When One Door Closes Another Opens, But Often We Look So Long Upon the Closed Door That We Do Not See the Open Door

Helen Keller? Alexander Graham Bell? Johann P. F. Richter? Miguel de Cervantes? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A venerable adage emphasizes the desirability of retaining a positive outlook and flexibility. Plans always encounter difficulties, and a successful person must be able to adapt. Here are two instances of a proverb that employs doorways figuratively:

  • When one door shuts, another opens.
  • When one door closes, another opens.

An addendum to this saying highlights the danger of inaction. Here are two versions:

  • We should not look so intently and so sorrowfully upon the closed door that we do not see the newly open door.
  • We should not look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we miss the door that has opened.

Sayings in this family have been ascribed to blind social activist Helen Keller, telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell, German Romantic writer Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, and eminent Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The “Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs” has an entry for the six-word adage listing the following two early citations. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

When one door shuts, another opens

1586 D. ROWLAND tr. Lazarillo D3V This proverbe was fulfild, when one doore is shut the other openeth.

1620 T. SHELTON tr. Cervantes’ Don Quixote iii. vii. Where one door is shut another is opened.

The first citation refers to an English translation of an influential picaresque Spanish novella titled “La vida de Lazarillo de Tormes y de sus fortunas y adversidades” with an anonymous author published by 1554. The second citation refers to an English translation of the famous comic novel “Don Quixote de la Mancha” by Miguel de Cervantes dated 1605 for the first part and 1615 for the second part in Spanish.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The full saying with the addendum is difficult to trace because of its variability. The first instance located by QI occurred in 1909 in “The New England Farmer” newspaper of Brattleboro, Vermont within an article titled “Our Little Sermons”: 2

When one door closes another always opens, but we usually look so long, so intently and so sorrowfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one that has opened.
—Jean Paul Richter.

The name above referred to the German author Johann Paul Friedrich Richter who died many years earlier in 1825. QI has not yet found substantive support for this ascription.

In 1911 “The Topeka Daily State Journal” of Kansas printed a statement identical to the one above and credited “Richter”. 3

In 1922 “The Atlanta Constitution” of Georgia printed a version of the full saying with the word “regretfully” instead of “sorrowfully”. The anonymous statement was surrounded by a box and used as a filler item: 4

One of the greatest and most comforting of truths is that when one door closes another opens; but often we look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one that has opened for us. We must learn the lesson of expecting good, better, best.

In 1929 Helen Keller published a book for people in mourning titled “We Bereaved”. She included an instance of the full saying without attribution; hence, in modern times she often receives credit: 5

When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.

In 1932 a peculiar composite statement appeared in the “Asheville Citizen-Times” of North Carolina. The acknowledgement to “Tony’s Scrap Book” referred to a compilation released in several annual editions by radio personality Anthony Wons: 6

“When one door closes another opens, but we often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us. Defeat is nothing but education; it is the first step toward something better” (A bit of encouragement I found in Tony’s Scrap Book).

The statement beginning with the word “Defeat” strongly matched the words spoken by abolitionist Wendell Phillips in 1859. The QI analysis of the Phillips quotation is here. Yet, the words before the word “Defeat” have no connection to Phillips. Apparently, the two passages were pasted together because of a thematic congruence.

In 1933 the composite statement appeared in “The Greensboro Record” of North Carolina. The acknowledgement “Selected” meant that the passage was excerpted from an unnamed work; perhaps “Tony’s Scrap Book”: 7

One of the greatest and most comforting of truths is that when one door closes another opens but often we look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one that has opened for us. Defeat is nothing but education; it is the first step towards something better. –Selected.

In January 1935 the same composite statement appeared in “The Winona Times” of Mississippi, but this time Alexander Graham Bell received credit. Clearly, this attribution was flawed because part of the passage was actually crafted by Wendell Phillips in 1859 when Bell was twelve years old: 8

When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us. Defeat is nothing but education; it is the first step towards something better.—Alexander Graham Bell.

In November 1935 the composite statement with “Defeat” appeared in the widely syndicated column “Office Cat”, but no attribution was given. 9

In 1940 the advice columnist Zoe Beckley printed an instance with the word “happiness” in a Muncie, Indiana newspaper. She placed quotation marks around the short adage, but no attribution was listed: 10

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens.” Don’t look too long at the closed door or you may not see the one that stands wide for you.

IN 1955 Bell received credit for an instance in a Windsor, Vermont newspaper: 11

When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.
Alexander Graham Bell

In 1957 Helen Keller included the 1929 instance in her book “The Open Door”: 12

When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.

In conclusion, both the short six-word adage and the longer saying are currently anonymous. The six-word adage can be traced back to an anonymous Spanish novella published by 1554 with an English translation released in 1586. The short adage also appeared in the English translation of “Don Quixote de la Mancha” by Miguel de Cervantes in 1620.

The longer saying with the addendum containing “sorrowfully” was circulating by 1909 when it was implausibly credited to Johann Paul Friedrich Richter who died in 1825. The longer saying with “regretfully” was circulating by 1922 without attribution. Helen Keller employed the longer saying in her 1929 book “We Bereaved”, but it was already circulating.

Alexander Graham Bell received credit by 1935, but the evidence was weak because the ascribed passage included a statement from another person. In addition, Bell had died in 1922. This article presents a snapshot of current research, and new illuminating citations may be uncovered in the future.

Image Notes: Two illustrations depicting doors from qimono at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Christopher Burd whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 2015, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, (Sixth edition), Edited by Jennifer Speake, Entry: “When ONE door shuts, another opens”, Publisher: Oxford University Press. (Accessed via Oxford Reference Online)
  2. 1909 February 13, The New England Farmer, Our Little Sermons, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Brattleboro, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1911 May 20, The Topeka Daily State Journal, Section: In the Churches, Seven Sentence Sermons, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Topeka, Kansas. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1922 October 29, The Atlanta Constitution, Section: The Sunday Constitution Magazine, (Filler item; adage displayed in a box), Quote Page 18, Column 2, Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1929 Copyright, We Bereaved by Helen Keller, Quote Page 23, Published by Leslie Fulenwider, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org)
  6. 1932 October 16, Asheville Citizen-Times, Shop Gossip by Carol Carr, Section C, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Asheville, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1933 July 21, The Greensboro Record, Church Message by Rev. R. Murphy Williams, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1935 January 4, The Winona Times (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Winona, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1935 November 14, The Durham Sun, Office Cat by Junius, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Durham, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1940 October 17, Muncie Evening Press, Zoe Beckley’s Corner by Zoe Beckley, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Muncie, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1955 March 1, The Sentinel, (Filler item), Quote Page 9, Column 2, Windsor, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1957, The Open Door by Helen Keller, Quote Page 11, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)