Observe the Postage Stamp—Its Usefulness Depends Upon Its Ability to Stick to One Thing Till It Gets There

Josh Billings? Elmira Gazette? Charles Frohman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Soon people will be making resolutions for the New Year. The popular U.S. humorist Josh Billings reportedly made an apropos remark about steadfastness. Here are two versions:

  • Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there.
  • A postage stamp is a mighty small thing, but it sticks to one thing until it gets there.

I have been unable to find a solid citation for Billings. Would you please help trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the “Elmira Gazette” of Elmira, New York in December 1893. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1893 December 27, Elmira Gazette (Star-Gazette), Jocular Jots, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Elmira, New York. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

My son, observe the postage stamp—its usefulness depends upon its ability to stick to one thing till it gets there.

The article containing the statement was titled “Jocular Jots”, and it included one other comical remark. No ascriptions were provided.

Josh Billings died in 1885, and based on current evidence he did not craft this saying although it was attributed to him by 1895. See the citation further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1879 multiple newspapers printed a remark that also extolled the following advice: “stick to one thing until it is well done”. However, the metaphorical framework was based on tar sticking to pantaloons instead of stamps sticking to envelopes:

“Stick to one thing,” says the New York Herald, “until it is done, and well done.” The man who wrote that must have been inspired by watching the tenacity of purpose which inspires a spoonful of tar on a pine board, doing its level best to over-shadow the bright prosperity of an unwary pair of linen pantaloons.—Burdette.

The above item appeared in geographically distributed newspapers such as the “Fox Lake Representative” of Wisconsin,[ref] 1879 May 30, Fox Lake Representative, Miscellaneous Items, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Fox Lake, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)[/ref] and the “Petaluma Weekly Argus” of California.[ref] 1879 June 20, Petaluma Weekly Argus, All Sorts, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Petaluma, California. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

QI hypothesizes that the postage stamp figurative schema was partially derived from this earlier saying.

In December 1893 the expression under analysis appeared in the “Elmira Gazette” as noted previously. In the same month the saying was reprinted in “The Philadelphia Times” of Pennsylvania with an acknowledgement to the “Gazette”:[ref] 1893 December 31, The Philadelphia Times, Editorial Opinions, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

My son, observe the postage stamp–its usefulness depends upon its ability to stick to one thing till it gets there.—Elmira Gazette.

In 1894 the theatrical producer Charles Frohman received credit for the remark within the pages of “The Law Student’s Helper: A Monthly Magazine”:[ref] 1894 June, The Law Student’s Helper: A Monthly Magazine, Volume 2, Number 6, (Filler item), Quote Page 228, The Collector Publishing Company, Detroit, Michigan.(Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Charles Frohman, the well-known manager, has his witty moments, and is credited with saying: “My friend (he is addressing a rolling-stone of a fellow), observe the postage stamp; its usefulness depends on its ability to stick to one thing until it gets there.”

In May 1895 the expression was assigned to Josh Billings by a filler item in “The Salt Lake Herald” of Utah:[ref] 1895 May 17, The Salt Lake Herald, Untitled filler item, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

He evidently remembers that Josh Billings once said, “My son, observe the postage stamp. Its usefulness depends upon its ability to stick to one thing until it gets there.”

In November 1895 a piece in a Galveston, Texas newspaper encouraging the reader to purchase advertisements within the paper included a slightly different version of the expression ascribed to Billings:[ref] 1895 November 28, The Galveston Daily News, Be a Stamp, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Galveston, Texas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Josh Billings says: “A postage stamp is a mighty small thing, but it has the ability to stick to one thing until it gets there.”
Advertise your business. BE A STAMP. Stick to it.

In 1915 another phrasing for the expression appeared in a Kentucky newspaper without attribution:[ref] 1915 June 30, The Adair County News, Snap Shots, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Columbia, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

To be successful a man must be like a postage stamp–stick to one thing till he gets there.

In 1921 a newspaper in Parowan, Utah printed a poem containing an instance attributed to Billings:[ref] 1921 March 2, Parowan Times, To the Boy by Robert B. Rogers, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Parowan, Utah. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Josh Billings claimed, if you want success,
“Like a postage stamp you must stick,”
So try and try until you succeed,
Be courageous thru thin and thick.

In 1987 a newspaper in Vernal, Utah credited Billings with a concise instance:[ref] 1987 August 12, Vernal Express, Golden Age Activities by Ada Murray, Quote Page 15, Column 2, Vernal, Utah. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Be like a postage stamp—Stick to one thing until you get there. Josh Billings

In conclusion, the first instance located by QI appeared in the “Elmira Gazette” of New York without attribution in 1893. Josh Billings received credit for two different versions of the saying by 1895, but he had died in 1885; hence, QI believe this linkage is weak.

(Great thanks to Joerg Wolf and Marian T. Wirth whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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