history of the phrase ‘every picture tells a story’

The phrase every, or each, picture tells a story is used of images that are particularly significant, revealing, or suggestive of real or imaginary events.

At the beginning of Jane Eyre. An Autobiography. Edited by Currer Bell (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1847), the English novelist Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) evoked the images in a book that Jane read as a child:

I returned to my book—Bewick’s History of British Birds: the letter-press thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank. […]
[…] The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes […].
Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting.

In the competition that The American Agriculturist. For the Farm, Garden, and Household (New York: Orange Judd & Co.) organised in March 1872 in its Boys & Girls’ Columns, images provided the impetus for creative writing:

Boys’ and Girls’ Pictures—More Prizes.

Here are two pictures, one of which I call the Boys’ Picture, and the other the Girls’ Picture. Each picture tells a story. It may say one thing to you, and another to me. Let us see what stories we can get out of these pictures. […]. Write out some little story that you think the picture illustrates.

'each picture tells a story' - The American Agriculturist - March 1872

This is a passage from the review of The Life and Habits of Wild Animals (London: A. Macmillan & Co., 1873), illustrated by the German naturalist painter and illustrator Josef Wolf (1820-1899)—review published in The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation (London: R. K. Burt and Co.) of Saturday 13th December 1873:

We see how great a range Mr. Wolf is able to take, and have evidence in every one of his designs how widely he is separated from ordinary, prosaic book illustrators. Each picture tells a story or conveys a moral. Some are humorous and awake our smiles, whilst others are touching, and call for pity; but all arouse the imagination by their poetic treatment.

The phrase occurs in the account of the first exhibition of the Manchester Society of Women Painters, published in The Manchester Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Wednesday 1st December 1880:

Miss Dacre and Miss A. L. Robinson, who exhibit between them no less than thirty-three oil paintings, strike the keynote of the show. The work is almost all honest, and we had almost said masculine. There is the sense for beauty in abundance, but little striving after mere shallow prettiness, while equally scant respect is paid to the truly British demand that every picture should tell a story.

The following is from an article about the U.S. painter William Holbrook Beard (1824-1900), published in The Brooklyn Daily Times (Brooklyn, New York, USA) of Saturday 9th April 1881:

Mr. Beard’s work is characteristic of the man; it is genial, humorous, sarcastic. Every picture tells a story, and tells it so plainly that we forget to notice how he tells it.

In both Britain and the USA, the phrase was popularised in the early 1900s by the advertisements for Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills, in which the slogan Every Picture tells a Story appeared alongside the picture of a man or woman clutching the small of his or her back.

The earliest advertisement that I have found is from the Aberdeen Daily Journal (Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland) of Wednesday 3rd December 1902:

“Have I Kidney Trouble?”

Every Picture tells a Story.”

Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills - Aberdeen Daily Journal (Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland) - 3 December 1902

How to tell.—Is your back affected by every cold, causing chilliness and a disturbance of the action of the kidneys? Does the use of beer, spirits and tea excite the kidneys? Are you irritable and nervous, easily annoyed at trifles? Do the limbs swell? Are you quickly tired? Have you rheumatism, stiffness of the muscles or joints? Is there gravel? Do you sleep badly?
The above symptoms show a weak or diseased condition of the kidneys, and if neglected, more serious and dangerous complications will surely follow.
At the first sign of any ailment, treat the kidneys with the great Quaker Kidney Medicine,—Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills. They heal and regulate the kidneys’ action, and so help the kidneys in their great work of filtering the blood. They act only on the kidneys and bladder.
Healthy kidneys filter out rheumatism, gravel, uric acid, and all the impurities that cause disease—and Doan’s Pills help weak kidneys to do this. That is why they are so successful in curing disease.
A neighbour speaks here—tells how he was cured months ago, and has remained well ever since. That is good proof.


“Was my cure lasting? I should think so! Ever since I reported it, over 20 months ago, I have not had the slightest return of my old trouble.”
This was the reply Mrs Margaret Steel, of 43 Richmond Street, Aberdeen, made to our representative when he called upon her recently to ascertain whether her cure by Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills had been permanent.
The following are the particulars of Mrs Steel’s cure, as reported in the Aberdeen papers from time to time, and now confirmed by that lady:—“On and off for a number of years I have suffered from trouble brought about by disordered kidneys. My back used to ache very much; my limbs swelled (dropsy), and when I bent it was agonising to straighten myself again. I was also the victim of serious urinary disorders. These troubles combined brought me down to a very low and feeble state. I was always tired and languid, and when I rose in the mornings I did not feel at all refreshed, because my night’s rest had been so much disturbed.
“Having obtained a supply of Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills, I gave them a fair trial, with the result that before long I was quite cured of my old troubles, although many other medicines I tried did me no good at all—the contrary, if anything. I was so pleased about this that I told the proprietors of the Pills I should be glad to have my statement published in the papers, if they cared to use it, so that it might be the means of introducing a reliable cure to other sufferers.—(Signed) Margaret STEEL.”
You may obtain the same genuine Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills of chemists and stores at two shillings and ninepence per box, or six boxes for thirteen shillings and ninepence, or direct, post free, from the Proprietors, Foster-McClellan Co., 8, Wells Street, Oxford Street, London, W.
A FREE SAMPLE.—To prove their merits, a sample will be sent free, provided 1d. stamp is sent for postage, and the name of this paper is mentioned. Address:—Foster-McClellan Co., 8, Wells Street, Oxford Street, London, W.

In each of the advertisements for Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills, the patient who purportedly testified to the efficacy of the remedy allegedly resided in the area in which the newspaper was published—For example:
– The advertisement published in The Western Gazette (Yeovil, Somerset, England) of Friday 12th December 1902 included the testimony of “Mrs. Jane Jenes, of 8, Quidham Place, Vicarage Street, Yeovil”.
– The advertisement published in the Birmingham Daily Gazette (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Wednesday 17th December 1902 included the testimony of “Mrs. Rose, of 41, Wright Street, Small Heath, Birmingham”.
– The advertisement published in the Cambridge Daily News (Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England) of Thursday 18th December 1902 included the testimony of “Mr G. Jarman, of Falcon-yard, Petty-cury, Cambridge”; the illustration, titled A Neighbour’s Advice, was as follows:

Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills - Cambridge Daily News (Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England) - 18 December 1902

The advertisements for Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills published in U.S. newspapers were similar—For example:
– The advertisement published in The Washington Post (Washington, District of Columbia) of Saturday 25th November 1905 included the “Washington testimony” of “Mrs. James Keister, in the employ of the United States Department, residing at 1711 st. nw.”;
– The advertisement published in the Indianapolis Morning Star (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Monday 27th November 1905 included the “Indianapolis testimony” of “Mrs. J. B. Van Tilburgh of 320 W. Ohio street”.

DeWitt G. Wilcox, M.D., Boston, Massachusetts, quoted the phrase when he parodied those advertisements in Gullible Guzzlers, published in September and October 1909 in The New England Medical Gazette: A Monthly Journal of Homœopathic Medicine (Boston, Massachusetts: The Medical Gazette Publishing Company). This is the beginning of the first instalment of Gullible Guzzlers, published in September 1909:

Special Report of Proceedings of Patent Medicine Guild.

One of the “hits” of the occasion at the annual banquet of the Massachusetts Surgical and Gynæcological Society, held recently, consisted of abstracts from the report of a meeting of “The Guild for the Development of Gullible Guzzlers,” presented by Dr. DeWitt G. Wilcox, one of the new members. The full report seems most worthy of reproduction and is here given in full by the courtesy of its author, Dr. Wilcox.

And this is the passage from the second instalment of Gullible Guzzlers, published in October 1909, in which the parody occurs:

A man in the rear of the room shouted vociferously for recognition. Having obtained it he came forward and introduced himself.
“I am,” said he, “Dr. Doan of Bison, the manufacturer of Doan’s Kidney Fry. With the least possible expenditure of money and less of intelligence I have hit upon a plan, which works most marvelously and which has made me rich.
“[…] The matter appeals to me in this way, and I trust I will not be regarded as hostile to the grand purposes and ultimate aims of the Guild in stating it, that ‘A generous guzzler killed is a rich patron lost.’
“I have always, since launching upon this gold mine of philanthropy, kept that ennobling sentiment before me. Keep the guzzlers alive, but sick, just as long as you can, and when they show signs of getting well, paint them such a picture of their diseased condition as will scare them into invalidism again. This is my way to do it, namely:

Every Picture Tells a Story.

“First, of course, you must secure the aid of our trusted and richly paid ally, the public press. Picture therein a human face so convulsed with agonized distortion as to make one believe the owner had been strangled by Mr. Hyde or Frankenstein, and label it, ‘Every picture tells a story.’ Then proceed to recite graphically a lot of symptoms, which every healthy man, woman and child experience every day of their lives, and say, ‘If you have those symptoms you are doomed; there is no hope for you, unless per chance you can telegraph or take a lightning automobile to the nearest drug store and get a sample bottle of Doan’s Kidney Fry.’ Let me show you how to scare them into buying quarts of ‘goo.’ Buy a whole page of a family newspaper and in big type say:

“Everybody Has Kidneys.”

“‘Have you a sleepy feeling at night? Are you hungry at meal-time? Have you shortness of breath after chasing a car six blocks ? Are your hands and feet cold when you get your plumber’s bill? Do you perspire when putting up a stovepipe in mid-summer? Does your nose bleed after being hit with a baseball? Do you have vertigo and dizziness after falling ten stories in an elevator? Do you fail to take notice of things at 3.00 A. M.? If so, you have a well-developed and almost fatal case of kidney disease.’”

It may be to the advertisements for Doan’s Backache Kidney Pills that Mrs. Viveash refers in this passage from Antic Hay (London: Chatto and Windus, 1923), by the English novelist and essayist Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963):

Mrs. Viveash had been reduced, by the violence of her headache, to coming home after her luncheon with Piers Cotton for a rest. She had fed her hungry pain on Pyramidon and now she was lying down on the Dufy-upholstered sofa at the foot of her full-length portrait by Jacques-Emile Blanche. Her head was not much better, but she was bored. When the maid had announced Gumbril, she had given word that he was to be let in. “I’m very ill,” she went on expiringly. “Look at me,” she pointed to herself, “and me again.” She waved her hand towards the sizzling brilliance of the portrait. “Before and after. Like the advertisements, you know. Every picture tells a story.”

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