‘the only pebble on the beach’: meaning and early occurrences

Chiefly used in negative contexts, the phrase the only pebble on the beach means the only person or thing to be considered in a particular situation.

The earliest occurrence that I have found is from the Owensboro Daily Inquirer (Owensboro, Kentucky) of Thursday 19th December 1895:

J. W. M. Field.
Distiller of the Famous Champion Brand Hand Made Sour Mash Whiskey.

“Old King Cole, was a jolly old soul, a jolly old soul was he;”
But he was not the only pebble on the beach.
One of the jolliest men in Owensboro or western Kentucky for that matter, is J. W. M. Field, the distiller.

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from an advertisement for Haynes & Co., “Clothiers, Tailors, Hatters, Furnishers”, published in the Springfield Daily Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts) of Friday 10th April 1896:

THEY TELL US
—And we guess it’s so,
We’re the only pebble on the beach.

The phrase then occurs in an advertisement for the Globe Furnishing Company, published in the Liverpool Mercury, and Lancashire, Cheshire, and General Advertiser (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Thursday 7th May 1896:

If we were the only pebble on the beach
we should not need to remind our friends so constantly of our ability to supply their wants for all the Furniture that they may require in their home.

A very similar advertisement, this time for W. M. Davies, a tailoring house, appeared in The Atchison Daily Champion (Atchison, Kansas) of Wednesday 20th May 1896:

If we wereThe only pebble on the beach
We should not need to remind our friends so constantly of our ability to supply their wants for clothing.
Just now it is Spring and Summer Suits that we need to remind you of. Particular attention is called to our line of the latest and most stylish fabrics for Spring and Summer wear.

The following, from The Sun (New York City, N.Y.) of Friday 24th July 1896, evokes the popularity of the phrase:

No colloquial expression destined to an enduring popularity has made headway so slowly as that which is heard now and then on the roof gardens, but more often away from them: “You’re not the only pebble on the beach.” The origin of such expressions, or more properly of the popularity of such expressions, is always difficult to trace; but no summer season in New York, and especially no summer amusement season, is deemed a success without one popular phrase which comes into general and often inaccurate use.

On Friday 31st July 1896, the Weekly Union Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) also mentioned the popularity of the phrase:

You’re not the only pebble on the beach,” is the latest slang of the roof-gardens, and its convenience in “giving the shake” cannot be doubted.

The Evening Journal (Jersey City, New Jersey) of Saturday 1st August 1896, associated the phrase with “the words of a new song”:

Attention, Girls! The rumor has leaked out that the Mikado of Japan is anxious to secure a white folk daughter-in-law, and that he is seeking to find as a wife for his son some nice European princess. […] It will not do to say to the Crown Prince in the words of the new song, “You are not the only pebble on the beach,” even though there may be other pebbles, because he is a very big pebble, and only one girl can get him.

The song in question is You’re Not the Only Pebble on the Beach (New York and London: Jos. W. Stern & Co., 1896), words Harry Braisted (pseudonym of Harry B. Berdan) and music by Stanley Carter (pseudonym of Frederick J. Redcliffe); it was originally interpreted by Lottie Gilson (1862-1912):

When you see a pretty maiden who has just turn’d seventeen,
You think you’d like to win her for your wife;
Don’t start the game by saying she’s the sweetest thing you’ve seen:
A young girl’s heart’s the strangest thing in life.
Do not let her think that you are sure to offer her your hand,
She’ll like you better if you’re out of reach;
No matter how you love her, give the girl to understand
She’s not the only pebble on the beach!

Chorus.
She’s not the only pebble on the beach!
That is the sort of lesson you must teach.
If you want to win her hand, let the maiden understand
That she’s not the only pebble on the beach!

While on board a crowded horse-car, on a warm and sultry day,
I saw a maiden overcome with heat;
She stood there fifteen minutes, while a man not far away,
Was occupying twice his share of seat.
As she gazed at him, with injured look, she said, in accents low,
“Look here, my man, a moral I will teach;
Tho’ you have paid your nickel, there are others, don’t you know,
You’re not the only pebble on the beach!”

Chorus.
“You’re not the only pebble on the beach!
For there are others,” said the little “peach;”
“You don’t own the car, you know, give a little girl a show,
You are not the only pebble on the beach!”

I live opposite a maiden, and I know her steady beau,
He tells me that she loves no one but him;
He buys her all her dresses and her jewels, don’t you know,
In fact he gratifies her ev’ry whim.
He is sure to call on Sunday—thro’ the week he’s on the road—
I really think he loves the little peach;
If he could see the rush on Monday nights, I think he’d know
He’s not the only pebble on the beach!

Chorus.
He’s not the only pebble on the beach!
She has a hundred more within her reach!
It’s because he has the “dough” that she says she loves him so,
But he’s not the only pebble on the beach!

I was listening to a talk between two men, the other day,
The conversation ran on married life;
And I was interested as I heard one of them say
He thought that every man should have a wife.
For he said, “My friend, I’m married, and I’m happy as can be;
But don’t let it go further, I beseech!
I haven’t seen my darling wife in years, ’twixt you and me,
And there are others like me on the beach!”

Chorus.
There are a lot of others on the beach!
And you can take advice from what I preach:
When on married life you start,
Take a “tip” and live apart,—
There are lots of other pebbles on the beach!

This is the title page of the sheet music to You’re Not the Only Pebble on the Beach (New York and London: Jos. W. Stern & Co., 1896)—image Library of Congress:

'You’re Not the Only Pebble on the Beach' sheet music (1896)