"Yesterday Is History" Mystery

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

There is little doubt that Joan Rivers had many great one liners and quotes, many of which are circulating as tributes come pouring in. One of the most popular quotes making the rounds at the moment - "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery. Today is God's gift. That's why it's called the present." Rivers' colleague and co-host of The Fashion Police, Kelly Osbourne paid her respects on 5 September 2014 by sharing the words of wisdom via social media.

While she may well have recited the words at one time or another (adding the word "God's" along the way), Rivers was not the originator of the quote.

Father Ray Suriani, a Pastor from St Pius X Westerly, Rhode Island, theorised that, "... believe it or not, this well-known expression is also very 'baptismal'" in a homily he gave on 11 January 2009 transcribed on his blog Father Ray's 'Other' Corner. Fellow Pastor, Father Dean Perri had used it in a sermon "a few weeks" earlier after hearing animated tortoise 'Master Oogway' recite it in Kung Fu Panda (Dir. John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Paramount Pictures, 2008. Film.). Given the quote's widespread use prior to the release of Kung Fu Panda, this can not be where it originated.

New York author and scholar, Barry Popik, wrote an article exploring the use of the term on The Big Apple blog in 20 June 2009. With the assistance of Jonathan Lighter from The American Dialect Society, Popik found the earliest use of the quote in an 11 July 1967 entry of the Altoona Mirror 'Family Weekly' publication, reading:
"You must forget the past. Yesterday is history, tomorrow's a mystery. Follow the AA philosophy of quitting one day at a time and seeking divine guidance."
In an entry on the website Answers.com states that Albert Melvin Meltzer uttered the words on his death bed to his then ten-year-old son Douglas Howard Meltzer back in March 1959. "I remember it but didn't quite know what it meant for a few years." Records show that there was indeed an Albert Melvin Meltzer (born 22 July 1910) who passed away age 48 in New York City on 21 April 1959. This is not to be confused with the anarchist of the same name, who died 37 years later in 1996. 
"I also don't know if he made it up," his son Douglas Howard Meltzer added, "or got it from someone else!"

Some believe that Eleanor Roosevelt was the quote's originator. Many publications and novels worldwide attribute the quote to her:
Lemieux, F. (2010). Gilles Lamontagne: Sur tous le fronts. Montréal: Del Busso.
pp. 621.
Terranova, D. S. (2008). My Four Seasons: Having an Illness, Doesn't Mean You Are Ill. Bloomington: AuthorHouse.
pp. ix.
Lakhani, S. (2013). My Life Is An Open Book. Bloomington: Xlibris. pp. 11.
Galluzzo, J. S. (2008). The Spirituality of Mary Magdalene: Embracing the Sacred Union of the Feminine and Masculine as One. Bloomington: iUniverse. pp. 16.
It should be noted that none of the above excerpts have used citations or sources
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project - much of which is available online - have arguably the most extensive database of Roosevelt's written works. If Roosevelt was indeed the originator of this very famous quote, then The Eleanor Roosevelt Project would have record of it in their collections. However the database shows no record of it ever being uttered, written or even alluded to by Roosevelt. Therefore we are drawn to the conclusion that the quote has been erroneously attributed yet again.
Earle, A. M. (1902).
Sun Dials and Roses of Yesterday.
Detroit: Singing Tree Press.

Another misconception is that the quote was first used in Alice Morse Earle’s 1902 book Sun Dials and Roses of Yesterday. By jumping to a quick Google search, many people are lead to believe that the entire quote "The clock is running. Make the most of today. Time waits for no man. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why it is called the present." came directly from the book.
In actual fact Earle’s book only mentions that a sundial belonging to Charles F. Jenkins, Esq. from Cranford, Germantown, Pennsylvania, USA is inscribed with the quote “Time waits for no man”. 

Earle theorises that the use of "no man" is a paronomasial play on the word 'gnomon' (the triangular part of a sundial that casts the shadow).

The entire book is in the public domain, and can be read at archive.org. The only evidence of the quote is pp. 224 - 225.

So if it's not from Sun Dials and Roses of Yesterday, then where did it come from?

Dickinson's original handwritten manuscript of
#1292 Yesterday is History. Courtesy of
Amherst College, Amherst, MA.
While not completely identical, Emily Dickinson's poem #1292 Yesterday is History shares a similar concept:
"Yesterday is History,  
'tis so far away --yesterday is Poetry, 
'tis Philosophy -- 
Yesterday is Mystery -- 
Where it is today -- 
While we shrewdly speculate 
Flutter both away"
It is unclear exactly when this poem was written, but scholars tend to narrow it down to a ten year period from 1855 to 1865. It still brings us no closer to pin-pointing the first time the quote was used.

Another theory is that the quote's roots date back to 1225 A.D., predating the Modern English dialect we use today. The poem St. Marher was originally written in Early Middle English:
"And te tide and te time þat tu iboren were, schal beon iblescet."
Translated to Modern English St. Marher's poem reads:
"The tide abides for and waits for no man, stays for no man. Time nor tide waits for no man."
The investigation into the originator of the "Yesterday is history" quote did not quite garner a resolution or generate a straight answer. Although it can be concluded that the term almost certainly dates back to antiquity.

Thus "Yesterday is History" remains a present mystery.

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