Friday, May 12, 2017

Advertise Here - the History and Origin of Economic Pump Priming



A gambler trying to pull more cash from a table might invoke Lady Luck with the plea . . .

“Baby needs a new pair of shoes!”

An economist looking to pull more cash from the economy might look to . . .

“Prime the pump.”

But priming an economic pump is easier said than done.  The modern economy is so complex, with so many inputs, outputs, factors, conditions and unexpected consequences, that instituting any new economic policy is, to some degree, just a crap-shoot, regardless of how sound the underlying economic principles seem.

It is therefore fitting, perhaps, that both expressions originated from the same source – the desperate and creative minds of hungry newspaper editors.

“Baby needs a new pair of shoes” can be traced to mid-19th century newspaper editors who used tales of personal woe to shame their advertisers into paying their bills:

Where is money coming from to pay for paper for our next issue?  We cannot get a quire without the cash in advance.  We have borrowed until our credit is gone.  We have worked two years for nothing and boarded ourselves – or rather our wife has boarded us, “free, gratis, for nothing.”  Our compositors want their wages.  Our landlord wants his rent.  Our children want shoes and our wife wants a new calico dress.

Grand River Times, December 5, 1855, page 1. 

I traced the transition to the modern gambling form of the expression in my earlier post, Baby Shoes, Calico dresses, African Golf and Crabs - a Dicey History and Etymology of "Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes!"

The economic sense of “prime the pump” can similarly be traced to an anonymous newspaper editor encouraging its readers to spend money on advertising to “prime the pump” of their business:

Albany Ledger (Albany, Missouri), July 28, 1899, page 1.

The same anecdote appeared in dozens of newspapers over the next several years, mostly throughout Kansas and Missouri, but also in places as far away as Minnesota and Washington State. 

In 1916, "muckraking" journalist William Hard introduced the expression to a wider audience with his essay, “Big Jobs for Bad Times” (Everybody’s Magazine, Volume 35, Number 2, August 1916), which the Oxford English Dictionary cites as the earliest known example of the expression. See: “Priming the pump,” Mark Liberman, LanguageLog, May 12, 2017.

Hard predicted an imminent depression – “Bad Times”:



To stimulate the economy, Hard proposed a nationwide program of large public works projects, to include dams, bridges and roads – “Big Works”: 



He imagined President Woodrow Wilson (as nearly as he could “clumsily approach his inimitable style”) addressing leaders of labor, business and banking:

“When the waters of business are stagnant, gentlemen, it becomes necessary, if I may say so, to ‘prime the pump.’”

The big work of literally moving water into the desert and out of the swamps might stimulate the economy:



The expression became fodder for political cartoonists and advertisers during the 1920s.  See: “Priming the pump: a cartoon history,” Ben Zimmer, LanguageLog, May 13, 2017.

In 1930, when the country was in the midst of an actual depression, a pro-Hoover cartoonist imagined President Hoover using public construction funds to prime the pump of the economy and pull the country out of depression:

New York Tribune, Inc. 1930 (image from “Priming the pump: a cartoon history,” Ben Zimmer, LanguageLog, May 13, 2017).

Whatever Hoover did, or intended to do, it did not work.

But it was President Roosevelt who later became better known for successfully “priming the pump” with his New Deal, Works Progress Administration and other public works programs (all of which may have owed a debt of thanks to William Hard's "Big Works for Bad Times"), although even Roosevelt had his doubters:

"The New Deal Pump", dated to 1930 (see “Priming the pump: a cartoon history,” Ben Zimmer, LanguageLog, May 13, 2017).



Metaphoric pump priming hearkened back to a day when many people had to pump their own water up from a well.  In order to coax the well into working properly, you had to fill the pipe with water so that it could efficiently draw suction.  

But literally priming pumps could be as unpredictable as metaphorically priming the pump of the economy – it is pointless if you use more water than you get out or go into debt borrowing the priming water.  

As related by a satirist in 1914:

In the old days, when we had our own well, getting water for family use was a serious business.  As I told you, the well was seven miles deep, and the water would all run out of the pump.  Then the dad-blistered pipe had to be primed.  I guess you know what priming a pump is like.  You have to pour down more water than you expect to get back, and then wiggle the blamed old handle up and down for three hours to get the water started.  Sometimes the first priming wouldn’t do the trick, and then you had to go around among the neighbors and borrow enough water to do it over again. . . .

“Halcyon Days, Adventures of a Grouch,” El Paso Herald, March 10, 1914, page 4.

Priming the pump could also be dangerous – it was possible to drown in the process:

Estherville Daily News (Estherville Iowa), May 23, 1895, page 7.


In 2017, a new president is set to roll the dice and “prime the [proverbial] pump.” 

“Baby needs a new pair of shoes!”
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