People are Like Tea Bags. You Never Know How Strong They Are Until You Put Them in Hot Water

Hillary Clinton? Eleanor Roosevelt? Rita Mae Brown? Phyllis Schlafly? Lowell Bruce Laingen? Armand J. Gariepy? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I read in the New York Times that one of the favorite adages of Hillary Clinton, former Senator and Secretary of State, is the following statement attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt:

Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they get into hot water.

When did Roosevelt use this expression? Was she the person who coined it?

Quote Investigator: Precursors to this expression were in circulation in the 19th century. Instead of tea bags the sayings were based on similes with eggs and potatoes in hot water. For example, in 1858 the Irish Miscellany newspaper of Boston, Massachusetts printed the following: 1

Relieve misfortune quickly. A man is like an egg, the longer he is kept in hot water the harder he is when taken out.

Also, in 1870 The Shamrock newspaper of Dublin, Ireland printed this adage: 2

Men are like potatoes—they do not know how soon they may be in hot water.

Both these expressions have meanings that are distinct from the adage being explored, but they do share similarities and may have facilitated the emergence of variants. QI thanks researcher Barry Popik for notifying him about these precursors.

The earliest evidence of a strong match located by QI was published in 1915 in a Seattle, Washington newspaper. This version referred simply to tea instead of tea bags and was applied to men: 3 4

“Men are like tea.”
“How so?”
“Their real strength is not drawn out until they get into hot water.”—Times-Picayune.

The maxim obtained further distribution in 1916 when it was printed in the book “Wit and Humor for Public Speakers”: 5

The Boston Transcript says men are like tea—their real strength isn’t drawn out until they get into hot water.

In 1958 a version using the term “tea bags” was spoken during a training speech for sales people. The phrasing was closer to modern instances, but the maxim applied to men and women: 6

“People are like tea bags,” a specialist on salesmanship declared here Thursday: “They never know their own strength until they get into hot water.”
Too many salesmen never get into hot water, said Armand J. Gariepy, director of Sales Training International, Barre, Mass. They simply sell by accident, he declared.

Top researcher Ralph Keyes discussed this saying in “The Quote Verifier”, and he was unable to find support for the linkage to Eleanor Roosevelt. Keyes stated that the archivists at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York have searched for the expression in the writings of Roosevelt and have not found it. 7

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading People are Like Tea Bags. You Never Know How Strong They Are Until You Put Them in Hot Water


  1. 1858 February 20, Irish Miscellany, Volume 1, Number 2, The Odd Corner, Quote Page 26, Column 1, Boston. Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1870 December 31, The Shamrock, Volume 8, Diamond Dust, Quote Page 207, Column 2, Irish National Newspaper and Publishing Company, Limited, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1915 January 15, Seattle Daily Times, Where They Resemble, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 13, Column 7, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1915 November 1, The Sabbath Recorder, Volume 79, Number 18, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 550, Column 2, A Seventh Day Baptist Weekly Published by The American Sabbath Tract Society, Plainfield, New Jersey. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1916, Wit and Humor for Public Speakers by Will H. Brown (William Herbert Brown), Section: Pithy Points, Quote Page 324, Standard Publishing Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1958 December 4, Milwaukee Journal, Section: Part 2, Leap Before You Look–Sales Advice, Quote Page 23, Column 5, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)
  7. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 97, 98 and 298, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)