A Friend Is a Present You Give Yourself

Robert Louis Stevenson? Betsy Patterson? Harry B. Brockett? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote investigator: Living a full and happy life is facilitated by maintaining a network of steadfast friendships. Here are three versions of a germane adage:

  • A friend is a present you give yourself.
  • A friend is a gift you give yourself.
  • A friend is a gift you give to yourself.

This saying has been attributed to the famous adventure and horror novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, but I have been unable to locate a citation. What do you think?

Quote investigator: QI has been unable to locate substantive evidence ascribing this statement to Robert Louis Stevenson who died in 1894. He received credit by 1946 which is very late. See the citations presented further below.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in a column by Betsy Patterson published in “The Baltimore Sun” of Maryland in 1917. Patterson presented a verse and stated that “these lines run through my head”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“A friend is a present you give yourself,”
Says a charming old-time song.
So I put you down with the best of them,
For that is where you belong.
Among the gifts I have given to me,
Most comforting, tried and true,
The one that I oftenest think about
Is the gift of myself to you.

The starting lines suggest that the adage appeared in an earlier song although QI has not yet found such a song. It is also possible that there is no earlier song, and the lines were included to evoke nostalgia. The creator of the adage was not identified.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In January 1919 “The Charleston Evening Post” of South Carolina published the verse under the title “A Friend”. No attribution was given, and the phrasing was slightly altered: 2

“A friend is a present you give yourself,
That is one of my old time songs—
So I put you down with the best of them
For you’re where the best belongs.
Among the gifts I have given to me.
Most comforting, tried and true,
The one that I oftenest think about
Is my gift to myself of you.”

In October 1919 “The High School Buzz” of Hutchinson, Kansas printed a similar verse titled “Friend”. The adage employed “gift” instead of “present”: 3

A friend is a gift you give yourself
That’s one of my old time songs—
So I put you down with the best of them,
For you’re where the best belongs.

“Among the gifts I have given to me
Most comforting, tried and true,
The one that I oftenest think about
Is my gift to myself of you.”

In 1921 “The Evening Journal” of Wilmington, Delaware printed another version of the verse titled “To Our Worthy Matron”: 4

A friend is a present you give yourself.
That’s one of the old-time songs—
So we’ve put you down with the best of them
For you’re where the best belongs.
Among the gifts we have given ourselves.
Most comforting, tried and true.
The one that we oftenest think about
Is the gift to ourselves of you.
—Delaware Chapter.

In 1924 “The Waco News-Tribune” attributed the statement to an anonymous songbook: 5

I once read in a little song-book a line that has impressed itself on my memory for many a year, “A friend is a gift you give yourself.”

In 1933 a government publication called “West Virginia Wild Life” printed a poem titled “Fishing Companion” which ended with the following verse: 6

A friend is gift you give yourself:
A priceless gem beyond all wealth.
So, if you would a-fishin’ go,
Choose pal who’s glad the boat to row.

—Harry B. Brockett
Pittsburgh, Pa.

In 1940 a columnist in an Altoona, Pennsylvania newspaper employed a plural version of the saying while disclaiming credit: 7

I can’t say whose quotation this is although it sounds as though it belongs to someone. “Friends are little gifts we give ourselves.”

In March 1946 a columnist named June writing in a Waukesha, Wisconsin newspaper credited the saying to Robert Louis Stevenson: 8

And remember, a friend is a present you give yourself. Robert Louis Stevenson said that.

In 1946 powerful journalist Walter Winchell credited Stevenson while placing the saying into a section of his column called “Quotation Marksmanship”: 9

R. L. Stevenson: A friend is a present you give yourself.

In 1948 “Forbes” magazine printed the adage in a section called “Thoughts On the Business of Life”: 10

A friend is a present you give yourself. —ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.

In 1973 a newspaper in Clarksville, Tennessee credited Stevenson with a version of the saying using the word “gift” and the phrase “give to yourself”: 11

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “A friend is a gift you give to yourself.” I have been very greedy, because I have given myself so many-but none is expendable.

The saying credited to Stevenson continued to circulate in 1991 when it appeared in “Life 101: Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life in School — But Didn’t” by John-Roger and Peter McWilliams. 12

In conclusion, the initial citation in 1917 was anonymous and suggested that the line appeared in an even earlier song. The first attribution to Robert Louis Stevenson occurred in 1946, but the well-known author had died many years earlier in 1894; hence, this citation provided very weak evidence.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe mentioned the attribution to Robert Louis Stevenson. He operates a valuable website listing many quotations.)

Image Notes: Picture of a gift package and a rose from annca at Pixabay. Image has been retouched and resized.

(Update History: On December 18, 2019 the January 1919 citation was added.)

Notes:

  1. 1917 June 10, The Baltimore Sun, Betsy Patterson’s Chatter: A Weekly Chronicle of Colorful Phases of the Social Life of the City, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1919 January 23, The Charleston Evening Post, Society: A Friend, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1919 October 24, The High School Buzz, A Friend, Quote Page 2, Column 3 and 4, Hutchinson, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1921 January 12, The Evening Journal, Delaware Stars Dine, Install, Quote Page 12, Column 1, Wilmington, Delaware. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1924 August 5, The Waco News-Tribune, Between Ourselves, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Waco, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1933 May-June, West Virginia Wild Life: Official Monthly Publication of the Wild Life League of West Virginia, Volume 11, Number 5 and 6, Fishing Companion, Quote Page 17, Column 1, Office of West Virginia Wild Life, Fairmont, West Virginia. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1940 October 7, Altoona Tribune, Wandering Thoughts by Maribel Mears, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Altoona, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1946 March 22, Waukesha Daily Freeman, Post Haste From the Five Points: Mail This Review to Service Men by June, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Waukesha, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1946 November 24, The Scrantonian, Walter Winchell on Broadway, Quote Page 44, Column 8, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1948 August 1, Forbes, Thoughts On the Business of Life, Quote Page 34, Column 3, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  11. 1973 October 21, The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, Buzzin’ with Bee by Mary Bee Clark, Quote Page 2C, Column 7, Clarksville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1991, Life 101: Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life in School — But Didn’t by John-Roger and Peter McWilliams, Chapter: Money, Quote Page 314, Prelude Press, los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans)