Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

A Loaded Wagon Makes No Noise

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 4, 2018

The figurative meaning of saying a loaded wagon makes no noise is that people of means and good intentions don’t talk about their finances, their holdings, or the good deeds they do. In other words, bragging isn’t something someone engages in if they are of good character.

Literally speaking, a light wagon with no suspension and post-spoking rattles, shakes, and bounces over every slight imperfection, with the empty bed acting as a soundboard. In contrast, a loaded wagon is less likely to be shaking over every pebble on the path, and is muffled and dramatically quieter.

In the figurative sense, Volume 30 of “The Railroad Trainman” published in July 1913 made this point as it pertains to men and women in the work environment. The article was titled “Too Much Busy-Ness” and addressed the issue of women who made a lot of noise about their various committee meetings and convention addresses and other charitable acts.

Well, as a matter of fact, women do accomplish many good works. But they haven’t as yet acquired the art of doing things without bustle and fuss as men do. They spend too much energy in getting ready to do things; they flutter too much. The empty wagon makes a lot of noise; the loaded wagon goes quietly.

The woman of real executive ability goes about her duties quietly; she has mentally organized her work. Whether she moves about in her own house or engages in outside endeavors, she is calm and composed — and effective.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: This monthly magazine was published in Cleveland, Ohio by the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen located at 1207 American Trust Building, and under the watchful eye of the Editor and Manager, D.L. Cease. The yearly subscription price was $1.00 per year, payable in advance.

In Volume 8 of the magazine “The Florida School Journal” published in June 1895, the section titled “School Buildings” found on page 20 made use of the expression. The magazine’s editor and publisher was V.E. Orr and the magazine commanded a price of one dollar per annum.

A good school building in which every convenience is for the management and teaching of those who are aiming at culture or preparation for some calling is a very desirable thing, but mortar and brick do not make a good school. In Middle Tennessee are found many excellent buildings some of which are very suitable for the purpose for which they were made. We have observed that many of our best schools have but little to say about their appliances beyond the mention of their conveniences and favorable means of instruction. It seems in this case the loaded wagon makes the least noise. We recently noticed a statement made by a college president calling attention to his four-story building as an inducement to young men and ladies to enter his school. Just what advantage accrues to young women, especially in climbing two or three flights of stairs four or five times a day, is not easily seen.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE : V.E. Orr published Orr’s U.S. and Library Maps, Orr’s U.S. and Outline Maps, and Orr’s U.S. and Georgia Maps. Along with publishing “The Florida Journal” he also published “The Georgia Teacher” and was headquartered in Atlanta (GA).

INTERESTING QUESTION: Is V.E. Orr related to Brunswick Public Schools of Brunswick (GA) Superintendent of Schools (and later State School Commissioner) and American cartographer Gustavus John Orr (9 August 1819 – 11 December 1887)?

Tracking the origins of this saying proved more difficult than anticipated, leading Idiomation to the mid-1800s when, as the movies often claim, the West was being won, and the common road wagon was clearly defined by the Supreme Court of Errors of the State of Connecticut, in Merrick v Phelps, in 1848. When one spoke of a wagon, the Court understood this to mean the following:

A one-horse wagon, with a single fixed seat, and two full grown persons sitting thereon, one of them driving, is a “wagon” but not a “loaded wagon” within the charter of the Hartford and New London Turnpike Company.

This was an important ruling insofar as it made dealing with two wagons meeting on a narrow road much easier. No loaded wagon or cart could be made to get off the road to afford passage to another vehicle unless the other vehicle was another loaded wagon. The heavier loaded wagon was granted the right of way at the expense of the lesser loaded wagon or the cart that was on the road headed in the direction from which the loaded wagon came.

There was no argument to be had. The greater loaded wagon was going to benefit far more people than the lesser loaded wagon, or the cart, and so it was to pass by without commentary from either party.

Prior to article published in the “The Florida School Journal” in 1895, the expression managed to keep itself hidden. One could suppose this means its origins are loaded which would explain why it makes no noise the more one searches for evidence of its existence.

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