No One in This World Has Ever Lost Money by Underestimating the Intelligence of the Great Masses of the Plain People

H. L. Mencken? Louis B. Mayer? Arthur L. Mayer? David Ogilvy? P. T. Barnum? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A sardonic comment about the general public has been credited to the famous journalist curmudgeon H. L. Mencken. Here are two versions:

(1) No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

(2) Nobody ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American people.

I have not been able to determine the original phrasing and a precise citation. Would you please help me?

Quote Investigator: H. L. Mencken was based in Baltimore, Maryland where he wrote for “The Sun” and its companion newspaper “The Evening Sun”. On September 18, 1926 he penned a column about the success of tabloid newspapers which included the following passage. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby. The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.

Mencken’s column was reprinted in other newspapers. For example, on the next day, September 19, the piece appeared in the “Chicago Sunday Tribune” of Illinois 2 and the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California. 3

During the ensuing years the quotation has evolved into more streamlined forms. The prolix remark about searching and employing agents has usually been omitted. The phrase “lost money” has often been replaced by “went broke”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading No One in This World Has Ever Lost Money by Underestimating the Intelligence of the Great Masses of the Plain People


  1. 1926 September 18, The Evening Sun, As H. L. Sees It by H. L. Mencken, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1926 September 19, Chicago Sunday Tribune (Chicago Daily Tribune), Notes on Journalism by H. L. Mencken, Quote Page G1, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  3. 1926 September 19, San Francisco Chronicle, Tabloid a la First Reader by H. L. Mencken, Quote Page 2F, Column 6, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank)

Say Anything You Like About Me, But Spell My Name Right

George M. Cohan? P. T. Barnum? Mae West? Elinor Glyn? Babe Ruth? Damon Runyon? James J. Johnston? Charley Murphy? Max Schmeling? Walter Winchell? Oscar Wilde? Samuel Johnson? Ed Sullivan?

Dear Quote Investigator: A person once planned to write an article or book containing derogatory material about a celebrity. The unruffled response of the celebrity to this prospect was surprising. Here are three versions:

  1. I don’t care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right.
  2. I don’t care how much you pan me, but please spell the name correctly.
  3. Boost me or knock me; it doesn’t mean a thing. Just make sure you spell my name right.

This notion has been credited to Broadway musical icon George M. Cohan, showman P. T. Barnum, actress Mae West, baseball slugger Babe Ruth, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in several U.S. newspapers in 1888. The line was delivered by P. T. Barnum who was a founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus. He also operated a museum filled with curiosities and hoaxes. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

P. T. Barnum was once interviewed by a woman who told him that she was writing a book, and that it would contain something disagreeable about him. “No matter, madam,” was his reply, “say anything you like about me, but spell my name right — P. T. B-a-r-n-u-m, P. T. Barnum — and I’ll be pleased anyway.” The blackmailer retired in confusion.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Say Anything You Like About Me, But Spell My Name Right


  1. 1888 August 8, The Evening News, The Table Gossip, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Franklin, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

When You Don’t Promote, a Terrible Thing Happens . . . Nothing

P. T. Barnum? Pat Williams? Billboard? Ford Saeks? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Human attention is a scarce commodity. Considerable effort is required to attract potential customers to a new business or product. Here are two versions of a pertinent saying:

  • Without advertising, a terrible thing happens . . . Nothing.
  • Without promotion, something terrible happens . . . Nothing.

These statements have been attributed to the famous showman Phineas T. Barnum. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that this saying was employed by P. T. Barnum who died in 1891.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in December 1975 in “The Danville Register” of Virginia. A radio station printed a message encouraging readers to purchase broadcast advertisements. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

When you don’t Promote
A terrible thing Happens

The author was unspecified, and QI believes an anonymous copywriter crafted the statement. Many years later, circa 1999, the saying was implausibly reassigned to P.T. Barnum.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading When You Don’t Promote, a Terrible Thing Happens . . . Nothing


  1. 1975 December 7, The Danville Register, (Advertisement), Quote Page 15B, Column 3, Danville, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)

There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute

P.T. Barnum? Hungry Joe Lewis? Artemus Ward? Mike McDonald? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A famous saying about gullibility is usually attributed to the well-known showman P. T. Barnum. Here are two versions:

There’s a sucker born every minute.
There’s a fool born every minute.

Whether Barnum actually used either of these expressions is controversial. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no persuasive evidence that Phineas Taylor Barnum who died in 1891 spoke or wrote this saying. Researcher Ralph Keyes presented a skeptical stance with his assertion in “The Quote Verifier” that “No modern historian takes seriously the routine attribution of this slogan to P. T. Barnum.” 1

There exists a family of closely related expressions with a long history. Here is a sampling together with years of occurrence. The first item listed employed dialectical spelling. The word “flat” was a synonym for “fool”. The abbreviation “attrib” means that the words were attributed to an individual, but the evidence was indirect:

1806: there vash von fool born every minute
1826: a new fool is born every day
1835: there is a flat born every minute
1877: there is a fool born every hour
1879: there’s a sucker born every minute (anonymous adage)
1882: there was a sucker born every minute (attrib anon con man)
1885: there was a sucker born every minute (attrib Hungry Joe)
1888: there is a sucker born every minute (attrib Artemus Ward)
1889: a sucker is born every minute (attrib Mike McDonald)
1890: a fool was born every minute (attrib P.T. Barnum)
1892: there was a sucker born every minute (attrib P.T. Barnum)

The above listing is a snapshot of current research results, and it will certainly change over time as more data is gathered. The earliest instances of these expressions were anonymous, and QI believes that later attributions had inadequate support.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute


  1. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 215, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

If I Shoot at the Sun, I May Hit a Star

P. T. Barnum? Britney Spears? George Herbert? Jane Russell? W. Clement Stone? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Norman Vincent Peale? Les Brown? John McEnroe?

Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a collection of sayings that uses celestial bodies to illustrate advice about setting goals. Here are three examples:

  1. If I shoot at the sun, I may hit a star.
  2. If we aim at the moon—we may hit a star!
  3. Shoot for the moon. If you miss it, you will still land among the stars.

The moon and sun are impressive objects in the sky while the stars are less luminous and therefore not as visually striking. Hence, I think that these adages mean the following: If you set a very difficult goal for yourself then even if you are only partially successful you will find that the result is still superb.

Modern astronomical knowledge makes the sayings more difficult to interpret. Stars (other than the sun) are much farther away from the Earth than the sun or the moon. Hence, hitting a star is actually much more difficult than hitting the sun or moon. Indeed, there is another set of aphorisms that switches the role of the moon and the stars:

  1. If you don’t aim for the stars, you’re not going to get to the moon.
  2. I’ll shoot for the stars, and I’ll settle for the moon.

These types of sayings have been credited to P. T. Barnum, Norman Vincent Peale, and others. Could you examine this class of quotations?

Quote Investigator: An important precursor to this collection of sayings was written by the poet and Anglican priest George Herbert who died in 1633. In the poem “The Church-Porch” a verse exhorted the reader to be humble but also to “aimeth at the sky”. Herbert contended that one would achieve more by targeting the sky instead of adopting the easier task of aiming at a tree: 1

Pitch thy behaviour low, thy projects high;
So shalt thou humble and magnanimous be:
Sink not in spirit; who aimeth at the sky,
Shoots higher much, than he that means a tree.
A grain of glory mix’d with humbleness
Cures both a Fever, and Lethargickness.

The advice that one should aim at the moon to achieve something great has been proffered for many years. In 1846 an instance of this type of guidance suggested that one may not hit the moon but still “hit a high mark”. The following words were credited to George Herbert, and QI hypothesizes that this expression evolved from Herbert’s verse given above: 2

…still George Herbert’s advice on a higher matter is applicable to this, that we had better shoot at the moon if we want to hit a high mark.

In 1859 an expression of this kind was already labeled an “old saying”. In the following excerpt the result of shooting at the moon was not as impressive as landing among the stars; nevertheless, it was portrayed as desirable: 3

You remember the old saying, Beatrice, “Shoot at the moon and you will hit the top of the highest tree.” If you could not be a genius you may, nevertheless, have made greater progress by the effort to be one.

In 1865 a statement mentioned shooting at the stars instead of the moon. The conceptual pattern of the aphorism was the same. The result of pursuing an exalted goal was the achievement of a less impressive but useful goal: 4

Probably the ingenious author goes on the principle that if you shoot at the stars you may hit a tree. If you cram your novel with Cabinet Ministers and Latin and Greek and Lafitte, you may get the public to listen to your substantial but prosaic grievance, that an inmate of Whitecross Street prison may not receive visitors on a Sunday.

In 1876 another astronomical object was presented as an unreachable but valuable aspirational target: the sun: 5

Again, he would say, “shoot an arrow at the sun every morning.” “But we can’t hit it,” was the answer. “You will hit higher than if you aimed lower,” he would reply.

In 1879 the name of George Herbert was invoked again. This time the saying credited to him concerned the moon and a tree: 6

This was an ideal scheme, but nothing great is ever accomplished by the man who has not a high ideal: and George Herbert’s words were never forgotten by the bishop, “that it is good to shoot at the moon even though you only hit a tree.”

Finally, in 1891 an expression matching a version given by the questioner was printed in a collection of quotations and short writings that had been “Compiled by Ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California”. The words were ascribed to the famous American showman Phineas T. Barnum: 7

If I shoot at the sun, I may hit a star.
—P. T. Barnum

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If I Shoot at the Sun, I May Hit a Star


  1. 1709, “The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations” by George Herbert, [The Thirteenth Edition Corrected; First Edition was published in 1633], The Church-Porch, Start Page 1, Quote Page 12, Printed for John Wyat, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1846 December, The English Review, Englishwomen of the 17th and 19th Centuries, Start Page 285, Quote Page 330, Francis & John Rivington, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1859, “Beatrice; or, Six Years of Childhood and Youth” by Mrs. S. Valentine [Laura Valentine], Quote Page 127, William Tegg & Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1865 September 30, The Saturday Review, Volume 20, Who is the Heir? [Book Review], Start Page 429, Quote Page 430, Column 1, Published at the Saturday Review Office, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1876 September 8, Kalamazoo Weekly Gazette, “Picnicing Pioneers. The Fifth Annual Re-Union a Success Socially and Numerically” Quote Page 2, Column 6, Kalamazoo, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1879, “Memoir of the Life and Episcopate of George Augustus Selwyn, D.D.” by Rev. H. W. Tucker [Henry William Tucker], Volume 2 of 2, Quote Page 256, William Wells Gardner, London. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1891, More Borrowings, Compiled by Ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California, Quote Page 24, [Copyright 1891 by Sarah S. B. Yule and Mary S, Keene], C. A. Murdock & Co., Printers, San Francisco, California. (Google Books full view) link