Modern Proverb: Life is just one damn thing after another (UNCLASSIFIED)

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Mar 22 07:03:31 UTC 2010

I was going to leave this one alone because it seemed like it has been
exhaustively covered--and, with so many capable people looking into it,
the search appeared to have been rather exhaustive. But something egged
me on because 1909 is such an inartful date. It seemed like there had to
be more to this story. So I futzed with the search string a bit in an
attempt to make things more interesting, without detracting from the
great work done so far.

First, the search revealed almost 30 hits between 1909 and 1911, which
suggests that 1908 or, at the latest, early 1909 might have been the
critical date for the origin of the expression--or, at least, an event
leading to its popularization. There is no denying that it was made
popular in 1909, but it did not spontaneously generate.

The second hint came from a hit that Garson might have found, but did
not include because it is not the earliest (same time as The Philistine)
and, therefore, seems rather mundane. (Below is the complete piece.)
American Poultry Journal. Vol. 40:12, December 1909.
How Does it Look to You? p. 1048
> While in a barber shop the other day we saw a sign which read, "Life
> is just one damn thing after another."
> Now we prefer to think life is just what you make of it. At least that
> has been our experience. If you let yourself feel out of sorts with
> everything and everybody you are apt to find it just one damn thing
> after another, but if you wear a smile and strive to do your duty as
> you find it, you will see the pleasant things in life and will have
> that self-consciousness of at least having done your duty. Try it and
> remember the old saying, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

Now, aside from the fact that this tiny piece of conventional wisdom is
full of cliches, it does suggest one thing--new coinages rarely end up
hanging in a barber shop by the end of the year in which they were
coined. So the expression was not new--even if it was new to the writer.

GB finds two hits--one allegedly from 1903 and another form 1906 that
contain the actual expression. But the 1906 volume is the Secretaries
3rd Report of Harvard Class of 1906 that turns out to have been
published in 1916 (at least). The 1903 hit is actually a bunch of
proceedings from annual meetings strung together and the actual hit is
from a November, 1910, meeting, published in 1911. So, no dice.

The odd thing about the "1903" hit is how it appears. The Canadian
deputy minister of agriculture opens his speech with the quip.
> Man's life has been summed up by one of your American philosophers as
> being "just one thing after another." Adapting or enlarging this, we
> might say that public life, by which I mean the life of the people, is
> "just one problem after another."

So the attribution, in this case, is to an "American philosopher" (and
without the "damn"). The interesting thing about many proverbs that were
popular in the first quarter-century is how frequently they show up in
published speeches and association proceedings. Here's another variant
from 1910. File this in the annals of unnecessary euphemisms.
Western Drawing and Manual Training Association. 17th Annual Report.
Minneapolis, 1910
Is Manual Training Worth While? By Daniel Upton, p. 95
> The existence of manual training has proved no exception to the rule
> that "Life is just one certain kind of thing after another."

There are at least two ways of interpreting the expression, in
general--it is either representative of life as a tedium, drudgery,
where one thing follows another in an endless sequence; or, it may be
the expression of youthful exuberance where things in life pass in rapid
succession, in a whirl. The Harvard report mentioned above has an
example of the latter. (never mind that it is 1916)
> ...We have matured more rapidly in the past five years than in any
> previous corresponding period. I know this has been my own
> experience,--that I have passed the age when life seems "just one
> damned thing after another" to a point from which I can get a clearer
> view of the possibilities the future holds in store.

Another odd occurrence is an LC copyright entry for Moss (F. A.),
Denver, Colorado, under Prints and Pictorial Illustrations:

> Dog-gone-cat series : affinities, 6460.--Cheer up, 6461.--I'm stuck
> here for awhile, 6462.--Life's just one damn thing after another,
> 6458.--We used to be pals, 6457.--When you feel naughty think of me,
> 6456. --(c) Oct. 1, 1909 ; 2 c. each Oct. 18, 1909 ; K 3081-3086.

If these publications left a mark, there is no record of it--aside from
the copyright entries, GB, WorldCat, Alibris, etc, have no record of any
such thing. But this just might be the poster or print that was hanging
on the wall of the barber shop! And it was not the only place where the
"motto" appeared on a wall.
The Concentration of Bee; By Lillian Bell. 1909. p. 241
> "Bob has a motto on his wall which says 'Life is just one damned thing
> after another!' " said Jimmy. But I refused to smile. I was too
> distinctly annoyed.

A couple of factoids about the book:
1) It was slotted for release on October 1, 1909
2) LC copyright entry on October 11
3) Also twice listed as "1908" by Who Was Who (1941 and 1960)--but
likely just an error
4) It suffered through a number of reprints in 1909-1911, with a large
number of reviews and heavy cross promoted (catalog entry ads in other
books)--the book must have been popular, which may account, in part, for
the spread of the line in 1910-1911
4) Recently reprinted (Nov 2009 and Jan 2010).

Print schedules used to be a bit more condensed in 1909 than they are
today. But editorial schedules were not. So, for a book to be advertised
in early September for release on October 1, it would had had to have
been completed much earlier (months!) in a reasonably advanced draft.
Which means the poster or print with the phrase existed even earlier in
the year or possibly even the previous year--or, if the poster was
invented by Bell, the phrase must have been around and fairly ubiquitous.

No hard dates here, but it is becoming a chicken-and-egg question--what
came first, the use as a motto or a print (or poster)? It's a bit
difficult to resolve this question now, but I would be hesitant to
ascribe the line to any particular author--especially one credited with
it contemporaneously--with the possibility hanging that it was some
anonymous miscreant behind a series of humorous posters or prints, or
even that the said miscreant might have borrowed it from yet another
unknown party.

So I have not improved the date of earliest publication, but, I hope, I
have offered some extra context.


On 3/19/2010 7:04 PM, Garson O'Toole wrote:
> Bill Mullins wrote:
>> 3/5/1909 Wilkes-Barre Times p 6 col 6
>> "Life:  (A new definition) One damn thing after another"
> Thanks for sharing that great citation. Could you indicate the
> database that contains the Wilkes-Barre Times and perhaps give some
> additional context? Was the quote grouped with other one-liner-style
> jokes? Any indication of an author or creator?
> Garson
> Garson O'Toole wrote
>>> Life is just one damned thing after another.
>>> This quote appears in the online Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (also
>>> Modern and Concise). A citation is given to the writer Elbert Hubbard
>>> in the periodical Philistine dated December 1909. The copy of the
>>> December issue of Philistine in Google Books contains the phrase with
>>> a minor difference: Life is just one damn thing after another. I was
>>> unable to find the phrase with "damned" in the December issue.
>>> The Yale Book of Quotations contains a citation for the phrase "Life
>>> is just one darn thing after another" dated 1909 July 22 in the
>>> Washington Post along with the comment that the cite "indicates that
>>> the expression predated Hubbard."

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