Quote Origin: Habit Is Habit, and Not To Be Flung Out of the Window By Any Man, But Coaxed Down Stairs a Step at a Time

Mark Twain? Mabel Thatcher Wellman? Ellen H. Richards? John Harvey Kellogg? Apocryphal?

Question for Quote Investigator: Longstanding habits are difficult to break. This notion has been expressed metaphorically as follows:

A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.

This statement has been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. Also, there exists a family of similar remarks with different phrasings. Variants use the words “flung”, “thrown”, and “tossed”. Were any of these remarks written or spoken by Mark Twain? Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest member of this family known to QI occurred in an installment of the serialized version of Mark Twain’s work “Pudd’nhead Wilson” which appeared in “The Century Magazine” in January 1894. The fourth chapter featured the following epigraph. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

HABIT is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs a step at a time.—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar.

Mark Twain used the expression again within an installment of his work titled “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” published in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” in May 1895. The narrator was a fictional version of Joan of Arc’s page and secretary:2

. . . I was resolved to face about, now, and begin over again, and never insult her more with deception. I started on the new policy by saying—still opening up with a small lie, of course, for habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down stairs a step at a time . . .

In 1896 “Education: A Monthly Magazine” published a piece titled “The Physiological Law of Habit and Its Application To Common School Studies” by Mabel Thatcher Wellman which credited Twain with a variant expression using the word “throw”:3

As Mark Twain puts it, “No man is strong enough to throw habit out of the window, it must be coaxed step by step down stairs.” The surest way of overcoming a bad habit is to start a counter habit which, by its increasing force, makes resistance to the evil grow constantly less difficult . . .

Over the years other variants have entered circulation. These alternate versions were probably constructed based on faulty memories of Twain’s original statement.

Additional details and citations are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.

Image Notes: View out of an open window in Italy from Jacob Morch at Unsplash. The image has been cropped.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Hugh Hyatt whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Hyatt noticed that Twain often received credit for a version of the saying using the word “tossed”, but Hyatt was skeptical because no citation was supplied.

[1] 1894 January, The Century Magazine, Volume 47, Number 3, Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale by Mark Twain, Serialized, (Chapter 4 starts on page 329; the quotation appears as an epigraph of Chapter 6), Quote Page 334, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[2] 1895 May, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 90, Number 540, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by The Sieur Louis de Conte (Her Page and Secretary) by Mark Twain, Serialized (Chapter 6 begins on page 845), Quote Page 849, Column 2, Harper and Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

[3] 1896 September, Education: A Monthly Magazine, Volume 17, Number 1, The Physiological Law of Habit and Its Application To Common School Studies by Mabel Thatcher Wellman, Start Page 52, Quote Page 52, Kasson and Palmer, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link