Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Rock Bottom

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 24, 2015

When someone hits rock bottom, the person finds himself or herself in the worst possible situation he or she ever imagined he or she would ever experience in life.  When something hits rock bottom, the item is at the absolute lowest price before it becomes a loss leader.  And when an organization, group, government, or other social structure hits rock bottom, it means that organization, group, government, or social structure has reached the lowest possible level.  In other words, you can’t go any lower than rock bottom.

The Beaver County Times published a Letter to the Editor on October 31,2003 entitled, “Hitting Rock Bottom.”  It was a brief snippet of a letter from Jerry Miskulin of Center Township that summed up his opinion in four sentences.

It’s like I always say about recovering alcoholics or drug addicts.  Sometimes they have to hit rock bottom to see straight.  America, financially, is going to have to hit rock bottom before it sees straight.  Maybe it would be best sooner before it’s too late.

In what reads as a humorous twist of fate, the Day newspaper in New London, Connecticut reported in September 13, 1983 that a certain construction company of Framingham, Massachusetts was the low bidder for construction of the first segment of the municipal sewer project.  Of ten bids received by Montville’s Board of Selectmen, it was announced that the lowest bid– the rock bottom bid, so to speak — came from Rockbottom Construction Inc.

The Milwaukee Sentinel edition of January 16, 1955 published the two page spread entitled, “Those Fabulous Patinos.”  It traced the highlights of the Simon Patino story that told of a lowly clerk in a general store in Bolivia who accepted title to a “worthless” silver mine as payment in full of a $250 bill at the store.  He was summarily fired by the owner for this crime, and the title to the “worthless” silver mine went with him.  But what had mistakenly been thought of as a silver mine was actually a rich tin mine at a time when tin was scarce in much of the world.  It wasn’t long before the “worthless” silver mine had made Patino a billionaire!

According to the story, 1954 was dubbed “the year the Patino luck ran out” where the third generation of Patino’s were largely responsible for the woes brought to the family fortune.  But among all the woes and strife of the third generation, there seemed to be one who from among them that had escaped the rule of bad luck:  Maria Christina, daughter of Antenor and Christina Patino.  She was happily married (unlike her other relations) to Prince Marc de Beauvau-Craon, mayor of Haroue in France, and a prominent, respected member of French society.

Maria Christina’s only big sorrow, I believe, was at the time of her marriage, in 1952 — when her father refused to allow her mother to attend the elaborate wedding.  As for the rock-bottom bad  luck of 1954, it did not touch Maria Christinia, except by indirection, but it kept other members of the Patino empre aware that their inheritance is a dual one — of fortune and misfortune.  It is as though fate were trying belatedly to balance the scales again, after tipping them so heavily in favor of old Simon, whose story might have been dreamed up by Horatio Alger.

The Sunday Morning Star newspaper in Wilmington, Delaware published an article by Stuart P. West in the March 27, 1921 edition that talked about the cuts western railroads made without reducing wages.  The headline read, “Optimists Believe Price Cutting Has Reached Rock Bottom” and this was part of the news story:

It cannot be expected that wages and other items of expense will be reduced sufficiently to counterbalance the slump in orders.  Still the shrinkage in gross earnings would be viewed with equanimity if manufacturing and production costs were at the same time being restored to a sound and normal basis.  As to the ability of the heads of American industry to accomplish this result there is certainly more ground for optimism than for pessimism.  Outside the railroads, wage reduction have been put into effect almost everywhere without friction.

Jumping back to 1884, the idiom rock bottom was already in use in magazines, catalogues and newspapers as well as in everyday language.  The front page of the Charles Stark catalogue has the idiom printed on its front cover to entice readers to buy from Charles Stark of Toronto, Ontario (Canada).

ROCK BOTTOM_Charles Stark_1884
Strangely enough, the term rock bottom didn’t always have a negative connotation.  In fact, in the Oregon News edition published on August 29, 1858 it was used in a complimentary way to describe one of the politicians running for office.  In an article where the editor quoted Colonel Tetrault — described as the Napoleon of the Democratic press in Oregon — the Colonel was determined to point out the  weak points in the Democrat party.

“Let us inquire what first brought about the organization of the Democratic party in Oregon. If any of the ultra politicians of the present day know the principal ennui, let them assign it.  We, for ourself, think we know full well that the location of the public buildings during the session of the Territorial Legislature had much to do with the then party organization in and we find men who opposed General Lane in 1851, still opposing him.”

So then a “rock-bottom democrat,” according to the Colonel, is one who goes for keeping the “public buildings” on the Salem “basalt.”

In the following manner does the Colonel point a significant finger at the post record: “In 1831, the first time General Lane was a candidate for office in Oregon, there was a Salemite run against him for Delegate to Congress, who received the support of some of the leading Democrats of the present day.”

However the sense of the idiom is still present.  When all else is stripped away, all that’s left is “rock bottom.”

The term is a mining term that came about at a time before power drilling techniques were developed, and was popularized in the 1840s.  When mining for ores, the farthest down a person could go before there was nothing to be mined or ores could not be accessed was called rock bottom.  In other words, you couldn’t go any lower than where you were when you hit rock bottom.

Idiomation therefore pegs rock bottom to sometime during the 1850s when it jumped from being a term used by miners to a term used to express situations, and then on to also refer to the lowest prices available for sought after items.

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