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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

George Horace Lorimer (1869–1937)

A Word to the Wise

From “Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son”

CHICAGO, April 15, 189–.
DEAR PIERREPONT: Don’t ever write me another of those sad, sweet, gentle sufferer letters. It’s only natural that a colt should kick a trifle when he’s first hitched up to the break wagon, and I’m always a little suspicious of a critter that stands too quiet under the whip. I know it’s not meekness, but meanness, that I’ve got to fight, and it’s hard to tell which is the worst.

The only animal which the Bible calls patient is an ass, and that’s both good doctrine and good natural history. For I had to make considerable of a study of the Missouri mule when I was a boy, and I discovered that he’s not really patient, but that he only pretends to be. You can cuss him out till you’ve nothing but holy thoughts left in you to draw on, and you can lay the rawhide on him till he’s striped like a circus zebra, and if you’re cautious and reserved in his company he will just look grieved and pained and resigned. But all the time that mule will be getting meaner and meaner inside, adding compound cussedness every thirty days, and practising drop kicks in his stall after dark.

Of course nothing in this world is wholly bad, not even a mule, for he is half horse. But my observation has taught me that the horse half of him is the front half, and that the only really safe way to drive him is hind-side first. I suppose that you could train one to travel that way, but it really doesn’t seem worth while when good roadsters are so cheap.

That’s the way I feel about these young fellows who lazy along trying to turn in at every gate where there seems to be a little shade, and sulking and balking whenever you say “git-ap” to them. They are the men who are always howling that Bill Smith was promoted because he had a pull, and that they are being held down because the manager is jealous of them. I’ve seen a good many pulls in my time, but I never saw one strong enough to lift a man any higher than he could raise himself by his boot-straps, or long enough to reach through the cashier’s window for more money than its owner earned.

When a fellow brags that he has a pull, he’s a liar or his employer’s a fool. And when a fellow whines that he’s being held down, the truth is, as a general thing, that his boss can’t hold him up. He just picks a nice, soft spot, stretches out flat on his back, and yells that some heartless brute has knocked him down and is sitting on his chest.

A good man is as full of bounce as a cat with a small boy and a bull terrier after him. When he’s thrown to the dog from the second-story window, he fixes while he’s sailing through the air to land right, and when the dog jumps for the spot where he hits, he isn’t there, but in the top of the tree across the street. He’s a good deal like the little red-headed cuss that we saw in the football game you took me to. Every time the herd stampeded it would start in to trample and paw and gore him. One minute the whole bunch would be on top of him, and the next he would be loping off down the range, spitting out hair and pieces of canvas jacket, or standing on one side as cool as a hog on ice, watching the mess unsnarl and the removal of the cripples.

I didn’t understand football, but I understood that little sawed-off. He knew his business. And when a fellow knows his business, he doesn’t have to explain to people that he does. It isn’t what a man knows, but what he thinks he knows, that he brags about. Big talk means little knowledge.

There’s a vast difference between having a carload of miscellaneous facts sloshing around loose in your head and getting all mixed up in transit, and carrying the same assortment properly boxed and crated for convenient handling and immediate delivery. A ham never weighs so much as when it’s half cured. When it has soaked in all the pickle that it can, it has to sweat out most of it in the smoke-house before it is any real good; and when you’ve soaked up all the information you can hold, you will have to forget half of it before you will be of any real use to the house. If there’s anything worse than knowing too little, it’s knowing too much. Education will broaden a narrow mind, but there’s no known cure for a big head. The best you can hope is that it will swell up and bust; and then, of course, there’s nothing left. Poverty never spoils a good man, but prosperity often does. It’s easy to stand hard times, because that’s the only thing you can do, but in good times the fool-killer has to do night-work.

I simply mention these things in a general way. A good many of them don’t apply to you, no doubt, but it won’t do any harm to make sure. Most men get cross-eyed when they come to size themselves up, and see an angel instead of what they’re trying to look at. There’s nothing that tells the truth to a woman like a mirror, or that lies harder to a man.

What I am sure of is that you have got the sulks too quick. If you knew all that you’ll have to learn before you’ll be a big, broad-gaged merchant, you might have something to be sulky about.

When you’ve posted yourself properly about the business you’ll have taken a step in the right direction—you will be able to get your buyer’s attention. All the other steps are those which lead you into his confidence.

Right here you will discover that you are in the fix of the young fellow who married his best girl and took her home to live with his mother. He found that the only way in which he could make one happy was by making the other mad, and that when he tried to make them both happy he only succeeded in making them both mad. Naturally, in the end, his wife divorced him and his mother disinherited him, and left her money to an orphan asylum, because, as she sensibly observed in the codicil, “orphans cannot be ungrateful to their parents.” But if the man had had a little tact he would have kept them in separate houses, and have let each one think that she was getting a trifle the best of it, without really giving it to either.

Tact is the knack of keeping quiet at the right time; of being so agreeable yourself that no one can be disagreeable to you; of making inferiority feel like equality. A tactful man can pull the stinger from a bee without getting stung.

Some men deal in facts, and call Bill Jones a liar. They get knocked down. Some men deal in subterfuges, and say that Bill Jones’s father was a kettle-rendered liar, and that his mother’s maiden name was Sapphira, and that any one who believes in the Darwinian theory should pity rather than blame their son. They get disliked. But your tactful man says that since Baron Munchausen no one has been so chuck full of bully reminiscences as Bill Jones; and when that comes back to Bill he is half tickled to death, because he doesn’t know that the higher criticism has hurt the Baron’s reputation. That man gets the trade.

There are two kinds of information: one to which everybody’s entitled, and that is taught at school; and one which nobody ought to know except yourself, and that is what you think of Bill Jones. Of course, where you feel a man is not square you will be armed to meet him, but never on his own ground. Make him be honest with you if you can, but don’t let him make you dishonest with him.

When you make a mistake, don’t make the second one, keeping it to yourself. Own up. The time to sort out rotten eggs is at the nest. The deeper you hide them in the case the longer they stay in circulation, and the worse impression they make when they finally come to the breakfast table. A mistake sprouts a lie when you cover it up. And one lie breeds enough distrust to choke out the prettiest crop of confidence that a fellow ever cultivated.

Of course it’s easy to have the confidence of the house, or the confidence of the buyer, but you’ve got to have both. The house pays you your salary, and the buyer helps you earn it. If you skin the buyer you will lose your trade; and if you play tag with the house you will lose your job. You’ve simply got to walk the fence straight, for if you step to either side you’ll find a good deal of air under you.

Even after you are able to command the attention and the confidence of your buyers, you’ve got to be up and dressed all day to hold what trade is yours, and twisting and turning all night to wriggle into some of the other fellow’s. When business is good, that is the time to force it, because it will come easy; and when it is bad, that is the time to force it, too, because we will need the orders.

Speaking of making trade, naturally calls to my mind my old acquaintance, Herr Doctor Paracelsus Von Munsterberg, who, when I was a boy, came to our town, “fresh from his healing triumphs at the Courts of Europe,” as his handbills ran, “not to make money, but to confer on suffering mankind the priceless boon of health; to make the sick well, and the well better.”

Munsterberg wasn’t one of your common, coarse, county-fair barkers. He was a pretty high-toned article. Had nice, curly black hair, and didn’t spare the bear’s grease. Wore a silk hat and a Prince Albert coat all the time, except when he was orating, and then he shed the coat to get freer action with his arms. And when he talked he used the whole language, you bet.

Of course the priceless boon was put up in bottles, labeled Munsterberg’s Miraculous Medical Discovery, and, simply to introduce it, he was willing to sell the small size at fifty cents and the large one at a dollar. In addition to being a philanthropist, the doctor was quite a hand at card tricks, played the banjo, sung coon songs, and imitated a saw going through a board very creditably. All these accomplishments, and the story of how he cured the Emperor of Austria’s sister with a single bottle, drew a crowd, but they didn’t sell a drop of the Discovery. Nobody in town was really sick, and those who thought they were had stocked up the week before with Quackenboss’ Quick Quinine Kure from a fellow that made just as liberal promises as Munsterberg, and sold the large size at fifty cents, including a handsome reproduction of an old master for the parlor.

Some fellows would just have cussed a little and have moved on to the next town, but Munsterberg made a beautiful speech, praising the climate, and saying that in his humble capacity he had been privileged to meet the strength and beauty of many courts, but never had he been in any place where strength was stronger or beauty beautifuller than right here in Hoskins’s Corners. He prayed with all his heart, though it was almost too much to hope, that the cholera, which was raging in Kentucky, would pass this Eden by; that the yellow fever, which was devastating Tennessee, would halt abashed before this stronghold of health, though he felt bound to add that it was a peculiarly malignant and persistent disease; that the smallpox, which was creeping southward from Canada, would smite the next town instead of ours, though he must own that it was no respecter of persons; that the diphtheria and scarlet fever, which were sweeping over New England and crowding the graveyards, could be kept from crossing the Hudson, though they were great travelers and it was well to be prepared for the worst; that we one and all might providentially escape chills, headaches, coated tongue, pains in the back, loss of sleep and that tired feeling, but it was almost too much to ask, even of such a generous climate. In any event, he begged us to beware of worthless nostrums and base imitations. It made him sad to think that to-day we were here, and that to-morrow we were running up an undertaker’s bill, all for the lack of a small bottle of Medicine’s greatest gift to Man.

I could see that this speech made a lot of women in the crowd powerful uneasy, and I heard the Widow Judkins say that she was afraid it was going to be “a mighty sickly winter,” and she didn’t know as it would do any harm to have some of that stuff in the house. But the doctor didn’t offer the priceless boon for sale again. He went right from his speech into an imitation of a dog with a tin can tied to his tail, running down Main Street and crawling under Si Hooper’s store at the far end of it—an imitation, he told us, to which the Sultan was powerful partial, “him being a cruel man and delighting in torturing the poor dumb beasts which the Lord has given us to love, honor, and cherish.”

He kept this sort of thing up till he judged it was our bedtime, and then he thanked us “one and all for our kind attention,” and said that as his mission in life was to amuse as well as to heal, he would stay over till the next afternoon and give a special matinée for the little ones, whom he loved for the sake of his own golden-haired Willie, back there over the Rhine.

Naturally, all the women and children turned out the next afternoon, though the men had to be at work in the fields and the stores, and the doctor just made us roar for half an hour. Then, while he was singing an uncommon funny song, Mrs. Brown’s Johnny let out a howl.

The doctor stopped short. “Bring the poor little sufferer here, madam, and let me see if I can soothe his agony,” says he.

Mrs. Brown was a good deal embarrassed and more scared, but she pushed Johnny, yelling all the time, up to the doctor, who began tapping him on the back and looking down his throat. Naturally, this made Johnny cry all the harder, and his mother was beginning to explain that she “reckoned she must have stepped on his sore toe,” when the doctor struck his forehead, cried “Eureka!” whipped out a bottle of the priceless boon, and forced a spoonful of it into Johnny’s mouth. Then he gave the boy three slaps on the back and three taps on the stomach, ran one hand along his windpipe, and took a small button-hook out of his mouth with the other.

Johnny made all his previous attempts at yelling sound like an imitation when he saw this, and he broke away and ran toward home. Then the doctor stuck one hand in over the top of his vest, waved the button-hook in the other, and cried: “Woman, your child is cured! Your button-hook is found!”

Then he went on to explain that when baby swallowed safety-pins, or pennies, or fish-bones, or button-hooks, or any little household articles, that all you had to do was to give it a spoonful of the priceless boon, tap it gently fore and aft, hold your hand under its mouth, and the little article would drop out like chocolate from a slot-machine.

Every one was talking at once now, and nobody had any time for Mrs. Brown, who was trying to say something. Finally she got mad and followed Johnny home. Half an hour later the doctor drove out of the Corners, leaving his stock of the priceless boon distributed—for the usual consideration—among all the mothers in town.

It was not until the next day that Mrs. Brown got a chance to explain that while the boon might be all that the doctor claimed for it, no one in her house had ever owned a button-hook, because her old man wore jack-boots, and she wore congress shoes, and little Johnny wore just plain feet.

I simply mention the doctor in passing, not as an example in morals, but in methods. Some salesmen think that selling is like eating—to satisfy an existing appetite; but a good salesman is like a good cook—he can create an appetite when the buyer isn’t hungry.

I don’t care how good old methods are, new ones are better, even if they’re only just as good. That’s not so Irish as it sounds. Doing the same thing in the same way year after year is like eating a quail a day for thirty days. Along toward the middle of the month a fellow begins to long for a broiled crow or a slice of cold dog.

Your affectionate father,