When Everybody Is Digging for Gold, It’s Good To Be in the Pick and Shovel Business

Mark Twain? Walter Powell? Collis Huntington? Mark Hopkins? Jim Winder? Gavin Dobson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During the 1800s the discovery of gold in a locale triggered a frenetic scramble of miners who dreamed of great fortunes. Unfortunately, mining led to disappointment for most miners. Here are two versions of a pertinent adage:

  • Don’t dig for gold, sell shovels.
  • The secret to getting rich in a gold rush is selling picks.

This observation has been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to Mark Twain. He died in 1910, and he received credit many decades later in 1982.

The adage can be expressed in many ways which makes it difficult to trace. QI believes the saying evolved over time. Tales about individuals achieving great wealth by supplying goods and services to miners have a long history.

In 1876 the acumen of Australian businessman Walter Powell was highlighted in a piece published in “The General Baptist Magazine” of London. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . he returned to Melbourne a little before the Australian gold fields were discovered. Everybody that could rushed off to the diggings. The city was deserted; and then people commenced to pour through Melbourne from all parts, delirious with the idea that they would soon all be wealthy. Walter Powell had the good sense to stop at his store and sell shovels and pickaxes at a premium, and so he suddenly grew rich.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1881 “The Journal of the American Agricultural Association” printed a piece by President of the Anti-Monopoly League L. E. Chittenden lambasting wealthy people. He criticized railroad magnate Collis Huntington and asserted that his initial success was attained by charging high prices to miners: 2

The overgrown fortunes of Vanderbilt, Gould, Huntington, and their confreres, represent so many millions of days work done by laboring men, which these persons, or some ancestor of theirs, has been able to absorb and lay aside. Probably Mr. Vanderbilt never since his birth, certainly Mr. Huntington never since he sold picks and shovels to the miners of the Sacramento Valley at 1,000 per cent. advance … have earned or added to the wealth of the world so much as one honest dollar.

All the millions they now claim to own are not theirs—they belong to laboring men, farmers and producers, who earned them by the sweat of honest labor.

In 1898 “The Salt Lake Tribune” of Utah pointed to another person who gained wealth selling items to miners: 3

Ames made a fortune by selling shovels to California miners, because the shovels filled the want. They were very strong where strength was needed, but at the same time very light, for the superfluous weight was all discarded. It was the same way with picks.

In 1929 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York asserted that railroad magnate Mark Hopkins became rich supplying miners: 4

. . . Mark Hopkins, who had piled up a $25,000,000 fortune selling picks to miners in the gold rush.

In 1950 “The Gazette” of Montreal, Canada published yet another story fitting the template: 5

One returning Canadian was William Drury, veteran of the 1898 gold rush in the Yukon, who made his money, not digging for gold, but selling shovels, picks and pans to fortune seekers.

The 80-year-old Mr. Drury today owns, with a partner, the biggest department store at White Horse as well as five other stores in the Yukon.

In 1951 a newspaper in Decatur, Alabama printed a sermon by Arlie B. Davidson about the requirement to provide additional effort to achieve success. Davidson told an curious tale about Mark Twain and gold. The adage under examination was not mentioned: 6

Mark Twain learned this the hard way. With a friend, he was digging for gold on the side of a mountain. The efforts had brought only discouragement, and Twain made a sudden decision to quit. “I’ll not carry another bucket of water or dig another shovel full of dirt,” said he. He left in spite of his friend’s pleading. A heavy rain during the night exposed the gold, which would have been discovered by the quitter if he had put forth another effort.

In 1959 the book “San Francisco: A Profile With Pictures” referred to another shovel-selling millionaire: 7

Prices soared. It’s said that eggs were a dollar each. Sam Brannan, our city’s first millionaire, made a good part of it selling shovels and supplies to the miners and arranging to send their laundry to Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands), where the cost was less than in San Francisco.

In 1961 a newspaper in Jefferson City, Missouri told a variant tale. H. A. W. Tabor, the celebrated Colorado Silver King, became wealthy by backing two lucky prospectors and not by selling supplies: 8

Tabor, the former merchant from Vermont, who had come West to make a modest living selling picks and shovels to prospectors and miners, hit it rich when he backed two prospectors who discovered Matchless Mine. He used a chunk of his first money to build Tabor’s Opera House in Leadville.

In 1977 a St. Petersburg, Florida newspaper printed a phrase describing a pathway to riches spoken by a former barber selling a collection of legal forms for divorce: 9

Jim Winder thinks selling do-it-yourself divorce kits is “like selling picks and shovels at a gold rush.”

In April 1981 global investor Gavin Dobson of Kemper-Murray Johnstone International employed an instance of the maxim: 10

“When everyone is digging gold or other minerals, we like to be (invested) in the pick-and-shovel business.”

In August 1981 the UPI news service employed the saying: 11

The fellow who made the real money in the California gold rush was the guy selling the shovels and picks.

In 1982 “Personal Computing” magazine published a story about using your computer to manage investments. The piece quoted Tony Morris, President of Morris Decision Systems, who attributed the adage to Mark Twain: 12

“It’s like Mark Twain said,” Morris states, “When everybody is digging for gold, it’s good to be in the pick and shovel business.”

In 1989 “The New York Times” reviewed a book about the California gold rush by Rhoda Blumberg. The book agreed with the 1929 citation given previously that railroad magnate Mark Hopkins was one of the big winners economically: 13

Ms. Blumberg shares the prevailing view that prospectors made far less in the gold rush than did San Francisco entrepreneurs like Mark Hopkins, who sold shovels, and Levi Strauss, who sold those famous canvas pants.

In 1993 the book “Exceptions Are the Rule: An Inquiry Into Methods in the Social Sciences” by Joel H. Levine included an instance of the adage: 14

The secret to getting rich in a gold rush is: Sell shovels.
— Anonymous

In 1997 the “Green Bay Press-Gazette” of Wisconsin printed the following: 15

During the 1849 gold rush, those who made the most money sold picks and shovels to miners.

In conclusion, a wide variety of individuals acquired riches by selling supplies to miners according to claims in newspaper and books beginning by 1876. But these early statements did not fit the template of an adage. The statements in 1977 and April 1981 were adage-like, and the remark in August 1981 was an adage. Based on current information QI believes that the saying should be labeled anonymous.

The Quote Investigator has also explored a thematically related saying which has been attributed to Mark Twain: “A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at the top”. The QI article notes that a version of the saying was circulating by 1881. Mark Twain’s name was not attached to the quip in its initial incarnations, but by 1896 he was being credited. The QI article is available here.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration depicting a scene from the California gold rush with miners at work. One miner waves to a passing clipper ship. Image has been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(Great thanks to David Liao and Lloyd Carpenter whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1876 May, The General Baptist Magazine, Studies in Present-Day Biography: Walter Powell, Start Page 169, Quote Page 172, Published by E. Marlborough & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1881 July and October, The Journal of the American Agricultural Association, Volume 1, Number 3 and 4, The Railroad and the Farmer (A Reply to Hon. Edward Atkinson) by Hon. L. E. Chittenden of New York City, President of the Anti-Monopoly League, Start Page 135, Quote Page 142, Published by The American Agricultural Association, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1898 March 18, The Salt Lake Tribune, South African Trade, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1929 December 15, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Yale Student Wins Old Searles Castle, Quote Page A2, Column 7, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1950 June 14, The Gazette, Empress’ Arrival Slated for Today, Quote Page 18, Column 6, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1951 November 1, The Decatur Daily, Living Today by Arlie B. Davidson, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Decatur, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1959, San Francisco: A Profile With Pictures by Barnaby Conrad, Chapter: The Past, Quote Page 15, Bramhall House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1961 September 21, Jefferson City Post-Tribune, A Vacation and the Silver King! (Advertisement for Robert E. Holliway, Mutual Funds Specialist), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Jefferson City, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1977 August 1, St. Petersburg Times, For marital malcontents, a do-it-yourself way to undo it by Neil Skene (St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer), Quote Page B1, Column 2, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1981 April 26, The Courier-Journal, Taking stock in the world: It’s getting much easier by Jim Thompson (Courier-Journal Business Writer), Quote Page E4, Column 2, Louisville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1981 August 19, Redlands Daily Facts, Entrepreneur finds niche in electronics (News Service UPI), Quote Page A7, Column 1, Redlands, California. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1982 January, Personal Computing, Professional Computing: Intelligent investment management by computer by Paul Ryan, Start Page 38, Quote Page 40, Hayden Publishing Company, Rochelle Park, New Jersey.(Verified with scans)
  13. 1989 November 12, The New York Times, Section: The New York Times Book Review, American Treasure Hunts by Henry Mayer, (Book review of “The Great American Gold Rush” by Rhoda Blumberg, Quote Page BR44, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  14. 1993, Exceptions Are the Rule: An Inquiry Into Methods in the Social Sciences by Joel H. Levine (Dartmouth College), Chapter 9: Time and Money: The Course of Human Events, (Epigraph of chapter), Quote Page 219, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado (Verified with scans)
  15. 1997 July 26, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Mutual fund industry can be a gold mine, Quote Page A6, Column 1, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)