“How Many People Work Here?” “About Half of Them”

Charles M. Schwab? Reed Smoot? Pope John XXIII? Fliegende Blätter? Edgar Wallace? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A visitor to a large business watched as numerous workers moved purposefully along the hallways into offices. The visitor approached the leader of the company and asked:

“This is such a busy place! How many people work here?”

The leader pondered the question carefully and replied:

“I would guess about forty percent.”

I have heard many versions of this joke. In one instance, the location was Vatican City, and the punchline was spoken by the Pope. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This anecdote is part of a large evolving family of tales. The ratio of workers to non-workers varies. The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the popular German humor magazine “Fliegende Blätter” in 1907. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Mißverstanden
„Wieviel Leute sind denn bei Euch im Bureau tätig?“
„Tätig? Na — zwei Drittel!“

The issue containing the joke was undated, but it was the eighth weekly issue of 1907, so it probably appeared around late February.

The first instance in English located by QI appeared in the New York magazine “Transatlantic Tales” within a filler item titled “Misunderstood”. The German source was acknowledged. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

Misunderstood
“How many people work in your office?”
“Work? Perhaps two-thirds of them.”
—Translated for Transatlantic Tales from “Fliegende Blätter.”

The cover date of “Transatlantic Tales” was November 1907, but the issue was available before the cover date. A newspaper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania published a matching joke on October 19, 1907 while acknowledging “Transatlantic Tales” and noting that the original source was “Fliegende Blaetter”. 3 The word “Blaetter” was an alternative spelling of “Blätter”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “How Many People Work Here?” “About Half of Them”

Notes:

  1. 1907, Fliegende Blätter, Volume 126, Number 3213, Mißverstanden, Quote Page 92, Verlag Braun & Schneider, Munich, Germany. (Heidelberg historic literature – digitized; Access via digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de) link
  2. 1907 November, Transatlantic Tales, Volume 37, Number 1, Misunderstood (Filler item), Quote Page 97, Ess Ess Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1907 October 19, The Star-Independent, Misunderstood (Filler item), Quote Page 9, Column 7, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)