Keeping up with the Joneses

It’s always fun when disparate worlds of geekdom collide. Today, for instance, I learned that the term “keeping up with the Joneses” — a popular phrase in the realm of personal finance — actually originated in the funny pages.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

That’s right: “Keeping Up with the Joneses” started out as a newspaper comic strip. As a comics nerd, one who especially loves comic strips, this makes me happy. (Note: For some strips in this post, you can click on the image to open a larger version in a new window.)

Keeping Up with the Joneses (04 April 1913)

Arthur Mormand created “Keeping Up with the Joneses” in 1913. This comic strip (which was very typical for its time) parodied American domestic life, especially the increasing drive toward conspicuous consumption.

The term conspicuous consumption was itself relatively new in 1913. This concept was introduced by Thorstein Veblen, a Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. (You can download this book for free from the new Get Rich Slowly file vault.) People at all levels of life, Veblen says, buy things “as an evidence of wealth”, to signal financial “prowess”. This is worth an entire article of its own. (I should re-read the book and write it up, shouldn’t I?)

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia’s brief history of the strip:

[“Keeping Up with the Joneses”] debuted on March 31, 1913 in The New York Globe. The strip is a domestic comedy following a family of social climbers, the McGinises: parents Aloysius and Clarice, their daughter Julie, and the family’s maid Bella Donna. Various strips feature the McGinis family attempting to match the lifestyle of their neighbors, the Joneses, who are often mentioned but never seen.

The strip was later picked up by Joseph Pulitzer’s The New York World, and was subsequently syndicated in many other papers by Associated Newspapers. The title and central conceit of a family struggling to “keep up” with the neighbors resonated with its audience, to the point that the phrase keeping up with the Joneses became a common catchphrase.

According to interviews with Mormand, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” was based on his own life. He and his wife lived for a time in Cedarhurst, New York, a relatively wealthy community on Long Island. Mormand claimed his family lived “far beyond our means in our endeavor to keep up with the well-to-do class”.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Eventually, Mormand and his family gave up. They moved to Manhattan. There, he used his experience as source material. Mormand claimed that he originally wanted to call the strip “Keeping Up with the Smiths” but it didn’t have the same ring to it as “Keeping Up with the Joneses”.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Some argue that the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” was already in use when Mormand started drawing his comic strip. This may (or may not) be true. Regardless, it was his work that made the phrase a part of the American vernacular.

Keeping Up with the Joneses

While “Keeping Up with the Joneses” never became as popular as, say, “Gasoline Alley” or “Bringing Up Father”, it did achieve some measure of success. At one point, more than 150 newspapers around the U.S. carried the strip. And, for a time, a few of the gags were adapted into short animated films like this one.

If, like me, you are both a money nerd and a comics nerd, you might enjoy browsing this public domain collection of Keeping Up with the Joneses strips from 1920. (Again, this is part of the new Get Rich Slowly file vault.)

Keeping Up with the Joneses (16 April 1938)

Mormand died in 1987, at the age of 101. He spent the latter part of his life working as a portrait painter in New York City, but his lasting contribution to American society was coining the term “keeping up with the Joneses”.

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