‘don’t laugh—your daughter may be inside’

In the USA and in Canada, teenagers used to paint the phrase don’t laugh—your daughter may be inside, and variants, on the dilapidated old cars they drove—as Nancy Pepper, fashion editor of the magazine Calling All Girls, explained in her column Tricks For Teens, published in The Indianapolis Star (Indianapolis, Indiana) of Sunday 19th May 1946:

That prewar contraption, the jalopy, is back again as a postwar menace. Anything goes—as long as it has a horn and a steering wheel, and we mean it really goes. If you want to know why a jalopy is the secret of a boy’s social success, ask the big-time operator who owns one!
LAST WORDS—Read the inscriptions on the Buzz Buggies you see parked in front of the soda fountains: they may be the owner’s last words. A favorite slogan is, “Don’t Laugh—Your Daughter May Be Inside.” Another is, “Pass On Neither Side—Just Push,” “Pray As You Enter,” “Jump In—Limp Out,” and “100 Miles Per Gal” are other words without wisdom you’ll see painted on those Classy Chassis. Over the door (or what’s left of it) there’s apt to be the touching tribute, “Here Enter the Bravest People In the World.” And, you know, that’s so true!
BEAUTY TREATMENTS—Striped effects are the prevailing favorites in jalopy decorations this year, especially in high-school colors. If you see ribbons flying out from every direction, you know that the proud owner of the car exacts the forfeit of a hair ribbon from every girl brave enough to ride with him. A brace of cowbells helps to drown out the noise of the motor, and transfer pictures produce weird scenic effects.

These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase that I have found, in chronological order:

1.1-: From the column In Hollywood, by Milton Harker, published in several newspapers on Wednesday 27th July 1938—for example in the Moline Daily Dispatch (Moline, Illinois):

On a movie set there stands a ramshackle automobile, such as the kind high school boys drive around town.
On the side, printed in big letters, there is this legend:
Don’t laugh, lady, your daughter may be in this car.”

1.2-: From Spotlight and Reel, by Keith Wilson, published in the Evening World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska) of Wednesday 27th July 1938:

A fenderless jalopy, the kind high school kids drive around town, is being used on a Hollywood movie set. A sign on the side reads:
Don’t laugh, lady. Your daughter may be in this car.”

2-: From the column In the Wake of the News, by Arch Ward, published in the Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) of Saturday 17th December 1938:

Saw this one painted on the side of a high school boy’s rattletrap car:
Don’t laugh, lady. Your daughter may be in this car.”
—It’s Rainey in Moline.

3-: From the column Senator From Sandpit, by Ham Park, published in The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) of Monday 3rd November 1941:

Signs of the times: On the back of an ancient jallopy was painted: “Don’t laugh—your daughter may be inside!

4-: From Antiquated Jalopies Act Like Prima Donnas, an article by Nancy Dygert about high-school boys’ jalopies, published in The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) of Sunday 23rd January 1944:

The prize slogan for jalopies held together by gum and a prayer is painted on an old Model A which is parked in an E. Jefferson garage. On the back in bold white letters are the words: “Don’t Laugh, Madam. Your Daughter May Be In Here.”

5-: From the column Up and Down Broadway in Waukesha, published in the Waukesha Daily Freeman (Waukesha, Wisconsin) of Saturday 25th August 1945:

Pointed Comment

On the streets of Waukesha last night we saw one of the sharpest comments ever made on the rear end of a jalopy. Said the cryptic quotation:


6-: From Town Gossip—and Country Report, by Dorothy Parnell, published in the Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) of Sunday 14th October 1945:

Have you noticed the increasing number of jalopies on the streets lately and the appearance of jeeps—they’re loaded, as you would expect, with saddle shoed and plaid shirted young folk.
But the thing that gets us is the jabberwocky painted on the four wheeled monsters that have come out of retirement since gasoline is to be had.
One surrey without the fringe on top we saw dashing through Whitefish Bay streets the other day bore this, “Don’t laugh, lady, your daughter may be in here.” “Atomic Bomb” and “Jet Propelled” inscriptions show the signs of the times.
Another has a series of girls’ heads painted on one side. Still another had a row of single vertical brush strokes with bright red paint crossing off several of the strokes—we don’t know just what was meant, but no doubt the idea of some junior wolf’s score card.
Never are four or five youngsters found in a car, seems to be some rule in the realm of teen agers that not less than 12 in a car count. The more deplorable the state of the jalopy the more they can crowd in. Uncertain brakes, fenders crumbled, everything making noise but the horn, seems to be the order.
Deep sympathy certainly is due us poor parents who wonder whether the children are up in a tree or down in a ditch as the youngsters leave home blissfully aware that their date has a “car.”

This interesting article was published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri) of Friday 2nd August 1946:

‘Pass the Gravel, Gertie,’ Teen-Age Is on the Go

Father may expect daughter to return his shirt any day now—but def!
That is the prediction yesterday of no less authority than Nancy Pepper, author of “Tricks for Teens,” which appears in the Globe-Democrat on Sundays, and fashion editor for “Calling All Girls,” the teen-agers’ magazine which has more than 1,000,000 monthly circulation. She visited St. Louis yesterday.
“Sloppy Josephine is out, and Smooth Sally is in,” declared the diminutive and vivacious Nancy, whose appearance belies the fact she is a mother of a teen-ager herself. Sweaters that fit, instead of baggy pup tents, are going to be worn—and tucked in, too, she said, adding: “And teen-agers have learned how to deal with the waistline by wearing a wide belt.”
Nancy keeps herself informed through a corps of 2000 youthful “scouts” who by answering questionnaires twice a month enable her to maintain a galloping poll on style preferences, the younger set’s language, desires and humor.
For example, she can tell you the currently favorite legend painted on the nation’s jaloppies is: “Don’t laugh, lady—your daughter may be inside!
“Many people believe the teen-agers’ conversation is high-lighted by dull words, like ‘heck’ and ‘gosh’.” Nancy said, “Actually, their talk sparkles from the ingenious word combinations they devise. Their try for unusual sounding phrases—and they are aware of current events.”
Since Russia’s UN delegate took a walk, a teen-ager who leaves a soggy party early declares he is “taking a Gromyko,” 1 she said. When one girl wants her friend to divulge the latest gossip, she is most likely to command: “Pass the gravel, Gertie,” the fashion editor said. They speculate on people-toed pigeons and a frog with a man in his throat, and refer to the high school corridor as Allen’s Alley,” 2 “because you meet such weird characters there.”

1 The Soviet statesman Andrei Gromyko (1909-1989) was the Permanent Representative of the USSR to the United Nations from April 1946 to May 1948.
2 Begun in 1942, Allen’s Alley was a popular segment of The Fred Allen Show, a U.S. radio comedy series starring Fred Allen (John Florence Sullivan – 1894-1956) and his wife Portland Hoffa (1905-1990). Allen’s Alley was a trip down a make-believe and surrealistic street where one was likely to run into just about anyone regardless of age, nationality or even common sense—cf. the American-English phrase Fibber McGee’s (hall) closet, from the U.S. radio comedy series Fibber McGee and Molly.

The phrase came to be used in advertisements for used motor cars—such as this one, published in the Salt Lake Telegram (Salt Lake City, Utah) of Saturday 19th July 1947:


Brother, These are Truly Nice Cars
’47 Austin panel …………$1250
’35 LaSalle coupe ……………495
Come and get these cheapies.
(Don’t laugh, your daughter may be riding in one of these):
’32 Chev, coupe, runs ………$245
’32 Ford coach (I think) …….185

This is a Canadian use of the phrase—from the column Our Town, by Jack Scott, published in The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia) of Friday 23rd June 1950:

Revelstoke, B.C.—Six high school boys […] came in an old Chevvy minus an engine hood. There was lettering all over the car. There was a sign on the back that said, “Don’t laugh, mister—your daughter may be inside.” Another read, “All ye who enter here leave all hope behind.” The lettering over the headlights said, “Sealed Sunshine.”

The phrase later appeared on bumper stickers—as mentioned by Russ DeVault in an article about bumper stickers, published in the Kingsport Times (Kingsport, Tennessee) of Thursday 9th May 1963:

Comments pertaining to the car carrying the bumper sticker are also unforgettable. For what father can forget the sticker that warns “Don’t Laugh—Your Daughter May Be Inside.”

Barbara E. Dentz mentioned a variant of the phrase in The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) of Sunday 3rd December 1978:

Bumper stickers! Those gaudy strips of colored paper bearing such catchy quips as, “Keep Grandma Off The Streets—Support Bingo,” and “Don’t Hit This Van—Your Daughter May Be Inside,” are beginning to appear on almost every bumper and window.




In Australia, too, the phrase has been painted on cars, but, apparently, not specifically by teenagers.

These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From Suburbia—This Week, by Ian Healy, published in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (Newcastle, New South Wales) of Saturday 26th April 1947:

The Behaviour Of A Beetle

Three months ago, one of the “Herald’s” young ex-war boys tossed his deferred pay over the counter and went home with a second-hand car. He calls it a roadster.
When it made its debut in the slick ads. of magazines like “Saturday Evening Post,” it must have made a tremendous impression. To-day, after 19 years, people still gasp when they see it.
Accommodation is so cramped that, before you can get in, you have to fold yourself over in three parts like a length of angle-iron pipe.
It’s the kind of jalopy that American collegiates plaster with signs sayin: “Where to, baby?” and “Don’t laugh, madam; your daughter may be riding in this car.” Here, it only serves as a reminder of the era of hot jazz and hooch, and the heyday of Al Capone.

2-: From Column 8, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales) of Saturday 6th March 1948:

A woman motorist stopped behind a utility truck in Drummoyne.
On the back was painted the words “Wolf Waggon.”
She was smiling about this when she noticed this addition to the lettering:—
Don’t laugh, lady, your daughter may be inside.”

3-: From the account of the Jubilee procession, organised by the Maitland Business Men’s Club, that took place in Maitland on Wednesday 9th May 1951—account published in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (Newcastle, New South Wales) of Thursday 10th May 1951:

Don’t laugh, Mum, your daughter may be inside,” warned a notice on a 1911 model of a French National car. Bearing the flood level marks of 1949, 1950 and 1951, the car was responsible for one stoppage.
It stopped, belching clouds of smoke from the chimney at the rear, making spectators believe that a decorated float had caught fire. The car, entered by the Maitland Cycle Club, was soon coaxed to start, and the procession resumed.

4-: From the account of the procession of “fifty vehicles, including cleverly decorated floats, buggies, sulkies and carts, and twenty bicycles, two brass bands, horsemen and women and a team of 12 bullocks drawing an enormous log” that took place in Dungog on Wednesday 9th May 1951—account published in The Dungog Chronicle : Durham and Gloucester Advertiser (Dungog, New South Wales) of Saturday 12th May 1951:

Markwick Motors entered two vehicles, one depicting an armoured tank, the advice to mothers, “Don’t laught [sic], your daughter may be inside,” scrawled over one door. The other was G-ungog Horspital”— it was “Operations ’orrors” for onlooking car owners.

5-: From “Age of Miracles”—Not Passed, by ‘H. A. McC.’, published in The Macleay Argus (Kempsey, New South Wales) of Friday 29th February 1952:

Some of these holiday tour cars of ancient vintage have been exciting interest amongst both city and rural dwellers. Several of the more atrocious looking atrocities on wheels bore quaint slogans painted on their sides. One utility carried a couple lying on stretchers in the back, and a gay trio in the cabin, while along its sides ran this injunction: “Don’t laugh, Lady. Your daughter may be inside.”

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