Art Buchwald? Henry James Lee? Mrs. Kenneth Clarke? Linda Godeau? Laurence J. Peter? Anonymous?
Dear Quote investigator: A popular modern adage de-emphasizes materialism:
The best things in life aren’t things.
This phrase has been attributed to the humorist Art Buchwald and the quotation collector Laurence J. Peter. What do you think?
Quote investigator: This saying is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the “Illinois State Journal and Register” of Springfield, Illinois in 1948. An editorial piece about “The Fine Things of Life” employed a version of the saying without a precise ascription. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
A person recently bereaved of an only sister, wrote to a friend: “Isn’t it wonderful that the really fine things of life are not things at all.” And so it is. Love, friendship, appreciation, kindness, honesty, thrift, and a multitude of life’s finest qualities, are intangible and spiritual but nevertheless, very real.
Laurence J. Peter placed the saying in one of his collections in 1982, but it was already in circulation. Art Buchwald was connected to the saying by 1989, but there was no substantive evidence that he crafted it.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1931 Reverend Henry James Lee, the pastor of a church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, delivered a sermon that included a precursor expression: 2
“The greatest gifts in life are not things but rather the way men and women meet the crisis,” said Mr. Lee. “Here is a real cause for gratitude in 1931 – American men and women are proving under adversity the quality of the stuff out of which they are made.”
In 1945 “The Columbia Record” of Columbia, South Carolina printed a precursor highlighting the value of people: 3
How difficult it ofttimes is to remember that the chief values in life are not things but persons. The wealth of any nation is not in its stocks and bonds, its magnificent buildings or its natural scenery. Its wealth is in its people.
In 1948 a newspaper in Springfield, Illinois published a match as noted previously:
A person recently bereaved of an only sister, wrote to a friend: “Isn’t it wonderful that the really fine things of life are not things at all.”
In 1971 Mrs. Kenneth Clarke writing in a Union, Mississippi newspaper began her column with the following instance: 4
The most important things in life aren’t things.
In 1972 Linda Godeau of the “Academy of the Sacred Heart” in Grand Coteau, Louisiana wrote a piece for a local newspaper that included an exact match to the adage under examination: 5
That’s all the news for this week. Until next time, here’s a thought to keep in mind: “The best things in life aren’t things.”
In 1982 the quotation and adage collector Laurence J. Peter published “Peter’s Almanac”, and he appeared to link the saying to himself: 6
Peter’s Value Principle: The best things in life aren’t things.
In 1983 the student newspaper “The Daily Northwestern” of Evanston, Illinois printed the following: 7
I get laughed at a lot for two buttons I wear, and I’ll have to admit, I’m not quite sure why.
The first one says, “The best things in life aren’t things,” at once implying anti-materialism and pro-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
In 1989 a staff writer for the “The Los Angeles Times” of California stated that Art Buchwald had mentioned the saying, but he had also disclaimed credit: 8
Humor columnist Art Buchwald recalls once seeing in a store a pillow on which had been sewn: “The Best Things in Life Are Not Things.”
In 2012 the valuable reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press contained an entry for “The best things in life are not things” which noted its relationship to another adage: 9
The proverb likely originated as an anti-proverb based on “The best things in life are free.”
In conclusion, the earliest instance of this saying located by QI was written by an unidentified bereaved person in 1948. Another version was used by the columnist Mrs. Kenneth Clarke in 1971. The modern instance was employed by Linda Godeau in 1972.
(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mardy’s latest excellent book is “Metaphors Be With You: An A to Z Dictionary of History’s Greatest Metaphorical Quotations”.)
- 1948 October 24, Illinois State Journal and Register, The Fine Things of Life, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1931 November 26, the Milwaukee Journal, Pastors Voice City’s Thanks, Section: Local and State News, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1945 October 27, The Columbia Record, “These are My Jewels”, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Columbia, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1971 December 09, The Union Appeal, Decatur News by Mrs. Kenneth Clarke Section 2, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Union, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1972 March 05, Daily World, Rebel Rap by Linda Godeau (Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau), Quote Page 20, Column 5, Opelousas, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1982, Peter’s Almanac by Laurence J. Peter, Date: April 28, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1983 November 18, The Daily Northwestern, Section: TGIF: The Daily Northwestern’s Friday Magazine, Profit of faith by Asasa, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Evanston, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1989 December 13, The Los Angeles Times, Priceless Gifts (continuation title: Money: Family, Friends Are Priceless Gifts) by David Larsen (Times Staff Writer) Start Page E1, Quote Page E22, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 251 and 252, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩