There’s a semi-famous legend that Ernest Hemingway, on a bet, on a bar napkin, wrote what many consider the shortest story ever written. That story goes like this:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Perhaps you’ve heard this legend yourself, but did you know that it’s almost certainly untrue?
Quote Investigator has found no substantive evidence that Ernest Hemingway composed this six word story. He 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: 1
Apparently, Ernest Hemingway was lunching at Luchow’s with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long. Of course, the other writers balked. Hemingway told each of them to put ten dollars in the middle of the table; if he was wrong, he said, he’d match it. If he was right, he would keep the entire pot. He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an end!
Advertisements closely matching the abbreviated text above did appear in classified sections over the decades. Here is an example published in 1906. Intriguingly, this section of short ads was labeled: Terse Tales of the Town: 2
For sale, baby carriage; never been used. Apply at this office.
In 1910 a newspaper article about a classified advertisement that was thematically similar and twelve words long was published:
Baby’s hand made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used.
The article referred to the death of the child, and the sorrow of the parents. The unnamed journalist emphasized that within the easily overlooked quotidian advertisement was “woven a little story of the heart”. The details of this important precursor are presented further below.
In 1917 an essay by William R. Kane in a publication for literary workers discussed the composition of powerful short stories. The concise title “Little Shoes, Never Worn” was suggested for a story about “a wife who has lost her baby”. The details of this key precursor are also given further below.
In 1921 the newspaper columnist Roy K. Moulton described an ad with the words: “Baby carriage for sale, never used”. Moulton presented the reaction of his friend Jerry:
Wouldn’t that make a wonderful plot for the movies?
Details appear further below. During this ideational evolution the name Hemingway was never mentioned. QI did not find any sharp natural demarcations in this development, and hence there does not appear to be a single author for this tale.
Here are selected citations in chronological order.
In 1910 a brief article titled “Tragedy of Baby’s Death is Revealed in Sale of Clothes” was printed in a Spokane, Washington newspaper, and the text discussed a small classified advertisement. Perhaps this article or an article of this type provided the inspiration for the flash fiction.
The world is indeed a complication of joys and sorrows, a continuous play made up of tragedy and comedy, and even in every day life, items and experience, small and unusual to us, perhaps, is woven a little story of the heart.
Last Saturday an ad. appeared in a local paper which read: “Baby’s hand made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used.” The address was on East Mission street.
This perhaps meant little to the casual reader, yet to the mother who had spent hours and days planning the beautiful things for her tiny baby, it meant a keen sorrow and disappointment.
She had perhaps, dreamed of the time when her little one should be grown up and could, with a source of pride, look back upon its babyhood days and display the handiwork of its mother in the first baby clothes worn and the first trundle bed it had slept in when it first opened its eyes upon the beauties of the world.
But the hand of fate had been unkind and took from the devoted parents the little one which was destined to be the sunshine and light of their life, and the mother, in a desire to forget her sorrow by parting with anything which reminded her of the little one, advertised the garments at a sacrifice.
This important citation was located by a correspondent named Hugo within the Chronicling America newspaper database assembled by the Library of Congress.
Another interesting precursor reflecting the idea and the compressed format of the short-short story was printed in 1917 in a periodical aimed at writers and editors called “The Editor”. William R. Kane published a piece about striving for originality when creating short stories. He outlined a tale about a grief-stricken wife who lost her baby. Kane suggested using “Little Shoes, Never Worn” as the title and as the key symbol of the narrative:
To give the first example that comes to mind: Our story is one of a wife who has lost her baby, her only possible one, and her grief removes her from the world, and even threatens to estrange her from her husband. Evidently much of her struggle toward normality will be a mental one; the crisis of her struggle certainly will be mental. To bring the story “down-to-the-ground,” there must be some concrete symbol of the struggle and the wife’s victory.
Suppose this symbol is a pair of “little shoes, never worn.” The title of the story might be “Little Shoes, Never Worn.” The victory of the wife, her gain to normality, might be symbolized by the giving away of this pair of shoes, over which she has often wept, to a needy babe of another mother. The story I have outlined inclines to the sentimental, but I think it proves my point.
Kane suggested that the wife would give away the shoes. In the modern tale the shoes were offered for sale.
In April 1921 the newspaper columnist Roy K. Moulton printed a brief note that he attributed to someone named Jerry. The note referred to a classified advertisement selling a baby carriage:
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? JERRY.
The note above achieved national distribution appearing in a newspaper in Janesville, Wisconsin; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; 6 and Port Arthur, Texas.
In June 1921 the magazine Life reprinted the following paragraph from a newspaper under the title “Dénouement”:
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.
In July 1921 the Boston Globe printed a paragraph similar to the one above. But the critical analysis was attributed to Avery Hopwood who was a popular Broadway playwright in the 1920s:
“When a dramatist can tell a story as poignantly, as briefly and as dramatically as some of the classified advertisements,” declares Avery Hopwood, “then the great American drama will be written.”
Mr. Hopwood’s inspiration was this advertisement:
“For Sale—A baby carriage; never used!”
Also in July 1921 the humor magazine Judge published a piece that employed the classified advertisement as a starting point and then transformed its meaning with a twist ending. The story was called “Fools Rush In” by Jay G’Dee. The author began by recounting his emotional reaction to the ad:
I am an imaginative soul. That is the reason you are reading this; that and the fact that I read this: “For sale, a baby carriage, never used.” Merely a classified ad in a Houston paper, but it took hold on me and would not let me alone.
Sympathy is the natural environment of my soul. I re-read the ad. My fancy lingered on the last two words; the pathos of them; the tragedy that was in them.
The author decided to search out the person who placed the ad to offer words of condolence. The author found him mowing the front lawn of his house and asked him his reasons for selling the baby carriage:
“Certainly. You see we figured too low. It’s only a single and—” he grinned, damn him—”when the time came we had to get a double-seater.”
In 1924 a newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska presented multiple interpretations for the ad:
There wasn’t a “human interest” story in the paper that can compare in human interest with this little want ad: “For Sale—Baby carriage. Never used.”
Why was the baby carriage never used? Is the little fellow waiting by himself until the Heavens be no more, or were mother and child buried in the same grave? Or did some old bachelor win the baby carriage at a raffle?
In 1927 a comic strip featuring the character Ella Cinders used hyperbole when describing the baby carriage ad. In fact, the comic strip was designed to encourage people to use the classifieds:
THEY SAY THE GREATEST SHORT STORY IN THE WORLD WAS WRITTEN IN A SEVEN-WORD CLASSIFIED AD: ‘FOR SALE, A BABY CARRIAGE; NEVER USED!’
Skipping forward several decades, in 1991 the anecdote featuring Ernest Hemingway appeared in a book authored by a literary agent who said he heard the vignette circa 1974. This citation was given at the beginning of this article:
He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an end!
In 1992 the Canadian literary figure John Robert Colombo printed part of a letter that he had received from the famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke who was residing in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Clarke was familiar with the Hemingway anecdote and suggested a setting of the 1920s:
Excerpt from a letter written by Arthur C. Clarke (from Colombo to Colombo). It is dated 11 Oct. 1991 and concerns “short shorts”:
My favourite is Hemingway’s—he’s supposed to have won a $10 bet (no small sum in the ’20s) from his fellow writers. They paid up without a word. . . .
Here it is. I still can’t think of it without crying—
FOR SALE. BABY SHOES. NEVER WORN.
In 1993 the Chicago Tribune published a series of articles about the deaths of children in Chicago. The journalist Steve Johnson indicated that the baby shoes tale was used as an example by “writing instructors”:
But like the classified advertisement that writing instructors call the shortest short story—“For sale: One pair baby shoes; never used”—each of those paragraphs describing the 57 deaths is its own short story.
In 1997 a piece in the New York Times mentioned the yarn with Hemingway. In this variant of the short-short story the shoes were “Never Used”:
Hemingway once boasted that he could write a compelling short story in six words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.” Leaner language doesn’t necessarily mean thinner meaning.
In 2006 the literary agent Peter Miller retold the anecdote about Hemingway in the book “Author! Screenwriter!: How to Succeed as a Writer in New York and Hollywood”. The setting of the conclave of betting writers was moved from Luchow’s restaurant in the 1991 version to the Algonquin in the 2006 version. Other details were unchanged.
In conclusion, QI has located no substantive evidence that Ernest Hemingway composed a six or seven word story about an unworn pair of baby shoes or an unused baby carriage. In 1910 the core idea of the story was illustrated by a newspaper account that was presented as non-fiction. In 1917 William R. Kane did write an article that was thematically linked to these short-short tales. The story title Kane suggested was “Little Shoes, Never Worn”.