Target: Sarah Bernhardt? Alexander H. Stephens?
Dear Quote Investigator: Complaints about the body shapes of people in the public eye have a very long history. Small and thin individuals have sometimes been targeted with the following type of quip:
An empty vehicle rolled up to the hotel and so-and-so got out of it.
Would you please explore the history of this joke?
Quote Investigator: Sarah Bernhardt was a prominent French stage actress who was notably thin. A quip circulating in France was printed in a New York newspaper in May 1879. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
. . . only yesterday, says a correspondent, you may read in the same paper a fragment of conversation as follows: “An empty carriage stops and who is it who steps out? Sarah Bernhardt.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In June 1879 the “Reading Times and Dispatch” of Reading, Pennsylvania printed the following: 2
Sarah Bernhardt, the actress, is unreasonably thin, and when a French paper wants to be funny about her, here’s the way it goes to work: “An empty carriage stops, and who is it steps out? Sarah Bernhardt!”
In 1880 a book about “The Theatres of Paris” by J. Brander Matthews included a version of the joke: 3
It is said, also, that when a picture of her, by M. Clairin, showing a noble hound reclining at her feet, was shown in the annual exhibition, M. Dumas, glancing at it, remarked, “I see—a dog and a bone!” But the utmost height to which this rather thin wit has gone as yet is the assertion that one evening an empty carriage drove up to the Théâtre Français and Mlle. Sarah-Bernhardt alighted from it.
A similar criticism was aimed at Alexander H. Stephens who was the Vice President of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. After the war he became a U.S. Senator for the State of Georgia. Stephens was short and slight, and fellow Senator Matthew H. Carpenter delivered the jibe in the following passage from a Green Bay, Wisconsin newspaper in 1882: 4
. . . the late Senator Carpenter’s description of Stephens. He said: “An empty coach rolled up in front of one of the Departments and Alexander H. Stephens alighted from it.”
Carpenter had died in 1881, and Stephens died in 1883. In March 1883 “The Canton Advocate” of Canton, South Dakota printed a different phrasing of the joke: 5
He was physically so insignificant in comparison with his powerful mind and great personal influence, that a distinguished Senator from Wisconsin in describing his impressions on first seeing the famous “cotton statesman,” said: “An empty coach wheeled up to the treasury building and Alexander H. Stephens alighted from it.”
An 1884 biography of Carpenter asserted that he crafted the jest “many years ago”. If that claim were true then Carpenter’s remark would have existed before analogous statements about Sarah Bernhardt. But QI has not yet found earlier supporting evidence: 6
Many years ago Carpenter described the late Alex. H. Stephens, who was a mere child in stature, in this wise: “An empty coach halted at the treasury department and Aleck Stephens got out of it.”
He once referred to a famous secretary of the navy as “a great constitutional lawyer among sailors and a great sailor among constitutional lawyers.”
In February 1884 “The Burlington Free Press” of Vermont printed the quip from Carpenter’s biography and noted its similarity to the barb aimed at Bernhardt: 7
Years ago Carpenter described the late Alexander Stephens in this wise: “An empty coach halted at the treasury department, and Aleck Stephens got out of it.” The same joke was fitted to Bernhardt when in America, but it was original with Carpenter.
In 1887 “The Chicago Tribune” printed a remark aimed at a different politician: 8
The other day as Congressman Merriman entered Willard’s, a New-Yorker, in Washington for the first time, nudged his comrade, and said: “Who is that sharp-looking little fellow?” “That’s Congressman Truman A. Merriman from the Eleventh New York District.” “You don’t say! Well, now, I know what a fellow meant just now when he said an empty carriage drove up to the White House and Congressman Merriman got out of it.”—New York Sun.
In the twentieth century the gag was employed to attack the U.K. Prime minister Clement Attlee. The criticism was symbolic; Attlee was deemed an insubstantial and dull figure: 9
The Upper Classes are at the government because the inheritance tax laws prevent them from shooting pheasants, so they have retaliated with this joke: An empty taxi pulled up in front of Number Ten Downing Street and Mr. Attlee got out.
In conclusion, Sarah Bernhardt and Alexander H. Stephens were both the subjects of this joke schema. Currently, the earliest evidence suggests that Bernhardt was the first target. The jest evolved over time, and it was used to attack other politicians and individuals in the limelight. The critique was aimed at persons who were thin, diminutive, intellectually lightweight, or uncharismatic.
Image Notes: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt by Georges Clairin; displayed in Salon of 1876, provided by: SiefkinDR; creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Illustration of a carriage from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Images have been resized and cropped.
(Great thanks to Alex Marklew, Paul Waugh, and Patrick Kidd whose twitter exchange about the jibe aimed at Clement Attlee led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. QI also created a separate entry focused on the Attlee barb. Special thanks to Chris Waigl for help with French translation. The French statement has not yet been added to the article.)
- 1879 May 31, Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, Table Talk, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1879 June 18, Reading Times and Dispatch, Small Shot, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1880, The Theatres of Paris by J. Brander Matthews, Quote Page 97, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1882 August 12, Daily State Gazette (Green Bay Press-Gazette), (Untitled short item), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1883 March 22, The Canton Advocate, Alexander H. Stephens (Acknowledgement to Mil. Evening Wisconsin), Quote Page 3, Column 3, Canton, South Dakota. (Newspapers.com) ↩
- 1884, Life of Matthew Hale Carpenter by Frank Abial Flower (Frank Abial Flower), Third Edition, Chapter 48, Quote Page 557, David Atwood and Company, Madison, Wisconsin. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1884 February 9, The Burlington Free Press & Times, Matt. Carpenter’s Humor, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Burlington, Vermont. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1887 April 4, The Chicago Tribune, An Empty Carriage Containing a Congressman, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1948 February 23, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Lyons Den by Frederic Wakeman (substituting for Leonard Lyons), Quote Page 26, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers.com) ↩