Life Is a Treasure Hunt

Olivia Wyndham? Marjorie G. Hellier? Kevin J. Cook? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been attempting to trace an uplifting proverb about adventure and discovery:

Life is a treasure hunt.

The lesson of this phrase is illustrated by the delight experienced when uncovering early instances of this adage. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In July 1924 “The Sketch”, a London periodical, published a piece by Olivia Wyndham who was a member of a society that organized treasure hunts for entertainment. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Every attempt to keep the last Treasure Hunt of the season out of the papers failed completely. The idea of avoiding publicity was a losing fight from the start; but now that it is all over honour is satisfied, and I can add my say in the matter.

I have long wanted to argue with the gentleman who wrote to the paper saying, “Does not the Society of Bright Young People realise that the whole of life is a treasure hunt, etc.,” or words to that effect. In fact, I am afraid he was trying to infer that we were wasting our time, energy, and brains, and were not good citizens.

Wyndham was paraphrasing the words of a detractor, but the elegant encapsulation was hers. Since she wrote the earliest known instance she tentatively deserves credit for coining the expression. This notion is natural, and future researchers may find earlier evidence.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In March 1926 a newspaper in Connecticut reprinted an article from the “Richmond News-Leader” of Virginia about buried treasure which included the following passage: 2

After all, life is a treasure hunt. The wise man, however, seeks the trove invisible, treasure in the abstract, treasure of the spirit. The pirate’s kettle is but sounding brass and the clinking doubloons but a tinkling cymbal.

In June 1926 a newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana printed this commentary about the imagination of youth: 3

All life is a treasure hunt; and it is a wise heart that can become “as a little child;” can find happiness in shells and sand; can use the simple, common things of every day for pleasure; and play the game of either labor or leisure, irrespective of rewards.

In 1929 Marjorie G. Hellier published a short piece in a Derbyshire, England newspaper about hunting for metaphorical treasure: 4

Oh, Life’s richest Treasures are not over seas, but here, every day, close at hand. Vast Treasures of Knowledge are ours to enjoy, are ours to search out and attain; and Words, Colours, Harmonics we can employ to make lovely Treasures again. And Treasures there are, like—A walk with a friend; a garden; the spire of a church… our Life is a Treasure-Hunt right to the end, if only we’d join in the search!

In 1936 “The Sunderland Echo” of Durham, England published a sermon with the title “Life Is a Treasure Hunt”: 5

Life is a treasure hunt. We are all searching for something that will make life worth living. Many a man in this modern world feels like a castaway on disappointment island, surrounded by those demons distrust and despair, depression, and disaster.

Little does he guess that almost at his side lies a hidden treasure.

This adage continues to circulate. For example, in 2013 Kevin J. Cook, a columnist in Colorado, wrote: 6

Life is a treasure hunt with more treasure than we can ever find. Each encounter with life is a treasure of the memory. We go afield to make new memories and to relive the old.

In conclusion, the earliest instance of this adage known to QI was written by Olivia Wyndham in 1924. She was restating the thoughts of another person, but the concise expression was hers; hence, she deserves credit, at least provisionally.

(Great thanks to Charles C. Doyle whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Doyle is the coauthor of the valuable reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”, and he is working on a scholarly article updating this reference. While investigating the adage examined here Doyle identified the 1924 citation. Also, special thanks to researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake for her thoughts and help.)

Notes:

  1. 1924 July 23, The Sketch, Society Treasure Hunts: The Trail and the Chase by Olivia Wyndham, Start Page 158, Quote Page 158, Column 1, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  2. 1926 March 27, Hartford Courant, Buried Treasure (Richmond News-Leader), Quote Page 14, Column 6, Hartford, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1926 June 13, New Orleans States, Section: Automobiles and Radio, Sub-Section: Editorial Page, Treasure Hunts, Quote Page 4, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1929 September 28, Derby Daily Telegraph, To-Day’s Sunbeam: Hunting For Treasure by Marjorie G. Hellier, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Derbyshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  5. 1936 June 13, The Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, The Page-Pulpit: Life Is a Treasure Hunt, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Durham, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  6. 2013 January 13, Fort Collins Coloradoan, Plant pricks to life memories of youth by Kevin J. Cook (Pathfinder), Quote Page D6, Column 6, Fort Collins, Colorado. (Newspapers_com)