was reprinted in periodicals such as “The Bulletin of The American Iron and Steel Association” in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 21, 1885[ref] 1885 October 21 and 28, The Bulletin of The American Iron and Steel Association, Volume 19, Number 36, Mr. Andrew Carnegie on the Secret of Success in Business, Quote Page 281, Column 1, Published Weekly for The American Iron and Steel Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref] and the “Southern Standard” of McMinnville, Tennessee on November 7, 1885.[ref] 1885 November 7, Southern Standard, Mr. Andrew Carnegie on the Secret of Success in Business, Quote Page 2, Column 1, McMinnville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

The tycoon’s address included a summation during which he reiterated a slightly altered version of the egg remark; he deleted the word “then”. On November 21, 1885 “The Greenville Times” of Greenville, Mississippi printed this précis without the rest of the speech:[ref] 1885 November 21, The Greenville Times, Road to Success: From an Address by Andrew Carnegie, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Greenville, Mississippi. (Chronicling America) link [/ref]

To summarize what I have said: Aim for the highest; never enter a bar-room; do not touch liquor, or, if at all, only at meals; never endorse beyond your surplus cash fund; make the firm’s interest yours; break orders always to save owners; concentrate; put all your eggs in one basket, and watch that basket; keep expenditure always within revenue; lastly, be not be impatient, for, as Emerson says, “no one can cheat you out of ultimate success but yourselves.”

In 1891 Andrew Carnegie addressed students at the Pierce School of Business and Shorthand, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:[ref] 1893, Annual Graduating Exercises: 1882-1892, Pierce School of Business and Shorthand, Annual Address (December 17, 1891) by Andrew Carnegie, Start Page 423, Quote Page 437, Published by Thomas May Pierce, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

There is always room at the top in every pursuit. Concentrate all your energy and thought upon the performance of your duties. Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket. Do not scatter your shot. The man who is director in half a dozen banks, half a dozen railroads and three or four manufacturing companies rarely amounts to much. He may be director of many, but these should all be of the one kind which he understands. The great successes in life are made by concentration.

Albert Bigelow Paine was a close friend of Twain’s, and he wrote a lengthy biography of the man. He also posthumously published “Mark Twain’s Notebook” which contained a sampling of the material that the humorist had penned in a set of personal notebooks. The quotation and attribution below were recorded by Twain between April 10, 1893 and April 23, 1893:[ref] 1935, “Mark Twain’s Notebook” by Mark Twain, Edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, Quote Page 231, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

“Put all your eggs in one basket—and watch that basket.” Andrew Carnegie.

Twain’s story “Pudd’nhead Wilson” was serialized in “The Century Magazine” beginning in December 1893. The April 1894 issue contained chapter 15 of the work which featured two epigraphs:[ref] 1894 April, The Century Magazine, Volume 47, Number 6, Pudd’nhead Wilson, A Tale by Mark Twain, (Epigraph of Chapter 15), Quote Page 817, The Century Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar.

Behold, the fool saith, “Put not all thine eggs in the one basket”—which is but a manner of saying, “Scatter your money and your attention”; but the wise man saith, “Put all your eggs in the one basket and — WATCH THAT BASKET.”— Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar.

When Carnegie died in 1919 he left behind an incomplete set of notes that was assembled into the “Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie” and published in 1920. Carnegie’s manuscript updated the adage by changing “your eggs” to “good eggs”:[ref] 1920, Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie by Andrew Carnegie, Edited by John Charles Van Dyke, Chapter 12: Business Negotiations, Quote Page 176, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

I had become interested, with my friends of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, in building some railways in the Western States, but gradually withdrew from all such enterprises and made up my mind to go entirely contrary to the adage not to put all one’s eggs in one basket. I determined that the proper policy was “to put all good eggs in one basket and then watch that basket.”

In 1936 “The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations” included Carnegie’s variant:[ref] 1936, The New Dictionary of Thoughts: A Cyclopedia of Quotations, Originally compiled by Tryon Edwards, Revised and Enlarged by C. N. Catrevas and Jonathan Edwards, Topic: Success, Quote Page 622, Standard Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans) link [/ref]

Put all good eggs in one basket and then watch that basket.—Andrew Carnegie

In conclusion, Andrew Carnegie deserves credit for the sayings he employed in the 1885 speech and the 1920 autobiography. Mark Twain also used the adage and aided its popularization; however, Twain credited Carnegie in his notebook.

Image Notes: Picture of eggs in a basket from Free-Photos at Pixabay. Caricature of Andrew Carnegie from Vanity Fair magazine on October 29, 1903; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been resized, retouched, and cropped.

(Great thanks to Daniel Gackle whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to researchers Fred Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, and Barry Popik. Popik located the August 19, 1885 citation. In addition, thanks to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote.)

Update History: On February 18, 2017 the citations dated August 19, 1885 and November 20, 1875 were added.

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