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Who Said That? There’s A Sucker Born Every Minute!

Welcome back to PIP, your digital location for the most advanced think tank in the history of blogs targeting consumerism and comedy. Did that sound alright? We mean, did it read alright? We think so too. Today we’re going to launch a new concept for the PIP blog called “Who Said That?” where (you guessed it) we are going to explain a common quotation concerning consumer culture and get the the real roots of what said it, why they said it and what it means today. Now if that didn’t blow you away with sheer excitement, this will : we’ll be launching our Facebook and Twitter pages soon so be on the look out for those links. We’d really appreciate likes or retweets or whatever you have to give us with those thumbs of yours. Now, let’s get historical.

What comes to mind when you hear the common saying ” There’s a sucker born every minute?” You might have heard a variation on the phrase as well which could have replaced “sucker” with “fool.” Most people will attribute this quote to P.T. Barnum aka Phineas Taylor Barnum aka that really famous and successful circus guy. Now, we’ll forgive you not knowing the true story since you’re obviously here to educate yourself.

P.T. Barnum died in 1891 and by all research we here at PIP had available he definitely did not coin these phrase, he didn’t say it in passing to a friend and he never wrote it down for someone later to find and read. So why do we constantly use this phrase and if anyone asks say that Barnum said it? The expression itself may lend some clues. Throughout history this idea and phrase has existed but earliest attributions were listed as anonymous. Maybe you would be sitting in 1882 and read a newspaper article about a con man who said it in defense in being caught. You could have been reading “Essay on False Genius” in 1806 and caught a similar reference as well. Here’s an excerpt when it was published in “The European Magazine London Review ” :

It was the observation of one of the tribe of Levi, to whom some person had expressed his astonishment at his being able to sell his damaged and worthless commodities, “That there vash von fool born every minute.”And perhaps the calculation might be brought to the proof, that not more than fifty men of genius are born in half a century.

Kind of close right? We’re already proving that P.T. Barnum wasn’t the person who came up with the phrase in concept.  There’s many more references like this in publications which change out the words a bit. Sucker, fool and flat get swapped around as well as minute, second and day.

The closest we can get to P.T. and this phrase is in “The Yale Literary Magazine” in 1855. Cleverly matching “succor” and “sucker” in a rhymethe comedic poem links Barnum with giving comfort to a child while simultaneously seeing the kid as a foolish customer to be.

Keep scrolling through history and the strongest, closest example of the phrase was in a book about Joseph Lewis, a con man also known by the name Hungry Joe. From there, other criminals had the phrase in different versions attributed to them as well. Not until 1890 did a clothing store run an ad that specifically names Barnum as the originator. The ad was blasting dry goods stores trying to steal their business and included the quote as a parting shot at people who took advantage of dim-witted consumers. The same store ran a similar ad with different phrasing, still quoting Barnum, about a year later.

Once Barnum died you see an uptick in his name being attached to the word “sucker” and the quote in general. A Montreal newspaper used it as a flavor text in an article about a swindler and con man.

You know what? We here at PIP think you get the picture. Go out and tell your friends that although a sucker is probably born every minute those suckers have nothing to blame P.T. Barnum about it. We’ll see you next time as we unpack the history of quotes and the pitfalls of products.