Quote Origin: How Do You Make a Small Fortune in a Risky Domain? Start With a Large Fortune

Elon Musk? Ruly Carpenter? Stanley Kroll? Leo Fuld? Alan Young? Phil Silvers? Joey Adams? Anonymous?

Illustration of gold bars and coins from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: A family of jokes emphasizes the unforgiving economics of risky or expensive activities. Here are four examples:

(1) How do you make a small fortune in social media? Start out with a large one.

(2) The surest way to make a small fortune in the commodity market is to start with a large one.

(3) To leave a casino with a small fortune you should arrive with a big one.

(4) “How do you make a million in the stock market?” “Start with two million!”

Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The first example above occurred in an x-twitter message from Elon Musk dated November 17, 2022.

The earliest member of this family located by QI appeared in February 1950 within the syndicated newspaper column of Earl Wilson. The quip was credited to popular singer Leo Fuld. The ellipsis below occurred in the original text. Boldface added to excepts by QI:1

TODAY’S BEST LAUGH: Leo Fuld, the Dutch singer who’s become a big hit in England, asks: “Know how to go to England on a visit and leave with a small fortune? … Go there with a large fortune.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1950 a variant joke based on the contrast between “small fortune” and “large fortune” appeared in the Boston Evening Globe of Massachusetts:2

Why spend a small fortune for professional home repairs when you can make them yourself and spend a large fortune?

Also, in April 1950 the joke was applied to gambling on horse racing in Hialeah, Florida. The punchline was attributed to an unnamed wit from Miami, Florida:3

During the races one afternoon this winter, this chap was talking to a friend from the North in the grandstand at Hialeah and he told him that he knew a sure-fire way that this man could leave Florida with a small fortune every winter.

“How can I do that?” the man from the North asked.

“Come down here with a big one,” the Miamian replied.

Also, in April 1950 London columnist Arthur Helliwell spoke with Leo Fuld while both were visiting the United States. Fuld reoriented his joke. Originally, it referred to the high cost of living in England. Now, it referred to the high cost of living in the U.S.:4

SMARTEST gag on the sky-high American cost of living I heard while I was over there came from that spell-binding vocalist Leo Fuld.

“Do you want to know how to make a small fortune over here, Arthur?” asked Leo, when we met on Broadway. “It’s simple. Just bring a large fortune with you.”

In June 1950 an instance appeared as a “Thought For the Day” in a Mobile, Alabama newspaper:5

The way to enjoy a Florida vacation and return with a small fortune, is to go with a large fortune.

In March 1952 syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons printed an instance about investment in a country:6

One American industrialist met an Israeli official at the Algonquin this week and asked: “How can I make a small fortune in Israel?” … “The only way to wind up with a small fortune,” he replied, “is by coming to Israel with a big one.”

In July 1951 famous columnist Walter Winchell reported on an instance:7

Two businessmen were chatting. Said the first:
“See that jerk over there? He went out of business with a small fortune.”
“That’s a Jerk? Why’s he a Jerk?”
“He went into business with a BIG fortune!”

In January 1952 a night club owner presented an instance:8

Inside tip from WELDON (New Grotto) MASSENGALE: “Want to know how to retire from the night club business with a small fortune? Enter it with a big fortune.”

In August 1954 the joke was applied to Wall Street stock traders who use charts and technical analysis:9

The skeptical broker pointed out a man across the street and remarked, ‘There is a chart reader I profoundly admire. He’s quitting Wall Street with a small fortune.’

This aroused the immediate interest of the younger man who excitedly asked, ‘How did he do it? What system did he use?’

The reply was, ‘He started with a large fortune!’

In May 1955 the joke was applied to Las Vegas gamblers:10

Alan Young, whom we miss on TV, says Las Vegas is the only city where a guy can make a small fortune overnight—if he starts with a BIG one.

In March 1957 an instance was credited to a popular U.S. comedic actor:11

Phil Silvers says it’s easy to make a small fortune in Las Vegas … start with a large one.

In 1968 a newspaper on Belleville, Canada printed an instance applied to ice hockey:12

Comedian Johnny Wayne told National Hockey League players and executives Monday night they should scrutinize most reading material for club owners of the league expansion teams.

“It’s a book entitled How to Make a Small Fortune Out of Hockey—Start With a Large One,” said Wayne.

In 1974 an instance appeared as an epigraph of the book “The Professional Commodity Trader” by Stanley Kroll:13

The surest way to make a small fortune in the commodity market is to start with a large one

In 1976 Ruly Carpenter used an instance. Carpenter was the president of a U.S. professional baseball team:14

In a recent issue of Sports Illustrated R. R. M. Carpenter III, president of the Philadelphia Phillies, said: “I’m going to write a book: ‘How to Make a Small Fortune in Baseball.’ You start with a large fortune.”

In 1980 “Mac’s Giant Book of Quips & Quotes” included the following entry:15

The best way to get out of a poker game with a small fortune is to start with a large one.

In 1981 the book “Pascal Programming for the Apple” by T. G. Lewis contained a version which specified “a million dollars” as the size of the desired fortune:16

OLD JOKE: “Ya wanna know how to make a million dollars in the stock market?”
“Yeah, how do you make a million in the stock market?”
“Start with 2 million!”

In April 1981 the “Los Angeles Times” printed an instance using “millionaire” applied to the domain of tennis:17

Team tennis, which folded in 1978 after a five-year run, has been resurrected with a mini-season of 12 matches between four California teams in July.

One of the many jokes that surrounded the old league was: “You know how to become a millionaire owner in team tennis? Start with two million.”

In 1982 a newspaper in Indianapolis, Indiana printed an instance using “millionaire” applied to bond trading:18

There is a new WASHINGTON JOKE making rounds in the nation’s capitol. As told recently by Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-Ariz., it goes like this:

Q. How do you become a millionaire in the bond market?
A. Start with two million.

In 1986 comedian Joey Adams published “Roast of the Town” which included the following passage:19

A gambler goes to Atlantic City once a month to visit his money and leave a little interest.

He told me: “I learned how to leave Atlantic City with a small fortune—go there with a big one.”

In 1990 “The Fourth—and by Far the Most Recent—637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” included this item:20

To make a small fortune, invest a large fortune. Bruce Cohn

In 1992 “Hard Times in Paradise: An American Family’s Struggle To Carve Out a Homestead in California’s Redwood Mountains” included this adage:21

“You can end up with a small fortune in the winery business,” ran an industry saying, “provided you start out with a large fortune.”

In November 2022 entrepreneur Elon Musk transmitted the following x-tweet message:22

How do you make a small fortune in social media?
Start out with a large one.

In January 2024 “The New York Times” printed an instance about the economics of news reporting:23

There’s an old saying about the news business: If you want to make a small fortune, start with a large one.

In conclusion, this family is difficult to trace because of the wide variety of expressions. QI tentatively credits singer Leo Fuld with initiating this family in February 1950. Many others have subsequently used instances in diverse domains.

Image Notes: Illustration of gold bars and coins from Sabrianna at Unsplash. The image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to George Thompson whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thompson pointed to the remark of Elon Musk and noted that similar quips had been made decades earlier about producing Broadway shows, owning racehorses, and other activities. Thompson also pointed to the January 18, 2024 citation. In addition, thanks to previous researchers, especially Barry Popik who found multiple citations beginning in March 1951. Further thanks to Jason Zweig who told QI about the version of the joke that begins: “How do you make a million dollars”. Zweig suggested that this general family of jokes is quite old.

Update History: On December 7, 2023 the citations in 1981 and 1982 were added to the article. On January 20, 2024 the January 18, 2024 citation was added to the article.

  1. 1950 February 9, Courier-Post, It Happened Last Night by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 41, Column 3, Camden, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  2. 1950 April 3, Boston Evening Globe, Hitting Nail Right on Your Thumb by Ted Ashby, Quote Page 17, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  3. 1950 April 12, The Cincinnati Enquirer, John Garretson, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  4. 1950 April 16, The People, Follow Me Around: Brumas Has Put The Spivs’ Noses Out Of Joint! by Arthur Helliwell, Quote Page 2, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1950 June 3, The Gulf Informer, Thought For the Day, Quote Page 7, Column 5, Mobile, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  6. 1951 March 23, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Gossip of the Nation: Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 29, Column 5, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  7. 1951 July 19, Courier-Post, Broadway and Elsewhere by Jack Lait, (The joke was supplied by W. W. – Walter Winchell), Quote Page 41, Column 3, Camden, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  8. 1952 January 25, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Is ‘Play Gypsies, Play’ Headed for Extinction by Mack Williams, Quote Page 22, Column 1, Fort Worth, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  9. 1954 August 29, The Press Democrat, ‘Financial Illiteracy’ Dangerous to Women by Paul H. Brown (Resident Manager Reynolds and Company), Quote Page 7B, Column 3, Santa Rosa, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  10. 1955 May 26, Daily News, News Around the Dials: Repeat Coronation, Quote Page 81, Column 2, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  11. 1957 March 30, The Atlanta Journal, (Filler item), Quote Page 13, Column 4, Atlanta, Georgia. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  12. 1968 January 16, The Intelligencer, NHL Dinner: Wayne Wowed ’Em!, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Belleville, Ontario, Canada. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  13. 1974, The Professional Commodity Trader (Look Over My Shoulder) by Stanley Kroll, (Epigraph before table of contents), Quote Page vi, Harper & Row Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  14. 1976 January 31, Corpus Christi Caller, All that goes up by Louis Anderson, Quote Page D1, Column 4, Corpus Christi, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  15. 1980, Mac’s Giant Book of Quips & Quotes by E. C. McKenzie, Topic: Gambling, Quote Page 199, Column 2, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  16. 1981 Copyright, Pascal Programming for the Apple by T. G. Lewis (Oregon State University), Chapter 5: Money, Money, Money! Financial Applications, (Chapter epigraph), Quote Page 68, Reston Publishing Company: A Prentice-Hall Company, Reston, Virginia. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  17. 1981 April 17, Los Angeles Times, Tennis by Pete Donovan (Times Staff Writer), Section 3, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  18. 1982 February 16, The Indianapolis News, What’s News Today, Quote Page 24, Column 1, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  19. 1986, Roast of the Town by Joey Adams, Chapter Gambling, Quote Page 176, Prentice Hall Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  20. 1990, The Fourth—and by Far the Most Recent—637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne, Quote Number 283, Page not numbered, (Quotations are numbered, but pages are not numbered), Atheneum, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  21. 1992 Copyright, Hard Times in Paradise: An American Family’s Struggle To Carve Out a Homestead in California’s Redwood Mountains by David and Micki Colfax, Part 7: Moving On, Chapter 17: Cottage Industry, Quote Page 236, Warner Books: A Time Warner Company, New York.(Verified with scans) ↩︎
  22. Social Network: X-Twitter, Handle: Elon Musk @elonmusk, Timestamp: 8:25 PM – Nov 17, 2022, Text: How do you make a small fortune. (Accessed on x.com on November 18, 2023) link ↩︎
  23. 2024 January 18, New York Times, Billionaires Wanted to Save the News Industry. They’re Losing a Fortune by Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson, Quote Page 18, New York. (ProQuest) ↩︎
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