. . . ."The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay" is a perfectly intelligible conception, whatever material difficulties it presents. It is conceivable that a being of an order superior to humanity should so understand the conditions of matter that he could construct a machine which should go to pieces, if not into its constituent atoms, at a given moment of the future. The mind may take a certain pleasure in this picture of the impossible. The event follows as a logical consequence of the presupposed condition of things.
There is a practical lesson to be got out of the story. Observation shows us in what point
any particular mechanism is most likely to give way. In a wagon, for instance, the weak point is where the axle enters the hub or nave. When the wagon breaks down, three times out of four, I think, it is at this point that the accident occurs. The workman should see to it that this part should never give way; then find the next vulnerable place, and so on, until he arrives logically at the perfect result attained by the deacon.
. . . .
The localities referred to are those with which I am familiar in my drives about Essex County.
O. W. H.
THE DEACON'S MASTERPIECE.........PAGE [SIZE]
- The Deacon.......Frontispiece [26KB]
- Half Title.......11 [6KB]
- The Masterpiece.......12 [20KB]
- "A chaise breaks down"......14 [68KB]
- "The Deacon inquired of the village folk"......16 [45KB]
- "Naow she'll dew"......18 [23KB]
- "She was a wonder, and nothing less"......19 [53KB]
- "Deacon and deaconess dropped away"......20 [35KB]
- "Eighteen Hundred"......21 [12KB]
- "Fifty-Five"...................21 [8KB]
- "Its hundredth year"......22 [37KB]
- "A general flavor of mild decay"......23 [33KB]
- "In another hour it will be worn out"......24 [13KB]
- "The parson takes a drive"......25 [34KB]
- "All at once the horse stood still"......26 [22KB]
- "Then something decidedly like a spill"......27 [66KB]
- "Just as bubbles do when they burst"......28 [14KB]
- "End of the wonderful one-hoss-shay"......29 [30KB]
We add to the online edition two illustrations from the 1902 Houghton, Mifflin and Co. edition of The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, with illustrations by H. M. Brock.
- "Here comes the wonderful one-hoss shay"..frontispiece [77KB] or [13KB]
- The shay breaks down...tailpiece [30KB] or small [9KB]
Finally, we add online here two (unsigned) illustrations from his complete poetical works, of 1902.
- Portrait of the author...frontispiece (73KB) or (8KB) (unsigned)
- The Holmes gambrel house in Cambridge, Massachusetts... title page (67KB) or (17KB).
HAVE you heard of the wonderful one-hoss-shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then, of a sudden, it--ah, but stay
I 'll tell you what happened without delay,
Scaring the parson into fits,
Frightening people out of their wits,--
Have you ever heard of that, I say?
Seventeen hundred and fifty-five,
Georgius Secundus was then alive,--
Snuffy old drone from the German hive;
That was the year when Lisbon-town
Saw the earth open and gulp her down,
And Braddock's army was done so brown,
Left without a scalp to its crown.
It was on the terrible earthquake-day
That the Deacon finished the one-hoss-shay.
Now in building of chaises, I tell you what,
There is always somewhere a weakest spot,--
In hub, tire, felloe, in spring or thill,
In panel, or crossbar, or floor, or sill,
In screw, bolt, thoroughbrace,--lurking still,
Find it somewhere you must and will,--
Above or below, or within or without,--
And that's the reason, beyond a doubt,
A chaise breaks down, but does n't wear out.
But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do,
With an "I dew vum," or an "I tell yeou,"
He would build one shay to beat the taown
'n' the keounty 'n' all the kentry raoun';
It should be so built that it couldn' break daown!
--"Fur," said the Deacon, "t 's mighty plain
Thut the weakes' place mus' stan' the strain;
'n' the way t' fix it, uz I maintain,
Is only jest
T' make that place uz strong uz the rest."
So the Deacon inquired of the village folk
Where he could find the strongest oak,
That could n't be split nor bent nor broke,--
That was for spokes and floor and sills;
He sent for lancewood to make the thills;
The crossbars were ash, from the straightest trees,
The panels of whitewood, that cuts like cheese,
But lasts like iron for things like these;
The hubs of logs from the "Settler's ellum,"
Last of its timber,--they could n't sell 'em,
Never an axe had seen their chips,
And the wedges flew from between their lips
Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips;
Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw,
Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin too,
Steel of the finest, bright and blue;
Thoroughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide;
Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide
Found in the pit when the tanner died.
[D]That was the way he "put her through."
"There!" said the Deacon, "naow she 'll dew."
Do! I tell you, I rather guess
She was a wonder, and nothing less!
Colts grew horses, beards turned gray,
Deacon and deaconess dropped away,
Children and grandchildren--where were they?
But there stood the stout old one-hoss-shay
As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake-day!
EIGHTEEN HUNDRED;--it came and found
The Deacon's Masterpiece strong and sound.
Eighteen hundred increased by ten;--
"Hahnsum kerridge" they called it then.
Eighteen hundred and twenty came;--
Running as usual; much the same.
Thirty and forty at last arrive,
And then come fifty, and FIFTY-FIVE.
Little of all we value here
Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
In fact, there's nothing that keeps its youth
So far as I know, but a tree and truth.
(This is a moral that runs at large;
Take it.--You 're welcome.--No extra charge.)
FIRST OF NOVEMBER,--the Earthquake-day.--
There are traces of age in the one-hoss-shay--
A general flavor of mild decay,
But nothing local, as one may say.
There could n't be,--for the Deacon's art
Had made it so like in every part
That there was n't a chance for one to start.
For the wheels were just as strong as the thills,
And the floor was just as strong as the sills,
And the panels just as strong as the floor,
And the whippletree neither less nor more,
And the back-crossbar as strong as the fore,
And spring and axle and hub encore,
And yet, as a whole, it is past a doubt
In another hour it will be worn out!
First of November, 'Fifty-five!
This morning the parson takes a drive.
Now, small boys, get out of the way!
Here comes the wonderful one-hoss-shay,
Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay.
"Huddup!" said the parson. --Off went they.
The parson was working his Sunday's text,--
Had got to fifthly, and stopped perplexed
At what the--Moses--was coming next.
All at once the horse stood still,
Close by the meet'n'-house on the hill
--First a shiver, and then a thrill,
Then something decidedly like a spill,--
And the parson was sitting upon a rock,
At half-past nine by the meet'n'-house clock,--
Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!
--What do you think the parson found,
When he got up and stared around?
The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,
As if it had been to the mill and ground!
You see, of course, if you 're not a dunce,
How it went to pieces all at once,--
All at once, and nothing first,--
Just as bubbles do when they burst.
End of the wonderful one-hoss-shay.
Logic is logic. That's all I say.
This poem was first published in 1858, and republished many times, including as part of Holmes's work, Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. It has frequently been required to be memorized and recited by students in New England schools. We use here as copy-text the 1892 edition, Boston Public Library catalog number PS1958.A1 1892, title page as above.
Text description of frontispiece: Under Ye Deacon caption stoops the clever Deacon himself. He is standing, a little old and bent, with his glasses pushed up on his forehead, beneath an old-fashioned three-cornered hat. He is smiling a little and holding a walking-stick in his right hand. With his left he is pushing back the tails of his old-fashioned coat. He is wearing pants just below his knee, stockings, and buckle shoes. Now use your browser's BACK button to return to the text.
Shay...The title of the poem as printed in this edition is given without hyphens. In the text itself, the transportation apparatus is spelled with hyphens, i.e., "one-hoss-shay." (In the Preface, Holmes spells it the way we would today, "one-hoss shay.") It is a colloquial American term with phonetic spelling and the same meaning of chaise, the French word for a carriage, pulled by one horse.
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) was a Harvard medical professor and author of famous and witty poems and pieces in the Atlantic Monthly magazine of Boston. He wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table, "Old Ironsides," the novel Elsie Venner, and many poems for Harvard reunions. His son, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was a distinguished U.S. Supreme Court justice from 1902 to 1932. Here is a big (73KB) or a small (8KB) engraving (unsigned) of him from the Cambridge edition of his complete poetical works, 1895, Houghton and Mifflin. Here also is a big (67KB) or a small (17KB) picture of his gambrel house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Howard Pyle (1853-1911) was an American illustrator famous for characters in early American history; he is known for his Robin Hood drawings of 1883.
1. The two companion poems have been omitted for this online edition in order to save space.
2. Online notes to the illustrations: All illustrations in the original are on the recto; the verso pages are blank except the frontispiece and back of title page. We have slightly adjusted the position of two pictures for the online presentation, by moving lines up to separate illustrations. All illustrations are compressed inline as well as in full size, interlaced GIF format black and white, in external files. The sizes are given so you may estimate download time when you click on the picture or in the list of illustrations. Some of them may take a long time to load, depending on your bandwidth and speed.
3. By "drives," Holmes of course means drives in a carriage, since the automobile, or "horseless carriage" was not used yet. How many 100-year-old automobiles are in daily use today? Actually, horse carriage technology developed, too, though much more slowly than automobiles.
Essex County is to the north of Boston, in Massachusetts, and includes Salem and Newburyport. Holmes lived in Essex County in the summer. Holmes here refers to the other poems not included here, but mentioned in the title.
4. Text descriptions for all art, except for purely decorative cuts described with an "ALT" text for text-only browsers, can be read by following the link marked with a capital "D" under the picture inside the poem itself.
Text description for opening art: The parson is out in the deacon's carriage, passing a small New England house, a village crowd in tricorn hats of the 1800s, and followed by a running boy. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: "A chaise breaks down but doesn't wear out" is the caption. The parson is grimacing in pain and holding his leg, after a terrible accident in his shay, which has broken its axle and is in pieces behind him. He is holding onto a direction post with a sign pointing to "Newtown," the old name for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard College is. He evidently was attempting to negotiate a turn on a hill, a common place for accidents. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: The deacon is inquiring of the village folk, three men and a woman. They seem amused. One is pointing to his left, another is holding up his hand. The deacon is tapping with his stick on the shoulder of a woman with a basket, apron, and little pointed, brimmed hat. In the background is a New England tavern, which would be in the center of town. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: The deacon is alone with his wonderful shay and a little cat or dog in front of the carriage house, but he is pointing his arm toward the shay as if showing it off. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: "She was a wonder, and nothing less!" is the caption, confirmed by the expressions of the admiring men looking at the deacon in the shay, stopped on the street, which has the two furrows made by carriage wheels. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: In the foreground are the tombstones of the deacon and his wife. Behind a wall in the back we can see the top of the shay, the horse's head, and a whip in the air. The shay is the property of the current parson, as administered by the deacon. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: 1800 is the legend, as the shay passes, admired by a couple in the little round hats of the day. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: 1855 is the legend, as the shay is still going, admired by a gentleman in a tall beaver hat and a woman wearing a bonnet of the day. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: Through the window we can see the shay going strong, witnessed by an aged person in a high wingback chair, gown, and nightcap, with slippers on a hassock. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: If there is a general flavor of mild decay about the shay, it is not seen by us or the three chicken pecking around it as it stands in the carriage yard. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: The parson and a man holding the horse are looking at the shay, seen from behind, with the wheels looking perilously slanty. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: Last of perhaps a dozen horses to pull the shay, the ewe-necked bay carries the complacent parson along, with the top up. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: Oops, right in front of the church, the horse is indeed stopped and the shay is seen in the midst of collapse, with the wheels toppling, the axle breaking, and the parson (almost) swearing. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: A closer view. Abjectly, the parson sits bareheaded on a rock behind the horse still in harness, right in front of the meeting-house. The clock reads 9:30. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: A bald man with a beard and angel wings is sitting on a cloud, blowing bubbles from a long pipe. GO BACK NOW.
Text description: The last parson to use the shay walks home, leading the horse in harness. The sun is seen setting behind them. (The bay must have been quite a trotter to go so far that they are still walking home since 9:30 a.m.) END OF PICTURES.
logic, logical...... Holmes uses the word in the subtitle, the preface, and at several critical points in the poem. Critics have understood that he is meaning to satirize a particular religious way of thinking. Puritans, as the Harvard historian Perry Miller wrote, based much of their theory and practice on the system of logic established by Petrus Ramus (1515-1572), who opposed Aristotle's. Holmes is a liberal Unitarian and scientific physician who points out the absurdity of carrying practice to its theoretical logical conclusion, insteading of relying on wise experience. The result of the Deacon's work may be "logically perfect," but it does fall to pieces in the end. Although critics maintained this interpretation was obvious, Holmes himself always said the religious criticism was not conscious on his part. In his book, "Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," he joked about carrying logic to "logical consequences."
Perhaps nowadays we would interpret the satire against scientists, engineers, and reformers. In colonial days these were the ministers, which is what Harvard produced. The period before the Civil War was a time of extremely rapid industrialization, growth, and social change in New England, spurred by Yankee inventors. Of course, the Civil War itself forced revolutionary changes, too, changing even the constitutional principles that held the nation together.
Henry Ford is said to have instructed his engineers to search the junk yards for old Ford automobiles, and determine which parts had not worn out. Then the engineers were to make those parts weaker, not stronger, because obviously Ford had wasted money in making them too strong, or at least stronger than they should have been. Much modern industrial quality control is based on this assumption--standing the Deacon's logic on its head. Did Henry Ford get the idea from this poem? (As an aside, the label on Kingsford charcoal briquette bags gives an interesting footnote to Ford's use of wood for automobile manufacture, the successor to carriage making.)
The history of the coach and the technologies necessary to make it useful are well worth additional study. Such one-person vehicles were not as common as farm carts, which generally had four wheels and were drawn by oxen. Oxen require soft roads. The narrow tires of the shay, made of iron or steel, with iron shoes on the horse, are more appropriate for hard surfaces. Such roads were constructed by the Romans in Europe but were not kept under repair after the collapse of central authority. For example, in 1375, the King of Scotland's ransom was brought "with all speed" to London, at the rate of only 30 miles per day, according to the Encylopedia Brittanica. Stagecoaches did not become possible in France until the King had enough power to order a good road system, by 1664. The roads designed by John McAdam and his associates beginning in 1815 had a coefficient of friction less than one-third of that of common dirt roads. (Railroad tracks have less than one-sixth resistance of a paved road, hence the efficiency of "the broomstick train".)
Passengers in two-wheeled coaches suffered jolts when the horse raised and lowered his head. Some sort of suspension system was needed because of the rough roads. This raised the center of gravity of the vehicle so that turns became dangerous. There were many technical problems to be solved. Since the market was small, most coaches were made by hand by local artisans, with local materials and ingenuity. This called for greater self-reliance than we are used to today.
parson....a Protestant minister, rector, clergyman; from L. persona, literally, person; since the shay lasted exactly 100 years, likely there was more than one parson who drove it
George II. . . (1683-1760), King of England 1727-1760, during American colonies war with French. He was also Elector of Hanover, a German principality, which he was thought to favor over Britain and its colonies. The colonists preferred independence, which they won from his grandson and successor, George III, to a "drone" who didn't work for them.
Lisbon. . . capital of Portugal, was destroyed by an earthquake, November 1, 1755, that was felt in New England. The French writer Voltaire used the event in his satire, Candide as a refutation of foolish optimism.
Gen. Edward Braddock. . . commander-in-chief of forces surprised by French and Indian attack near Fort Duquesne, July 9, 1755, losing half his forces and his own life. After battles, the defeated were scalped, or their hair and skull skin cut off, as trophies by victorious Indians; this was usually fatal.
"done so brown". . . completely defeated; idiomatically, "its goose was cooked."
a deacon is a lay church officer who assists the minister, serves on administrative duties, and shares some pastoral tasks. "Deaconess" here is the wife of the deacon, as it says on the tombstone in the picture later in the poem.
"I dew vum". . ."I do vow" (deacons were not good swearers, having little practice)
felloe is a part, usually separate wooden part, of a wheel, in which the spokes fit, and is surrounded by a metal tire.
thill is the shaft of a vehicle, the wooden part connecting it to the horse.
thoroughbrace is a leather brace used as a spring to help support a carriage
taown...New England dialect pronunciation for "town"; likewise for "around"keounty, kentry, uz...New England pronunciation of "county", "country", "as"
lancewood is a tough, elastic wood useful for shafts and bows
ellum is phonetic for "elm", a native American wood that once graced town streets and farm roads, but has died off from disease. But here Holmes refers to the fact that much of New England or at least Essex County had been deforested by 1860, because of agriculture, fires, and sheep-herding. Elm is very difficult to split, hence the "frizzled" wedges.
bison is of course the American buffalo, of which strong leather was made, lasting more than 100 years, though the animals haven't
linchpin is an important locking pin inserted crosswise through the shaft
boot...trunk or enclosed area to carry goods, still used that way in Britain for the "trunk" of an automobile
dasher...Holmes earned an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary for this use of the term for "dashboard", the carriage part under and in front of the driver's feet that protects against flying dirt kicked up by the horse's feet
hahnsum kerridge. . . "handsome carriage"
a general flavor of mild decay, but nothing local... remembering that Holmes was a medical doctor, one wonders if this phrase entered his practice
whippletree or whiffletree is the pivoted, swinging bar, to which the traces of the horse's harness are fastened, and which hangs in front of the wheels and pulls the vehicle
encore..French for "again"
ewe-necked bay is a reddish-brown horse with black tail and mane, but with a neck like a female sheep
working his Sunday's text ...preparing his Sabbath sermon, according to Puritan logical principles (note the five points)
meeting-house or New England Protestant church
dunce...one stupid or dull-witted; a failure in school openly ridiculed, as by wearing a tall, pointed cap; after the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus, whose writings were ridiculed at one point.