There Is Nothing in This World That Someone Cannot Make a Little Worse and Sell a Little Cheaper

John Ruskin? J. A. Richards? The Pure Food Store? White Star Company? Percy D. Hagan? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is always possible to manufacture an item using inferior materials and sell it at a cheaper price than a quality item. The buyer who is foolishly guided by price alone becomes the lawful prey of the seller. The famous English art critic John Ruskin has received credit for eloquently expressing this point. Oddly, I have never seen a proper citation supporting the attribution to Ruskin. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the February 1901 issue of “Profitable Advertising: The Advertiser’s Trade Journal”. A correspondent named J. A. Richards of New York sent a letter of disagreement to the journal editor who had advocated the display of prices within advertisements. Richards believed that a focus on prices was undesirable for the sellers of quality goods. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

While you talk about the quality of your wares, you have your cheaper competitor where he cannot touch you. The breach between you is longer than his arm. When you begin to talk about prices, you are absolutely at his mercy. There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey. This is the doctrine of commercial foreordination, against which it is useless to contend.

Based on current evidence QI tentatively credits J. A. Richards with the saying in the bold text above. Yet, it remains possible that Richards was repeating a formulation that was already in circulation.

John Ruskin died in January 1900.  Numerous researchers have been unable to find this expression in his writings. He received credit by October 1926, but the long delay meant that the linkage was very weak.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A partial match occurred in an 1877 article in “The Gardeners’ Chronicle” which discussed the unethical practice of replacing one type of seed (Alsike Clover) with a less expensive type of seed (White Clover) while selling the misrepresented product at a higher price. A law called the “seed adulteration act” was ineffective in prohibiting this behavior. The distinctive phrase “lawful prey” appeared in this article: 2

. . . human nature is essentially human, and one class of the community is regarded as the lawful prey of another . . .

In February 1901 the full matching expression appeared in “Profitable Advertising” as presented previously.

The statement by J. A. Richards apparently caught the eye of others. In December 1901 “The Denver Post” published the following partial match within an article about a manufacturer of overalls: 3

There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse, and sell a little cheaper, and the manufacturer who pins his faith to price only is likely soon to have a future behind him.

In February 1903 the “Virginian-Pilot” of Norfolk, Virginia printed an advertisement from Lowe & Miller with the tagline: “The Pure Food Store—where Purity is Paramount”. The ad included the expression without attribution: 4

There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.

Steer clear of the grocer who sells the little-worse, little-cheaper foods.

The same Lowe & Miller advertisement appeared in “The Norfolk Landmark” of Norfolk, Virginia on the same day. 5

In 1905 “The Winston-Salem Journal” of North Carolina printed an advertisement from the White Star Company. A slightly altered version of the expression was included. The ad omitted the phrase “in the world”: 6

Remember that there is hardly anything that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and that people who consider price only, are that man’s lawful prey,

Issued from the place
WHERE “Quality” PREVAILS
White Star Company.

In 1908 “The Morning Herald” of Uniontown, Pennsylvania published an advertisement for coffee from Percy D. Hagan. This longer excerpt shows the similarity with the remarks from J. A. Richards back in 1901: 7

While you talk the quality of the goods you handle you have your cut price competitor where he cannot touch you—the breach between you is longer than his arm—when you begin to talk about prices you are absolutely at his mercy.

There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.

In October 1926 the periodical “Diamond Dust: Issued by Employees of The Hall Lithographing Company” of Topeka, Kansas attributed the saying to the single name “Ruskin”: 8

There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper and the people who consider only price are this man’s lawful prey.—Ruskin.

“Ruskin” received credit in other newspapers such as the “Lancaster New Era” of Pennsylvania in December 1926. The attribution appeared within an advertisement for Donovans Department Store. 9

In March 1927 an advertisement for printer T. J. Appleyard published in the “Tallahassee Daily Democrat” of Florida ascribed the saying to the full name “John Ruskin”: 10

RUSKIN WAS RIGHT

THERE is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.
—John Ruskin

In conclusion, J. A. Richards is the top candidate for creator of this saying based on the February 1901 citation. The first attribution to Ruskin located by QI appeared in 1926 which is many years after his death in 1900. Thus, Ruskin probably did not craft this saying.

Image Notes: Painting titled “Fruit and Vegetable Market” by Frans Snyders circa 1619. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Claudia Suzanne, Kurt Foster, and Martyn Thomas whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Foster provided useful information from his personal investigation. Thanks also to Project Wombat discussants S. M. Colowick, Mark Carson, Don Wentworth, and Kevin O’Kelly. Further thanks to previous researchers Barry Popik of barrypopik.com, Fred R. Shapiro of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, and George P. Landow of “The Victorian Web”.)

Notes:

  1. 1901 February, Profitable Advertising: The Advertiser’s Trade Journal, Volume 10, Number 9, Section: From “P.A’s” Point of View, (Excerpt from a letter to the editor written J. A. Richards of New York), Quote Page 636, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1877 December 22, The Gardeners’ Chronicle: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Horticulture and Allied Subjects, (Untitled article), Quote Page 784, Column 1 and 2, Published by Gardeners’ Chronicle, Wellington Street, Convent Garden, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1901 December 31, The Denver Post, Manufacture of Overalls, Quote Page 27, Column 4, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1903 February 22, Virginian-Pilot, (Advertisement from The Pure Food Store: Lowe & Miller), Quote Page 18, Column 5, Norfolk, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1903 February 22, The Norfolk Landmark, (Advertisement from The Pure Food Store: Lowe & Miller), Quote Page 7, Column 4, Norfolk, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1905 November 11, The Winston-Salem Journal, (Advertisement for White Star Company), Quote Page 5, Column 4, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1908 July 16, The Morning Herald, Quality, (Coffee advertisement from Percy D. Hagan, 17 Morgantown Street), Quote Page 2, Column 6, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1926 October 28, Diamond Dust: Issued by Employees of The Hall Lithographing Company, HALL-O-GRAMS by F. B. Thomas, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Topeka, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1926 December 14, Lancaster New Era, Donovans Department Store: Boys’ Wool Suits With Longies & Knickers, Quote Page 11, Column 5, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1927 March 30, Tallahassee Daily Democrat, Ruskin Was Right (Advertisement from T J Appleyard), Quote Page 5, Column 2, Tallahassee, Florida. (Newspapers_com)