In the following, money tree denotes a source of money considered to be easily obtained, inexhaustible or particularly profitable—cf. also ‘no magic money (tree)’: justification for austerity and notes on the phrase ‘a licence to print money’.
I think that the noun money tree is related to the phrase money does not grow on trees and variants, which mean money is not easily obtainable.
This phrase is first recorded:
– in Address to all federalists, an appeal to ratify the Constitution of the United States;
– written in New York on 27th September 1787 by ‘Curtius’;
– published in The American Museum: or Repository of Ancient and Modern Fugitive Pieces, &c. Prose and Poetical for October 1787 (Philadelphia: Printed by Mathew Carey):
Think not, that such an eventful revolution, so great and so promising, should meet with no opposition. Nothing great or good, of the kind, ever commenced, or ever existed, without it. Opposition will arise from various sources. […] Even low wit and buffoonery shall raise their silly weapons. Perhaps you will be told, among anti-federalists, that when the new government is established, “money will grow upon the trees.”
The second-earliest occurrence of money tree that I have found explicitly relates it to the phrase money does not grow on every bush—it is from The Biglow Papers (London: Trübner & Co., 1859), by the U.S. poet and critic James Russell Lowell (1819-1891):
The speculation has sometimes crossed my mind, in that dreary interval of drought which intervenes between quarterly stipendiary showers, that Providence, by the creation of a money-tree, might have simplified wonderfully the sometimes perplexing problem of human life. We read of bread-trees, the butter for which lies ready-churned in Irish bogs. Milk-trees we are assured of in South America, and stout Sir John Hawkins testifies to water-trees in the Canaries. Boot-trees bear abundantly in Lynn and elsewhere; and I have seen, in the entries of the wealthy, hat-trees with a fair show of fruit. A family-tree I once cultivated myself, and found therefrom but a scanty yield, and that quite tasteless and innutritious. Of trees bearing men we are not without examples; as those in the park of Louis the Eleventh of France. Who has forgotten, moreover, that olive-tree, growing in the Athenian’s back-garden, with its strange uxorious crop, for the general propagation of which, as of a new and precious variety, the philosopher Diogenes, hitherto uninterested in arboriculture, was so zealous? In the sylva of our own Southern States, the females of my family have called my attention to the china-tree. Not to multiply examples, I will barely add to my list the birch-tree, in the smaller branches of which has been implanted so miraculous a virtue for communicating the Latin and Greek languages, and which may well, therefore, be classed among the trees producing necessaries of life,—venerabile donum fatalis virgæ. That money-trees existed in the golden age there want not prevalent reasons for our believing. For does not the old proverb, when it asserts that money does not grow on every bush, imply à fortiori, that there were certain bushes which did produce it? Again, there is another ancient saw to the effect that money is the root of all evil. From which two adages it may be safe to infer that the aforesaid species of tree first degenerated into a shrub, then absconded underground, and finally, in our iron age, vanished altogether.
The earliest occurrence of money tree that I have found is from The London Magazine: Or Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer. Volume XVIII. For the Year 1749 (London: Printed for R. Baldwin). The Index mentions:
Money tree in America, project of 583
Page 583 bears the heading:
The American Money Tree.
And the text referred to—a “humorous Piece” purportedly written by one Alexander Windmill at “Massachuset’s-Bay, March, 1748”—was published in the Appendix to The London Magazine. 1749:
I have bought a small parcel of ground, where, after some secret cultivation of mine bestowed upon it, I intend to plant a tree, whose trunk and limbs shall consist of fine copper, which shall, in a few weeks, shoot up, and flourish in a very rich and ample manner. This useful vegetable, when it comes to perfection, is to blossom all in silver; the fruit is to be gold, as the leaves will shade a weary traveller with so many five pound bills.
The earliest occurrence of the phrase to shake the money tree that I have found is from The Royal Cornwall Gazette, Falmouth Packet, and General Advertiser (Truro, Cornwall, England) of Friday 14th February 1851, which reported that, at a farmers’ dinner held after the Probus annual ploughing match, one Mr. Stevens declared:
With reference to labour, his opinion had always been this—that if the labour of one man was remunerative, and there remained other labour equally important to be done, it would also be remunerative to employ 5, 10, or any adequate number. He believed it was by acting on this principle that men in trade had accumulated and amassed so much wealth; they had not been able, any more than the farmers, to shake the money-tree and bring down a shower of sovereigns, but they employed a greater number of persons, making every hand get a little.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED – 3rd edition, September 2002), money tree is a calque of Chinese qiánshù, from qián, coin, money, and shù, tree.
The OED adds that the phrase to shake the money tree is a loan translation from the Chinese traditional phrase yáo qiánshù, from yáo, to shake.
This erroneous origin is due to the fact that the earliest two occurrences of money tree in the OED refer to China:
1: The first occurrence is from The Dragnet of Local Government in China, by Norman D. Hanwell, published in Pacific Affairs (Camden, New Jersey: The Institute of Pacific Relations) Vol. 10, No. 1 (March, 1937)—about the many ways in which local power can be abused, the author quotes Rural Economic Conditions in T’un-liu, by Kao Miao, first published in Nung-ts’un Chou-k’an (Village Weekly), No. 40, and in the Yi Shih Pao, a Tientsin daily paper, Dec. 1st, 1934:
The landlords and “rotten gentry” look upon the office of village head as a method of “shaking the money tree.”
2: The second occurrence of money tree in the OED is from Harbingers of Happiness: The Door Gods of China, by Alfred Koehn, published in Monumenta Nipponica: Studies in Japanese Culture (Tokyo: Sophia University) Vol. 10, No. 1/2, 1954:
In shops are found the numerous gods of Riches with their helpers, their barrows laden with wealth, and magic caskets always full of treasure; there is also the money tree whose branches are strings of cash, and whose fruits are ingots of gold, to obtain which it is only necessary to shake the tree.
[Likewise, the OED mistakenly speculates that the phrase long time no see was found “in early use in representations of North American Indian speech”, because the earliest quotation in this dictionary, from The Boston Daily Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) of Sunday 18th February 1894, is: “Come to my tepee. Long time no see. Plenty game in mountains. We kill deer and bear.”]
The OED also specifies that, in Chinese, the money tree is sometimes conceived of concretely. I have found a mention of this in a letter written by Rev. H. G. C. Hallock, a Lutheran missionary stationed at Shanghai, China, published in The Gazette and Daily (York, Pennsylvania) of Friday 10th April 1925:
I enclose a Chinese god-of-wealth. He sits on a great ingot of gold for a throne, “Foh-happiness—is above him and around him are his servants who carry all kinds of precious things for those who please him. In front of the god is a great pot of jewels. Back of him, on the one side, is the Great Gold mountain and on the other Silver Hill, on which is the money tree. If Dozai-Zen is pleased with one allowing him to shake the tree, down will come abundance of money.