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.

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

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

Whatever is Not Nailed Down is Mine and Whatever I Can Pry Loose is Not Nailed Down

Collis Huntington? Richard Ballinger? David Starr Jordan? Upton Sinclair?

Dear Quote Investigator: Collis Huntington was one of the top railroad tycoons in the 1800s. His business skills helped to build the first transcontinental railroad in the United States and many other rail links. But his detractors considered him ruthless and greedy. These negative traits are displayed in an extraordinary saying that he supposedly pronounced:

Whatever is not nailed down is mine. What I can pry loose is not nailed down.

Is Huntington really responsible for this colorful expression? I have found some books that claim with varying degrees of certainty that he said it. However, I have not found any direct evidence. Could you look into this question?

Quote Investigator: Collis Huntington was one of the Big Four railroad barons in the 1800s. QI has found no substantive evidence that he said this controversial quotation. He died in 1900 and the words were popularized starting in 1910 by David Starr Jordan who was the president of Stanford University.

Jordan applied the phrase to several individuals and groups of people whose conduct earned his disapproval. He said the words were the “motto of the exploiter“.  Yet, Jordan never put the saying directly into the mouth of any individual that he criticized. Instead, he said that the phrase was a guiding principle or motto of those he disliked. Indeed, a commentator in 1914 stated that Jordan himself had coined the saying, and it had thenceforth achieved nationwide circulation.

In 1922 Jordan disparagingly said that Collis Huntington used the quotation as his “code of ethics.” The prominent muckraking commentator Upton Sinclair echoed Jordan’s statement about Huntington in one of his books in 1923. Over a period of time the facts were garbled and by the 1960s and 1970s some writers claimed that Huntington himself spoke the quotation. Thus, the words of a severe critic of Huntington were reassigned to Huntington himself.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Whatever is Not Nailed Down is Mine and Whatever I Can Pry Loose is Not Nailed Down