Mrs. Patrick Campbell? Beatrice Stella Tanner? Helen Maud Tree? Oscar Wilde? Linkum Fidelius? Washington Irving? Alice Roosevelt Longworth? Eric Erskine Wood? Mrs. Claude Beddington? Frances Ethel Beddington? John Moore? King Edward VII? Ronald Reagan? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Enforcing societal norms and taboos is an important activity for some people. Others hesitate to proscribe conduct. They are broad-minded about unconventional behaviors. Here are two versions of a humorous remark reflecting the latter perspective:
(1) I don’t care what anybody does, so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.
(2) There is no harm provided they don’t do it in the street and scare the horses.
This saying has been credited to Beatrice Stella Tanner, Helen Maud Tree, Oscar Wilde and others, Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: QI believes that the saying evolved over time. A partial instance appeared in “The Lancaster Daily Intelligencer” of Pennsylvania in 1879. An article mentioned that families with servants sometimes required them to wear special clothing whenever the leading member of the family died. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
The fashion prevails in New York of putting the servants into mourning on the death of the head of the family, as in Europe, so it happens then many of the coachmen strikingly resemble, with their white cravats and long single-breasted black coats of the M. B. pattern, a ritualistic clergyman. “Taste is taste,” as Linkum Fidelius sagely remarks. So long as they don’t frighten the horses it matters little.
Linkum Fidelius was a comically erudite character appearing in the works of the prominent U.S. writer Washington Irving. This version of the expression did not include a reference to the street.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1897 “The Spokesman-Review” of Spokane, Washington printed an article about a group of Salvation Army members who were taken to police headquarters for violating an ordinance when they played instruments and marched together in a busy district of the city. The article reprinted the pertinent decree which partially mirrored the saying under examination: 2
“The ordinance says no person shall do anything upon the streets or sidewalks which shall have a tendency to frighten horses or collect a crowd so as to interfere with the passage of teams or pedestrians.”
In February 1910 “The San Francisco Examiner” of California and other newspapers published a scandalous story about two high-society divorces in London. The gossipy tale included a partial instance of the saying: 3
There is a saying in Leicestershire of “We do not care what you do as long as you don’t frighten the horses.” Lady Cowley on more than one occasion caused a stampede. Indeed, the hunting set nicknamed her “Fiddle-Headed Man-Eater.”
In September 1910 a full version of the saying appeared in an article the lively daughter of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt who later became a well-known socialite. She broke a taboo by openly smoking cigarettes: 4
Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s cigarettes have caused a great “to do” in society here. The questions agitating Pittsburg’s fair leaders of the local “400” are: Does Mrs. Longworth smoke cigarettes?
If she does, is there any harm in it provided she doesn’t do it in the street and scare the horses?
In 1916 “A Bachelor in Japan” by Eric Erskine Wood contained a variant statement in which the taboo activity was making love: 5
I am not quite clear why I am going to Japan, but I think that one of the chief factors that is compelling me to go there is that the Japanese are sufficiently delicately minded not to make love in the streets and frighten the horses, nor do they, I believe, ever under any circumstances sit in couples in their parks glued to each other’s lips.
The 1929 book “All That I Have Met” by Mrs. Claude Beddington (Frances Ethel Beddington) discussed Princess Louise of Saxony who shocked her social circle by wearing a pair of bloomers and riding a bicycle. The author Beddington attributed the saying under exploration to an anonymous person from the brief era of King Edward (1901 to 1910): 6
In our tolerant London Society — did not a witty Edwardian say: “I really don’t mind what people do, so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses!” — it is difficult to realize the commotion caused by the advent of this tempestuous young woman at the narrow-minded little Court of Saxony.
In 1947 a book reviewer in the “Penrith Observer” of Cumberland, England ascribed the saying to Helen Maud Tree who was the wife of theater impresario Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree: 7
And it was Lady Tree who once said: “I never in the least mind what people do so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”
In 1948 a book reviewer who was evaluating John Moore’s “Bresnaham Village” stated that a character in the novel employed a partial version of the expression: 8
Their pleasantly hedonistic philosophy is summed up simply by one of Mr. Moore’s characters: “It doesn’t matter what you do so long as you don’t frighten the horses.”
In 1955 an editorial reprinted in a Battle Creek, Michigan newspaper defended the rights of nudists: 9
The preoccupation of the state house of representatives with Rep. Kelly’s bill to outlaw nudism appears to be a case of playing the ukelele while Rome burns.
The lawmakers of the great and sovereign state of Michigan have better things to do than toy with a measure which would only interfere, with the inalienable right of good citizens to be non-conformists if they tend to their own business and don’t frighten the horses on the public streets and highways.
In 1957 a column by Max Lerner in the “New York Post” attributed the saying to Mrs. Patrick Campbell (Beatrice Stella Tanner). The taboo topic was prostitution: 10
There is a legend that Mrs. Patrick Campbell once said about the London prostitutes, “I don’t care what they do as long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses.” Put in extreme form, this pretty much represents how the members of the Wolfenden Committee approached the problem of overhauling the law on prostitution.
In 1960 T. S. Matthews, the former editor of “Time” magazine, published an autobiography titled “Name and Address”. In the 1950s he had moved from the U.S. to England which he found welcoming: 11
In the larger air of Oxford, I soon discovered, nonconformity was quite permissible. If you belonged to a particular set, it might have its rules of dress and behavior, but there were other sets that seemed to have very different rules, or none; and you didn’t have to belong to a set at all. The university, that vague entity that made itself felt only at examination times and as the whimsical enforcer of archaic laws, apparently didn’t care what people did—in the immortal words of Mrs. Patrick Campbell—“as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.”
In 1961 Alan Dent published the biography “Mrs. Patrick Campbell”. He attributed the saying to Campbell, but the taboo topic was same-sex relationships instead of prostitution: 12
One of the wittiest stories ever told about her—and one whose verity we refuse to doubt—is her rebuke to a young actress who reported that an old actor in the company was altogether too fond of the young and handsome leading-man. Mrs. Campbell silenced the gossip for good with the sentence: “Does it really matter what these affectionate people do—so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses!”
Also, in 1961 a newspaper in Sydney, Australia published an examination of the book “Don’t Frighten the Horses”. The reviewer expressed skepticism while attributing the saying to a member of the British royalty: 13
Incidentally, his title is taken from a rather improbable statement credited to King Edward VII: “I don’t care what the people do, as long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses.”
In 1964 the Irish writer Brendan Behan attributed the saying to an anonymous contemporary of Oscar Wilde: 14
My attitude to homosexuality is rather like that of the woman who, at the time of the trial of Oscar Wilde, said she didn’t mind what they did, so long as they didn’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.
In 1991 journalist Robert Scheer writing in “Playboy” magazine attributed the saying to Oscar Wilde via Ronald Reagan: 15
I remember Presidential candidate Reagan telling me in a 1980 interview that he was not inclined to puritanism and quoting from Oscar Wilde that anything goes in one’s sex life “as long as they don’t practice it in the street and frighten the horses.”
In conclusion, this saying evolved over time, and the originator remains anonymous. The wording seems to be based on actual ordinances. A full version mentioning “do it in the street” and “scare the horses” was circulating by 1910. Mrs. Claude Beddington (Frances Ethel Beddington) helped to popularize the expression in 1929 although she ascribed it to an anonymous “witty Edwardian”. Mrs. Patrick Campbell (Beatrice Stella Tanner) has often received credit.
A variety of taboo activities were referenced including wearing odd clothing, smoking cigarettes, making love outside marriage, riding a bicycle, engaging in prostitution, and pursuing same-sex relationships.
Image Notes: Illustration of horse-drawn transport from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Image has been resized.
(Great thanks to anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to Fred Shapiro who listed the 1910 citation about Leicestershire and the 1961 Campbell attribution in “The Yale Book of Quotations”. Further thanks to Barry Popik who listed the 1929 citation and more at barrypopik.com. Also, thanks to Nigel Rees who listed a 1964 Campbell attribution and the 1964 Behan citation in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”. In addition, thanks to Mark Mandel who pointed out a typo.)
- 1879 October 2, The Lancaster Daily Intelligencer (Intelligencer Journal), Wit and Wisdom: Fresh Gleanings From the Fruitful Harvest of American Humor, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1897 July 2, The Spokesman-Review, Army Will Fight: Under Arrest for Parading in Prohibited District, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Spokane, Washington. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1910 February 13, The San Francisco Examiner, Section: Foreign News, Two Lovely Women Stoop To Folly: Earl and Countess Cowley and Sir Morgan and Lady Crofton to Seek Divorces, Quote Page 35, Column 5, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1910 September 1, The Sebewaing Blade, Section: Supplement, Alice Smoke; What of It?, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Sebewaing, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1916, A Bachelor in Japan by Eric Erskine Wood, Chapter 2, Quote Page 11 and 12, T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1929, All That I Have Met by Mrs. Claude Beddington (Frances Ethel Beddington), Chapter 11, Dresden Music and Morals, Quote Page 66, Cassell and Company, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1947 October 21, Penrith Observer, (Brief discussion of book “People of Quality” by Collie Knox), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Cumberland, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1948 March 21, Dayton Daily News, Section: Society, Author Proves Himself An Artist In Intimate Story by Charles Truax, (Book Review of John Moore’s “Bresnaham Village”), Quote Page 11, Column 2, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1955 March 5, The Battle Creek Enquirer and News, Leave Them Alone (From the Jackson Citizen Patriot), Quote Page 8, Column 2, Battle Creek, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1959, The Unfinished Country: A Book of American Symbols by Max Lerner, Part 3: Culture and the Conduct of Life, Section: All the Party Girls, Article 4: The Women on the Streets, Date: November 17, 1957, Quote Page 285, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1960, Name and Address: An Autobiography by T. S. Matthews, (Thomas Stanley Matthews), Part: Two, Chapter Two Universities, Quote Page 177, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1961, Mrs. Patrick Campbell by Alan Dent, Chapter 15, Quote Page 78, Museum Press Limited, London. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1961 November 25, The Sydney Morning Herald, New Books: Outer Space Talk From Our Authors (Book Review of Alexander Macdonald’s “Don’t Frighten the Horses”), Quote Page 15, Column 4, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1964, Brendan Behan’s New York by Brendan Behan, Chapter: Down-Town Up-Town and In and Out of Harlem, Quote Page 90, Bernard Geis Associates: Distributed by Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1991 August, Playboy, Reporter’s Notebook: Queen Nancy by Robert Scheer, Start Page 39, Quote Page 39, Column 1, Playboy, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans) ↩