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How Did 'For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn' Become A Meme?

Arguably one of the most popular myths of literature is that author Ernest Hemingway once won a bet that he could write a full story using only six words. He scribbled on a napkin the words "For sale: baby shoes, never worn" and supposedly wowed a bar table's worth of writers.

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100-ish years later, the "story" remains widely quoted online — albeit in increasingly bastardized ways as social media has turned it into a meme. Here's the story behind the famous quote and how it developed into one of the most famous snowclones online.

Did Hemingway Actually Write "For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn?"

In brief, the idea that Hemingway wrote the famous "short story" appears to be merely a myth. The first time the myth of Hemingway's bar bet was published was in a 1992 book written by Peter Miller, 30 years after Hemingway's death. Miller claims he was told this story in 1972:

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!

However, scholars have found nearly identical phrasings from actual newspapers dated and publications dated shortly after the turn of the 20th century. These include:

- A 1906 newspaper ad that read, "For sale, baby carriage; never been used. Apply at this office.
- A 1910 article about a newspaper classified ad that read, "Baby’s hand made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used."
- A 1917 literary magazine essay on the power of short stories suggesting the title, "Little Shoes, Never Worn" for a story about "a wife who has lost her baby."
- A 1921 newspaper columnist who used the phrase "Baby carriage for sale, never used" in a piece describing an ad.

While the "Hemingway wrote it" myth can't be disproved necessarily, the evidence in its favor amounts to hearsay, and there is more tangible evidence to suggest the phrase had appeared in popular culture before the Hemingway myth was propagated.

How Did "For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn" Become A Meme?

The catalyst for "Hemingway's" short story becoming a meme appears to be a viral, mid-2000s writing game called the Six Word Memoir Project started by SMITH magazine. The project claimed to be inspired by the Hemingway myth and challenged writers to summarize their entire lives using only six words. As the project was covered by multiple news publications, the "Hemingway" myth and the "story" itself continued to get reprinted.

The advent of Twitter and its 140-character limit proved to be a perfect venue for riffs on the "For Sale" story, and parodies began appearing there as the site into a cultural force. These usually took one of two forms: people either added on to the original quote to imply a more humorous context for the "story," or they stated another short piece of writing, perhaps an advertisement or a social media caption, was humorously sadder than the "Baby Shoes" story.

Brian Lee @BrianLeeWow for sale baby shoes never worn it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests 2:06 AM Jul 10, 2013 Kyle Daly @dalykyle This is so much sadder than "for sale, baby shoes, never worn" Classic Varieties Big KⓇ sodas still have the same satisfying taste, high quality and enough flavors to keep everybody's thirst quenched. And now it's easy to see that Big KⓇ sodas are even better than before with newly designed packaging that gives you the confidence to serve them with pride. 9:27 PM Dec 10, 2013 Feedback ...


To this day, parodies continue in this vein, and they've been further propagated by webcomic artists who have built pages based on the joke.

"FORSALE: BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN" HONEY. LOOKAT THIS LARGE- FOOTED CHILD WE MADE! -Hemingway But the baby shoes... I'M NOT ALLOWING YOU TO PUT BABY SHOES ON THE DOG FOR SOCIAL MEDIA £3 All FINE. HAVE IT YOUR WAY! BUT I BOUGHT NEW BABY SHOES FOR THIS! (40 I DON'T CARE. IT'S ABUSIVE. THIS HAS GOT TO BE THE SADDEST STORY EVER TOLD FOR SALE. BABY SHOES. NEVER WORN. DO23DR TRIED TO GET DOG TO WEAR THON CHOOS ② EST

Additionally, the phrase has become a common joke for the popular YouTuber Jacksfilms.



For the full history of "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," be sure to check out Know Your Meme's encyclopedia entry for more information.




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