"There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person's lawful prey."
Several times a year I receive e-mail asking from which of Ruskin's works this sentence comes. Many people have encountered it, in part because Baskin-Robbins, the ice-cream company, displays it as a sort of motto or credo in its shops. From the first time I came upon it on the wall of a Baskin-Robbins in Chicago, Illinois, I felt puzzled because I could not recall having read it in Ruskin, and I think that I've read several times everything Ruskin published. Thinking I nonetheless may have missed the passage, I have gone looking for it in all the obvious places — those works in which Ruskin discusses and defines value: A Crown of Wild Olive, A Joy For Ever, Fors, and Unto This Last, possibly even The Stones of Venice and other places where he discusss workmanship. No luck.
When someone asked again about this passage in the fall of 1999, I took another look, gave up, and directed him to the Ruskin Centre at the University of Lancaster (UK), which houses the world's largest collection of Ruskiniana. Ruth Hutchison, who maintains their website, responded that "we have been asked many times about this quote, or similar versions of it, and have never been able to identify it as being by Ruskin. We suspect that it has been wrongly atttributed to him in the past and found its way into a book of quotations or something like that." So there you have it.
If we've missed the Ruskinian source, or if anyone knows the author who did compose this pithy statement about value, please e-mail me at george at landow.com; replace "at" by "@."
On 6 April 2006, Kurt Foster sent an e-mail with the some information he'd come upon while trying to solve the problem: "The only definite citation attributing it to Ruskin I've seen," he writes, "is 'John Ruskin (1819-1900), British writer, art critic. Modern Painters (5 volumes, 1843-1860, epilogue, 1888).'" He couldn't find an edition of Modern Painters with epilogues, and neither could I, though each of the five volumes of this work in the Cook and Wedderburn Library Edition does have an appendix with manuscript material not included in the print version, relevant letters, reviews, and the like; none of appendices has a subject in any way relevant to such a quotation. Kurt relates one really tantalizing suggestion he obtained "in August 1998 [when] I inquired about the quotation to the Usenet group alt.quotations . . . . Margaret Tarbet responded with the following tantalizing bit:" 'I've seen it attributed, with source, to a turn-of-the-c. US writer, whose name escapes me now. For some reason I want to say one of the Muckraker crowd, but perhaps it's just that period. In any event, the person is one from whom a few pithy quotes exist, but not so many as to make him in any way a household name today.'"
Now if someone can identify that late-nineteenth-century American author . . .
A Reader lambasts the Webmaster for Political Correctness . . .
The following irate E-mail from Andrew Taylor (email@example.com) of London arrived on 26 July 2007 without salutation, closing, or any of the other usual other forms of politeness:
I notice you have altered John Ruskin's saying about people making things and selling things a little cheaper, and have altered the ending from "are that man's lawful prey" to the politically correct form of "are that person's lawful prey".
I offer that your site is of no use whatsoever to a serious historian as they will obtain incorrect information from it. However, for the politically correct brigade, it will give much comfort.
Surely it is not a University's job to rewrite history?
Response: (1) the "saying" is not by John Ruskin, and (2) I have not changed anything: the version of this pseudo-Ruskinism discussed in the Victorian Web is that sent to me by several readers.
Last modified 27 July 2007