The American-English phrase — is (just) one damn(ed), or darn(ed), thing after another first appeared with the grammatical subject life.
I-: EARLY OCCURRENCES OF ‘LIFE IS (JUST) ONE DAMN(ED), OR DARN(ED), THING AFTER ANOTHER’
The phrase life is (just) one damn(ed), or darn(ed), thing after another means life consists of a succession of unpleasant or unlucky events.
The following are the earliest occurrences of this phrase that I have found, up to July 1909—cf. note:
1: The phrase first occurs in this unsigned epigram, published in the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) of Friday 5th March 1909:
(A new definition)
One damn thing after another
(This epigram was reprinted in the column Shifting Slugs, in the Daily Arizona Silver Belt (Globe, Arizona) of Sunday 14th March 1909.)
2: The phrase occurs as life is just one darn thing after another in this advertisement, published in the Angola Record (Angola, New York) of Thursday 13th May 1909:
LIFE IS JUST ONE DARN THING AFTER ANOTHER.
A successful Coal business is just one good square ton of Coal after another. Price is the lowest just now. May we enter your order?
B. I. Hartshorn,
Angola, N. Y.
(The very same advertisement, but for a different company, W. B. Fonda Co., appeared in the St. Albans Daily Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont) of Wednesday 19th May 1909, and in the St. Albans Weekly Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont) of Thursday 20th May 1909—cf. second part, 5).
3: A variant of the phrase occurs in The Growler, a weekly section of the Elmira Star-Gazette (Elmira, New York) of Saturday 26th June 1909:
ESSAY ON “LIFE.”
Life consists of just one damn thing after another.
4: From the column Sporting Editor’s Notes, by “Old Poke”, published in The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa) of Wednesday 7th July 1909, the following seems to indicate that the phrase was soon regarded as hackneyed:
They say “Life is just one damn thing after another,” but this brand is becoming monotonous.
5: The adjective used in the phrase is damned in the following passage from The Matter of Living, Loving and Lying: A Midsummer Dissertation, published in W. W.’s Page, in The Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado) of Sunday 11th July 1909:
You may have heard of that fretted Colorado clergyman who, with a small salary, a large family, and a grouchy congregation, tried hard to serve God, obey the law, and make both ends meet.
His task was that of Hercules, for many things—sickness, visitors, heterodoxy and church quarrels—came rapidly up to trouble him. So, when a solemn-visaged parishioner blandly asked the parson, “What is life?” he replied, wearily:
“Life? Well, life is just one damned thing after another.”
6: The anecdote first published in The Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado) of Sunday 11th July 1909 reappeared in a different context in the following paragraph published in The Western Advocate (Mankato, Kansas) of Friday 16th July 1909:
The great hail storm that passed through the county last Sunday morning was in its most destructive mood along the very strip that was devastated by the cyclone last year. With dry weather the year before last, a cyclone last year and the most destructive hail ever known in this country this year, these people are in a position to appreciate the story that is told of the western preacher who had troubles of his own—sickness, visitors, heterodoxy, church quarrels and many others—and when a solemn-visaged parishioner one day asked him, “What is life?” he wearily replied: “Life? Well, life is just one damned thing after another.”
(In July, August and September 1909, sometimes with alterations, several newspapers reprinted the anecdote published in The Western Advocate (Mankato, Kansas) of Friday 16th July 1909.)
7: The following is from the column Small Talks, published in The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu, Hawaii) of Sunday 18th July 1909:
L. L. La Pierre—I spent my forty-seventh birthday on Wednesday in contemplation of the thought that life is just one damn thing after another.
8: This paragraph is from The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana) of Tuesday 20th July 1909:
After the Thaw inquiry, the Sutton investigation. As the pessimistic philosopher puts it: “Life is just one damn thing after another.”
9: The following is from the Caldwell Advance (Caldwell, Kansas) of Friday 30th July 1909:
One man gives the definition of life. “Well, life is just one damned thing after another.”
10: The following is from The Norfolk Weekly News-Journal (Norfolk, Nebraska) of Friday 30th July 1909:
FAR FROM THE FOOTLIGHTS.
Chorus Girls Are Overcome by a Breath of Real Air.
New York, July 24.—The Isabelle d’Armand Chapter of the Society for the Improvement of the Working Conditions of the Chorus Girls of America had its first annual outing and airing yesterday […].
As the girls finished their day’s outing, one of them remarked as she and the others wedged themselves into the hot dressing rooms of the Herald Square:
“Life is just one darn thing after another, and at this hour of the night, after being alone all day, one may remark, so be it; for many are called but few are frozen. So what’s the use?”
Note: It seems that the following use of the phrase, in The Concentrations of Bee (Boston: L.C. Page & Company, 1909), by the U.S. novelist Lilian Bell (1867-1929), is not the earliest, since the copyright of this novel was issued on 11th October 1909—source: Catalogue of Copyright Entries: Books – New Series, Volume 6, Group 1, No. 45, November 11, 1909 (Washington: Government Printing Office, Library Division, 1909):
“Bob has a motto on his wall which says ‘Life is just one damned thing after another!’” said Jimmie.
II-: EARLY OCCURRENCES OF ‘— IS JUST ONE DAMN(ED), OR DARN(ED), THING AFTER ANOTHER’
Very early, — is just one damn(ed), or darn(ed), thing after another came to function as an independent phrase, i.e., with other grammatical subjects than life.
The following are the earliest occurrences that I have found, up to December 1909:
1: The earliest occurrence that I have found of — is just one damn thing after another used as an independent phrase is from an article about the U.S. Congress Conference committee on the tariff bill, published in the New-York Tribune (New York City, N.Y.) of Thursday 29th July 1909:
[The members of the committee] appreciated the humor of one of the committee clerks, who tacked across the door leading to Mr. Aldrich’s library a sign reading: “The tariff situation is just one damn thing after another.”
2: The second-earliest occurrence that I have found of — is just one damn thing after another used as an independent phrase is from the McPherson Daily Republican (McPherson, Kansas) of Friday 13th August 1909:
According to the Lincoln News the ball team up there has adopted the following motto: “Baseball is just one damn thing after another.” The motto has been hung on the wall at the baseball headquarters as a reminder for the players.
3: The following is from The Potter Enterprise (Coudersport, Pennsylvania) of Thursday 2nd September 1909:
A lady automobile tourist who had met with two accidents in one day, remarked that she had seen a post card inscribed, “This world is just one damned thing after another.” And she was almost persuaded to believe it.
4: The following is from The News-Forum (Bucyrus, Ohio) of Friday 17th September 1909:
When our soldier boys came to face the stern realities of war they found they were up against a very different proposition than they had imagined it to be. They found that war was not all fighting and glory but they had to contend with a thousand different hardships they never dreamed off [sic]: continuous marching, counter marching through mud, sleet and rain with sickness in camp, they soon found as was expressed by a soldier of the Army of the Tennessee that “War is one damn thing after another.”
5: As already mentioned, coal companies used the phrase life is just one darn thing after another in advertisements published in May 1909.
Later that year, advertising slogans for coal companies became “life is just one darn thing after another: just now it’s coal”—as, for example, in an advertisement for Churchill & Unglish’s Good Coal, published in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York) of Thursday 25th November 1909.
This in turn gave rise to the following advertisement, first published in The Salt Lake Herald-Republican (Salt Lake City, Utah) of Monday 13th December 1909:
To paraphrase just a little
“The Coal Business Is Just One Damn Thing After Another”
Western Fuel Co.
(Critchlow, Fischer & Kittle)
Cable Address “Westfuco.”
Phones 719 73 Main Street