Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

If It Weren’t For You And Big Potatoes, We’d Only Have Small Potatoes

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 8, 2010

Will County is located in northeastern Illinois, south of Cook County with its county seat  in Joliet, Illinois, located about 40 miles southwest of Chicago on the Des Plaines River.  It’s in Manhattan Township of Will County that we find penned a comment about “[a] man named Borders settled here in 1849. He was from Ohio, and did not remain long in the settlement. What became of him no one knows or seems to care, as he was, to use a Southern phrase, “small potatoes” anyway, it was said.”

Charles Dudley Warner wrote in 1870, “What small potatoes we all are, compared with what we might be!”  But the term was long in vogue among farmers long before either of those two references were published.

Successful potato farmers in America knew the trick for getting the best price for their potato crops.  Since potato farmers had agreements with stores and co-ops in the 1800s that required they divide their crops into separate bins for small, medium and large potatoes, it made sense to make the most of the trip into town with the farmer’s harvest.

Struggling potato farmers would hand separate potatoes in the field, place them in separate bins and then transport the potatoes to town. But a successful potato farmer would put all his potatoes in the same trailer and head in to town via the roughest road possible,.  He did this because he knew that by going over the bumps and stumps along the way, small potatoes were shaken to the bottom of the trailer; the medium only made it as far as the middle; and the large stayed on top. When the farmer finally arrived in town, all he had to do was unload the potatoes in the appropriate bins … a time saving manoeuvre without a doubt.

The phrase “if it weren’t for you and big potatoes we’d only have small potatoes” refers to those who are willing to remain on top of things regardless of the rough road they must travel to get to where they are going.   Those who hide and refrain from remaining on top of things are said to be small potatoes, falling to the bottom of the pile and becoming invisible to the eye on first and subsequent glances until one is scraping the barrel, so to speak.

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