Did Hemingway Really Write His Famous Six-Word Story?

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 31 2013 12:58 PM

Did Hemingway Really Write His Famous Six-Word Story?

Ernest Hemingway

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Quote Investigator is a terrific website that examines the provenance of popular quotations, which, as you may have noticed, frequently get misattributed online. On Monday, the site’s proprietor, Garson O’Toole, looked into a six-word fiction supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Hemingway’s authorship of the classified ad-inspired short-short story is frequently described as a “literary legend,” which, to be fair, is a perfectly accurate way of putting it. Snopes looked into the legend a few years ago, and decided that its basis in fact was “undetermined.” But after reading O’Toole’s more thorough investigation, it’s very hard to believe that Hemingway had anything to do with the tale.

Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, and the earliest published evidence known to QI connecting him to this tale appeared in 1991. The author Peter Miller included a version of the anecdote in his book Get Published! Get Produced!: A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing. Miller stated that he was told the tale by a “well-established newspaper syndicator” circa 1974.

The case for Hemingway does not get stronger from there. As O’Toole documents, the precursor to the story seems to be a 1921 newspaper column by Roy K. Moulton, who “printed a brief note that he attributed to someone named Jerry.”

There was an ad in the Brooklyn “Home Talk” which read, “Baby carriage for sale, never used.” Wouldn’t that make a wonderful plot for the movies?   

That note was reprinted in multiple newspapers. A few months later, LIFE published the following squib, citing the Louisville Carrier-Journal.

The great American dramatist will be the man or woman who can write a one-act play as poignant as a seven-word want ad which the Houston Post discovers: For Sale, a baby carriage; never used.

O’Toole then traces the story through the 1920s—it made several more appearances, always using a carriage, not shoes—and then jumps ahead to the 1990s, when, after showing up in the self-help book mentioned above, it popped up elsewhere, too, now with the familiar image of shoes, rather than the arguably less evocative carriage, and attributed to Hemingway. Moulton also digs up a 1917 article from a magazine called The Editor, which suggested, as a title for a story about a mother who has lost her baby, “Little Shoes, Never Worn.”

Is that 1917 article, written by one William R. Kane, connected with the Hemingway legend as well? Perhaps. In any case, Kane seems a more likely “author” of the story than Hemingway is. And Moulton probably deserves the most credit, pending further evidence. Well, either Moulton or Jerry from Brooklyn. Or whoever was selling that baby carriage in 1921.



Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your children is perfectly legal. 

Ken Burns on Why Teddy Roosevelt Would Never Get Elected in 2014

Cops Briefly Detain Django Unchained Actress Because They Thought She Was a Prostitute

Minimalist Cocktail Posters Make Mixing Drinks a Cinch

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest of jewels.


Rainbow Parties and Sex Bracelets

Where teenage sex rumors come from—and why they’re bad for parents and kids.


You Had to Be There

What we can learn from things that used to be funny.

Legendary Critic Greil Marcus Measures and Maps Rock History Through 10 Unlikely Songs

Catfish Creator Nev Schulman’s Book Is Just Like Him: Self-Deluded and Completely Infectious

Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 12 2014 6:07 PM Steve Southerland’s Remarks Should Spur Florida Women to Vote
The Juice
Sept. 12 2014 3:40 PM Ford’s Big Gamble It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
Brow Beat
Sept. 14 2014 7:10 PM Watch Michael Winslow Perform Every Part of “Whole Lotta Love” With Just His Voice
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
Sports Nut
Sept. 11 2014 7:29 PM Why Is Terrell Suggs Still in the NFL? Like his teammate Ray Rice, the Ravens linebacker was accused of beating up his wife. But in his case, there was no video.