Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Pan Out

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 22, 2011

When something “pans out” the speaker means that the situation worked out well for those involved.

On October 13, 1953, in a very quick article in the bottom left hand corner of Page 16 of the Spokane Daily Chronicle under the heading “How Things Pan Out” the newspaper reported:

Catherine Hunter, head of the University of Tulsa’s homemaking department, says being handy with a skillet is still the best way to trap a man, and she has figures to prove it.  Out of 105 who have majored in home economics at the school in the last five years, 103 are married, one is engaged and the other is teaching home economics, says Hunter.

As the Great Depression neared its end and WWII was just a couple of years away, the Portsmouth Times in Ohio ran a story entitled, “Figuring Out The Budget.”  It read in part:

It is a tragic thing that a president like Mr. Roosevelt, who has the best intentions in the world, should be forced to make estimates that do not pan out.  It shows that the people around the President are too inclined to hide from him the true story of the depressing effects of the administration’s own policies on the business situation and are too prone to give him rosey estimates of what a tax rate will produce just because they are enamored of some new tax device.

A generation before that, Michigan’s Ludington Record ran an article on February 15, 1900 entitled, “Undoing of a Bunko Sharp.”  The article had to do with $5,000, John Kasser of the Live Oak Copper Mining and Smelting Company, a visit to New York City and 2 bunko steerers.  The newspaper reported:

The pair invested a little cash and considerable time and trouble in Mr. Kasser, and, though he didn’t pan out, they still have cause for thankfulness that they are alive, though battered … … When a Sun reporter saw Mr. Kasser the other day and asked him about his adventure, that gentleman rubbed his chin and said he shouldn’t think a little thing like that would be of any interest in a big city like New York.

“I have got a little property of my own,” said he, “not very much, but a little; and I suppose those two thought they could get $5,000 or $6,000 out of me.  I am a simple-minded western man,” he added, and paused, contemplatively.  “A simple-minded western man but,” he concluded, smiling benignantly at the toe of his right boot, “I have been in New York before.”

The Detroit Free Press ran “A Change Of Tactics” in the January 29, 1873 that had to do with the Credit Mobilier investigation.  It read in part:

It is quite clear that the Credit Mobilier investigation does not — to use a mining phrase — “pan out” to the satisfaction of the Republican party.  Vigorously opposing investigation at first, it demanded by its organs that a mere campaign slander should not be lifted into the important of serious charge.

The reference to the phrase “pan out” being a mining phrase is one of the first indications that the phrase actually alluded to washing gold from gravel in a pan.

Back on October 25, 1873, the New York Times reported on gold mining the San Juan mining region with article entitled, “South-Western Colorado: The San Juan Treaty and the Country It Relates To.”

The excitement in the Winter of 1860 sent a swarm in, built a town, brought on stocks of goods, and laid out great plans.  But there was shortly a stampede, and men came out worse “broke” than the Pike’s Peakers of ’59.  The leader of the party barely escaped hanging at the hands of the disappointed rabble.  He plead his own cause, however before the miners’ court, and contended that he had not overrated the mineral wealth of the country.  He insisted that on the very spot where they sat they could “pan out” gold better than he had ever represented.  Immediately a miner’s pan was called for, and the experiment results in fifty cents worth of the golden dust.  It saved Baker’s life.  But confidence in the capacity of the region did not return, and it was deserted.

Just a few years before that news report, the Denver Gazette ran a story entitled, “Good Mining Prospects: The Gulches More Profitable Than Ever.”  It was an exciting story that stated:

The minds of Cash Creek in Lake, Fairplay and Tarryall, in Park, and the numerous gulches in Summit County, are rich enough to pay thousands for working them, and no better inducement can be offered to a poor man, who is ambitious to mine without the outlay of capital necessary to work a lode, than to spend his labor for a season in a good gulch, where he has nothing to learn but to shovel dirt into a sluice and pan out his shining wages every Saturday night, without any of the mysterious manipulations of crushing, desulphurizing, triturating, amalgamating, retorting and other learned processes with unpronounceable names, in order to get at the substances of oxides, pyrites and sulphurets of greenbacks.

Ultimately, however, the term “pan out” came about as a result of the California Gold Rush of 1849 where the term was recognized and understood by every miner and want-to-be miner hoping to make their fortune prospecting for gold.

Here’s how prospectors mined for gold during the Gold Rush.  First, they would swirl a mix of dirt and water around the pan.  Because gold is dense, with a little skill, the pan could be swirled at just the right speed and angle to allow the gold to settle to the bottom of the pan.  At the same time, dirt would wash over the side of the pan. The prospector would continue in this fashion until there was nothing left in the pan except gravel and, with luck, little specks of gold … if everything “panned out!”

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