Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Hobson’s Choice

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 3, 2010

Hobson’s choice is an apparently free choice that offers no real alternative. In other words, it’s a take it or leave it choice.

The phrase dates back to the 16th century where Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), English keeper of a livery stable, established the requirement that customers renting a horse from him had to take either the horse nearest the stable door or no horse at all.  

Hobson owned the horses, he owned the accoutrements that went with the horses, and he was responsible for the horses’ upkeep ergo he made the rules by which people could rent his horses.  That was Hobson’s choice

The reason for renting horses out in this way was because he had a number of young Cambridge University undergraduates who would rent out his horses and then treat them badly by driving them too hard and wearing them out. 

Since the students wouldn’t listen to his admonishments, he instituted a rota to give his horses time to recover from their mistreatment.  The most recently returned horse was put at the end of the queue which meant the most rested horse would be at the front.  The rule was always enforced and there were no exceptions to the rule.

John Milton wrote two poems about him shortly after his death in 1631, Milton wrote: “He had bin an immortall Carrier.”  In fact, in 1660, less than thirty years after Hobson’s death, Quaker scholar Samuel Fisher referred to the phrase in his religious text, The Rustick’s Alarm to the Rabbies:

“If in this Case there be no other (as the Proverb is) then Hobson’s choice … which is, chuse whether you will have this or none.”

Thomas Ward’s poem England’s Reformation written in 1688, but not published until after his death, had this line:

“Where to elect there is but one, ’tis Hobson’s choice — take that or none.”

And of course, let’s not forget that at the turn of the 20th century, Henry Ford sold the Ford Model T with the famous Hobson’s choice of “any color so long as it’s black.”

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One Response to “Hobson’s Choice”

  1. youmustnotmissny said

    Reblogged this on youmustnotmissny.

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