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