They Eked Out a Precarious Livelihood by Taking in Each Other’s Washing

Mark Twain? William Morris? Edward Dicey? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Skeptics have questioned the economic viability of small isolated or insular communities by derisively envisioning rudimentary economies based on simple tasks, e.g., individuals would wash clothes for one another. This notion has been credited to humorist Mark Twain and socialist activist William Morris. In modern times this scenario has been used to criticize measures of economic activity such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the book “The Battle-Fields of 1866” within an essay by Edward Dicey about Heligoland, a small German archipelago in the North Sea near Germany and Denmark. Dicey compared the activities on Heligoland to those on the Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

What the inhabitants do during the winter is a subject too awful for contemplation. Somebody once suggested that the dwellers in the Isle of Man earned a precarious livelihood by taking in each other’s washing. A similar occupation is the only one I can suggest for the Heligolanders. Robinson Crusoe upon his rock can hardly have been more cut off from the outer world.

The locution “somebody once suggested” indicates that the origin is anonymous. Dicey’s essay was dated September 8, 1866 and it was published contemporaneously in newspapers such as “The Sheffield Daily Telegraph” of Sheffield, England which acknowledged “The London Telegraph’s correspondent”. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1869 Mark Twain published a collection of travel writings called “The Innocents Abroad”, and he mentioned observing women washing clothes for other people. But Twain’s remark differed sharply from the target quotation: 3

The women wash clothes, half the day, at the public tanks in the streets, but they are probably somebody else’s. Or may be they keep one set to wear and another to wash; because they never put on any that have ever been washed.

In 1876 an article in “The Saturday Review” of London discussed Augustus Smith who was the Lord Proprietor of the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago near Cornwall, England. The following passage includes an anonymous instance of the saying under analysis: 4

The natives of that group, before Mr. Smith’s time, are popularly said to have eked out a precarious livelihood by taking in each other’s washing. Now things are very different, and the people are well fed, well lodged, and well educated. All this is due to Mr. Smith’s “arbitrary and tyrannical exercise of his power as landlord.”

In 1877 “The Whitstable Times” of England published a piece containing an instance of the saying: 5

The Mayor . . . speaking of what Folkestone was before the railway came . . . said he had heard some one remark that the people “lived by taking each other’s washing.”

In 1878 the London journal “Social Notes” asserted that the remark was spoken by an unnamed university student: 6

I have heard that at one of the universities a student, being asked to describe the chief source of revenue in the Shetland Isles, remarked that the inhabitants acquired a precarious subsistence by washing one another’s clothes, without its ever having occurred to him how very precarious a revenue obtained from washing one another’s clothes would be!

In 1884 “The Western Daily Press” of Bristol, England published a column called the “London Letter” which criticized a proposal to give ten million pounds sterling per week to poor people: 7

What an Arcadia old England would thus become! Everybody—man, woman, and child—in receipt a Government allowance! Life would indeed become simplified. How the State would fare no one seemed to care. England under this system would eventually become one those visionary Elysiums where everybody lived by taking in one another’s washing.

In 1887 by William Morris writing in “The Commonweal” referred to Mark Twain while employing the expression, but he did not credit Twain: 8

On the whole, one must suppose that the type of it would be that town (surely in America and in the neighbourhood of Mark Twain) that I have heard of, whose inhabitants lived by taking in each other’s washing.

In 1891 “The Yorkshire Post” reported on a speech criticizing socialism by Member of Parliament Ernest Beckett during which he attributed the saying to Mark Twain: 9

No community could thrive under it, either morally, mentally, materially; and, as Mark Twain said, we should soon be reduced to earning a livelihood by all taking in each other’s washing. (Laughter.)

In conclusion, this expression was circulating in 1866 when Edward Dicey used it to describe activities on both the Isle of Man and Heligoland, but Dicey specified an anonymous attribution. Mark Twain implausibly received credit for the saying many years later.

Image Notes: Picture of clothes on clothesline from the 1922 book “Poco a Poco: An Elementary Direct Method for Learning Spanish” by Guillermo Hall.

(Great thanks to Dennis Lien whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to quotation expert Nigel Rees who identified the William Morris citation and other valuable citations. Further thanks to discussant John Cowan.)


  1. 1866, The Battle-Fields of 1866 by Edward Dicey, The Island of Heligoland, Location: Heligoland, Date: September 8, 1866, Start Page 247, Quote Page 254, Tinsley Brothers, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1866 September 17, The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Heligoland, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  3. 1869, The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrims’ Progress by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), Quote Page 262, The American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Facsimile edition published by Hippocrene Books, New York) (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1876 November 11, The Saturday Review, Mr. Froude on Landed Gentry, Page 592, Column 1, Published at the Office of the Saturday Review, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1877 February 3, The Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald, Testimonial to Richard Hart, Esq., Quote Page 3, Column 4, County: Kent, England. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1878 July 13, Social Notes: Concerning Social Reforms, Social Requirements, Social Progress, Volume 1, Number 19, Educational Suggestions by F. W. Farrar (This paper contains the substance of remarks made on the recent Report of the Examiners for the Cambridge Local Examinations), Start Page 289, Quote Page 291, Printed by Virtue & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1884 October 16, The Western Daily Press, London Letter, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Bristol, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  8. 1887 August 6, The Commonweal, Bourgeois Versus Socialist by William Morris, Start Page 252, Quote Page 252, Column 2, The Official Journal of the Socialist League. (PDF at the William Morris Archive; hosted online at the University of Iowa) link
  9. 1891 April 4, The Yorkshire Post, Conservative Meeting at Whitby: Speech by Mr. E. Beckett, M.P., Quote Page 8, Column 4, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)