Words to Live By*

It's just a little phrase, innocuous enough for all that it has become a cliche, but it's been bothering me now for days. I see it everywhere: in magazines, on billboards, on the Internet. People say it to each other more or less without thinking, typically as a way of comforting each other. Still, I don't know why it bothers me so much. It is, after all, a promise of something pleasant. It's what we say to each other when we've been working hard. It's what I would say to myself this evening, taking a break from fencing practice after spending the weekend driving to and from Ohio for the competition, if only I weren't so annoyed by it. My father-in-law even wrote (actually co-wrote) a book with the phrase in the title. What is this insidious phrase, you may ask?

"Treat yourself to x." There it is. How many times have you heard or read this phrase in the last few days? "Treat yourself to a massage." "Treat yourself to new lipstick." "Treat yourself to doing something you find creative and fun." "Treat yourself to eating healthy, energy-packed foods." "Treat yourself by watching comedies." "Treat yourself by doing nothing." "Treat yourself to pretty undergarments once in awhile."* "Treat yourself when you land your first job."** "Giving yourself treats is the right way to treat yourself."*** "Take care of yourself on a day-to-day basis, and look out for times when you deserve a few extra special treats. Friday nights are a good time to regularly treat yourself after a long week at work."**** "Treat yourself: 10 Tempting Ways to Spend a Date-Free Night." "Treat yourself to chocolate." "Treat yourself to sex."*****

I'll let you figure out which of these books my father-in-law wrote.****** Meanwhile, I'm wondering about the pervasiveness of this phrase and whether my father-in-law's book may not have been in part responsible for its popularity. A search on WorldCat shows only a handful (about six) of books with this phrase in their title published before 1980, his book among them. But a search in Google Books (where I found all of the other citations above) also shows how popular the phrase was in advertising at about the same time. "Treat yourself to Calvin Klein, all through your bedroom, all through the night" (House & Garden 1979). Was it then a phrase of the 1970s?

Interestingly, no. The oldest reference that I found in a title on WorldCat goes back to 1935. It's a tourist map published by the Pemex Travel Club, entitled Highroads to Happiness: South to Mexico. Treat yourself to a grand adventure! And in Google Books I found an even older one in a magazine called The Black Cat, published in 1918. It's an ad for a magazine (I think), promising something we could all do with at the moment: "Achievement. Is a clever, clean and wholesome publication prepared for the delectation and edification of live people who use their brains to think with.... Achievement is different--delightfully so. Treat yourself to it. Write today."*******

Before I carried the search to Google Books, my suspicion was that this was about as far back as I would be able to go. Surely the phrase--much like "An apple a day keeps the doctor away"--has its origins in the explosion of advertising around the turn of the twentieth century. It's exactly the kind of promise that advertisers always use to make you feel it is okay to buy something. Why we should feel the need to be given permission to enjoy things, well, that is another question. Perhaps there is an answer in the earlier instances of the phrase that I have found.

The phrase does not appear at all for the period 1600-1700, nor 1700-1800. It gets over 200 hits for 1800-1900, so it is clearly here that we must search for its sense. Refining further, it seems that the phrase first appears around 1840 in the sense in which we use it now: to allow oneself a luxury that has previously been denied. As in a story published in Hood's Magazine and Comic Miscellany by Thomas Hood in 1846: "There, go home to your wife; and my dear fellow, do now treat yourself to a new coat, for I never in my life was so much ashamed of anything in my counting-house as that!" Or in this story, published in The Edinburgh Monthly Magazine in 1849, with advice on how to avoid seasickness while on ship: "Whereas follow my plan, and in three or four days you are all right.... You may then go below, and stay below with perfect impunity--treat yourself to a grand universal scrub and a clean shirt--and, if you are a shaver, shave." Or here, in a book entitled Frank Worthy: Or, the Orphan and his Benefactor: for Little Boys and Little Girls, by Mrs. (Mary) Hughs, published in 1849:

"Frank;" cried the youthful Stiffler one morning, as he lay in his bed, watching the progress of his companion's dressing; "it is beginning to be very cold, and I think you ought really to have something to cover those bare feet of yours. Why don't you get stockings on, and treat yourself to a pair of good boots or shoes."
"I shall have a pair before very long; for mother said, the last time I was at home, that they should be the first thing she bought."
"But you will have to suffer a great deal in the meantime. You ought to have a pair directly."
"But poor people can't always get things the very moment they want them," said Frank with great simplicity.

What is interesting about the use of the phrase in all three of these instances is how the thing that one is to treat oneself to is not so much a luxury, as a simple comfort, and yet, one that has hitherto been literally beyond one's means. The point in the story about the old coat is that the narrator cannot afford to buy a new one, anymore than Frank's mother can buy him new shoes. Are we then imagining ourselves paupers when we promise ourselves treats?

Yes, and no. Henry James also used the phrase in his novel The American, first published as a serial in The Atlantic Monthly from 1876 to 1877 and then as a book in 1877. Here, Christopher Newman is explaining to Tom Tristam how he came to be at the Louvre:

I was sick of business; I wanted to throw it all up and break off short; I had money enough, or if I hadn't I ought to have. I seemed to feel a new man inside my old skin, and I longed for a new world. When you want a thing so very badly you had better treat yourself to it. I didn't understand the matter, not in the least.... As soon as I could get out of the game I sailed for Europe. That is how I come to be sitting here.

I'm wondering now whether it is, in fact, James whom we have to blame for the persistence of this phrase, so often applied to exactly the exercise that Christopher Newman undertook: travel. In my WorldCat search, I found not only the 1935 map, but also a whole series of books published by the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of the Navy in 1976, under the general title Take a Liberty--Treat Yourself to Spain. And yet, long before the age of the jet plane, such invitations to "treat yourself to Europe" were in the air. Already in 1936, Jane Foster, R.N., had caught the European bug. "You Can Go to Europe Too," she told readers of The American Journal of Nursing 36.1 (1936), pp. 35-37:

Early in the spring of 1935 I sailed with two companion R.N.'s for England. Our motive was not very highbrow: we were going for the purpose of gloriously pleasing ourselves. True, we would agree, travel is very educational and very stimulating, and an outdoor life has a great recreating quality. We should see something of foreign nursing. We should--but I am afraid it was the joy of the thing that led to our hoisting sails!
Lest you stop right here with the remark that European travel is out of the question for ordinary staff nurses, I want to say most emphatically that it is not! Not, that is, if you have even the most modest of jobs and a fair chance of getting a little more time off for your vacation. Our trip of nearly three and one-half months cost a total of [wait for it!] $350...********
If I have a text or a moral it is this: We nurses get so much in the habit of being nurses that we forget we are people, and that there is a great warm friendly world outside. Treat yourself once! Cycle 2,700 miles (or less if you prefer), walk along heather tracks and beside the sea. You will learn what it is to have a body that does not rebel at the 6:00 A.M. alarm, and feet that do not long to be put on a bed! Plan to have a real vacation--vacate your old weary run-down self.

I'm not sure what the moral of this post is, in the end. I think there is a slippage in this last example, from "treat yourself to x" (as in giving yourself something) to "treat yourself" (as in caring for oneself as if ill, as nurses do for others). But it also seems clear to me that Nurse Foster is following fairly closely in Christopher Newman's footsteps: "When you want a thing so badly--like a vacation in Europe--you had better treat yourself to it."

Is it that the treats we are giving ourselves now (like massages and chocolates and watching comedies) seem less urgent than a shave after days at sea or new shoes when winter is coming on? Or is it that we have imagined ourselves poorer than we actually are in order to feel justified in wanting such comforts anyway? Because, of course, from little Frank's perspective, Calvin Klein sheets are hardly "treats". Anyone who can afford them has not been sleeping on a bare mattress before going to the store. And yet, the phrase is also an affirmation of the necessity of material comforts for our well-being. Little Frank really did need to treat himself to new shoes.

Necessities or luxuries? Clearly, it's all part of the treat.

*Ruth Klein, Time Management Secrets for Working Women: Getting Organized to Get the Most (2005), pp. 149-50.
**Richard Carlson, The Don't Sweat Guide for Graduates: Facing New Challenges with Confidence (Don't Sweat Press, 2002), p. 100.
***Gillian Butler, Tony Hope, and R.A. Hope, Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide (1995), p. 53.
****Rhena Branch, Mike Bryant, Kate Burton, Peter Mabbutt, Gillian Burn, Jeni Mumford, Romilla Ready, and Rob Willson, Personal Development All-in-One for Dummies (2007), p. 282.
*****Paul Brown and Carolyn Faulder, Treat Yourself to Sex: A Guide for Good Loving (1977).
******It's worth it; it's actually a really good book.
*******The ad promises further: "It is written by J.E. Jones, who 'knows his Washington,' and has an intimate view of man and affairs, and he makes good copy of these."
********Nurse Foster and her friend stayed in the hostels organized by the International Youth Hostel Association, founded some twenty-four years before their trip. Their lodgings included a castle in Scotland, a fifteenth-century cottage in Canterbury, a manor house in the Peak District, a farmhouse in Yorkshire, and a sixteenth-century mill in Winchester. They also cycled everywhere, becoming "browner and browner and [waxing] jubilant with vim and vigor." Along the way they met and spoke with all sorts of people eager to learn about America from these cycling women: "We learned a great deal about Britain and the British, but almost more about America. We were questioned about our government, our legal system, our unemployment [this was 1935, remember]--and our ignorance was enormous. On our side we studied the English diet, the standard of living of the working class, their form of relief, social insurance, medical facilities."


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