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Down The Rat Hole

Posted by Admin on February 26, 2022

Last month, Idiomation posted about going down the rabbit hole, and along the way we found out about going down the rat hole which isn’t at all the same as going down the rabbit hole. When someone goes down the rat hole, it’s for a worthless purpose or reason and is a complete waste of money as well as resources.

Now the rathole being researched isn’t the rathole that’s known in poker playing circles. When a rathole refers to cards, that means to leave the table with a profit, and to return later on with a minimum buy-in after pocketing that big win. While ratholing is a great way to ensure a gambler doesn’t lose all the money they won previously, it’s not something most gamblers or casinos look kindly upon.

With the difference explained, let’s return to going down the rat hole.

The Military News published a story on 5 March 2021, it was reported that the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee questioned how the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program fit into the Defense Department’s future strategy. With the program’s total cost projected to surpass $1 trillion USD over a 50-year service lifetime, Democratic representative Adam Smith referred to the program as throwing money “down that particular rathole.”

Jordan Ross Belfort, the infamous American entrepreneur, former stockbroker and convicted felon who pleaded guilty to fraud and related crimes in connection with stock-market manipulation, created, by way of his crimes, the perfect example of throwing money down the rat-hole.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1: The major motion picture by Warner Brothers, “Wolf of Wall Street” is based on Jordan Ross Belfort and his time on Wall Street.

Back on 1 October 1981, the New York Times reported on U.S. Federal bureaucrat and whistleblower Al Louis Ripskis, who tasked himself with tracking down the waste and malfeasance in his own agency and root it out. It was stated that Mr. Ripskis past crusades resulted in Congressional hearings and publicity that embarrassed and humiliated officials. This time, he railed against the ways his agency could have researched water conservation without spending $500,000 USD in the process.

From his office in a ninth-floor cubbyhole at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Al Louis Ripskis whispers into the phone. “The brazenness. The gall. They’re pouring money down a rat hole!”

Even Time magazine made use of the expression, reporting it in an article titled, “Political Note: Rat Hole” published on 3 February 1930. The article dealt with Chicago’s public debt with no money in the City Treasury, none in the Cook County Treasury, and none in the School Board Treasury. Twenty-three park boards were penniless.

There was $500,000 outstanding on coal and because of that, coal dealers were refusing to deliver more coal to schools. Over $7 million was owed to provision merchants supplying food, and 13,000 teachers had not been paid at all in 1930, not just in the current school year. Nearly 4,000 Cook County employees were owed over a million dollars in back pay, and that wasn’t all that was going on.

No taxes had been paid in the city or county in 20 months as a result of the 1928 rebellion of property owners against discriminatory assessments. Tax warrants had been issued but Chicago bankers refused to advance any more cash on the $189,000,000 worth of tax warrants that had been issued.

The State Tax Commissioner William H. Malone had suggested the sale of $50,000,000 tax warrants to Chicago railroads, industries, and large landed corporations, but Chicago railroads, industries and large landed corporations objected on the basis that the city already owed all of them millions of dollars in services rendered.

Prominent Chicago lawyer, Silas Hardy Strawn (15 December 1866 – 4 February 1946), was an organizer of a Citizens’ Committee who understood all too well the desperate straits in which Chicago’s politicians had placed its citizens. The magazine reported that Silar Hardy Strawn stated clearly:

“Everyone stays asleep. . . . They talk politics, of getting somebody out of office. . . . They saw they would be putting their money down a rat hole with the present politicians in office.”

Chicago Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson (14 May 1869 – 19 March 1944) marginalized Silas Hardy Strawn’s comments, blaming “reformers” and Chicago newspapers for the troubles Chicago was experiencing.

Virginia’s Norfolk Post newspaper of 5 August 1921 used the expression in a headline: “Money Down The Rat-Hole.” At the time, the Shipping Board was alleged to have a hostile attitude towards labor and that hostile attitude resulted in a strike which allegedly cost millions. It was claimed in the article if honest practices were forced by the Shipping Board, there would be a saving of $18.50 out of every $100.00 spent in operations instead of the $2.25 out of every $100.00 by way of the Shipping Board’s wage reduction and ship lay-offs decision.

B.C. Butler, manager of general advertising for four daily newspapers published in Omaha, St. Paul, Des Moines, and Kansas City, took on newspapers in a letter that was published in a number of other newspapers and magazines in 1906. It was published in the Printers’ Ink: A Journal for Advertisers in Volume LVI Issue Number 6 on 8 August 1906. The letter began as follows:

Geo. P. Rowell says circulation is the number of perfect papers printed.

Thus doth the venerable authority mislead the advertiser into one of the worst “rat-holes” that ever ruined an advertising campaign.

This “rat-hole” is unpaid circulation, and down this “rat-hole” the advertisers of America have poured millions of dollars.

He was on a roll, and after a few more pointed comments were made, he ended his letter thusly:

In closing I wish to say that the St. Paul Daily News has only quality circulation to sell, and we guarantee advertisers that its total net paid up circulation every day is larger than any other newspaper in St. Paul, without regard to any circulation figures that are now printed and accepted by advertisers and agency directories to the contrary.

This is a pretty strong claim, but we want somebody to disprove it. It may start the fur flying but we will locate the “rat-hole” while we are on the subject of advertising “rat-holes.”

In an article titled, “Success in Manufacturing” published in Volume 21 of The Manufacturer and Builder: A Practical Journal of Industrial Progress published in July of 1889, quick mention was made of the Westinghouse Machine Company of Pittsburgh that had sent fully equipped experts out to visit a number of prominent manufacturing establishments so they could test the consumption of power by each machine. The question was asked why economize in wages and in the cost of raw materials when there was waste of fuel and power happening. The article ended stating the following:

Few people in this country seem to realize the amount of money that can be wasted in a year, through the steam pipe. The proverbial ‘rat hole’ will not compare with it. The manufacturer who has learned to economize at the steam pipe, has learned one of the most important secrets of success.

Fifteen years earlier, on 23 February 1874, the Daily Republican newspaper of Little Rock, Arkansas reported on page 1:

The ways and means committee, as well as the people, state they would like to see how that $30,000 was appropriated before they pour any more money down the rat-hole.

Twenty years earlier, on 18 July 1854, the Georgia Telegraph reported this on page 2 of its newspaper.

The Memphis Appeal thinks it a pretty good sign of hard times “when you see a (illegible) worth seventy thousand digging for two hours with a pickaxe for a five cent piece that had rolled down a rat hole.

But Idiomation came across an interesting article in the Litchfield Enquirer of 28 July 1842. It isn’t so much the passing of Mr. South that was interesting but rather where he had hidden his money.

The Norwich Courier of Tuesday states that a Mr. South, for many years the keeper of a drinking and oyster shop in that city died on the previous day in a fit. On searching his premises about four thousand dollars in specie was found stowed away in old segar and raisin boxes, in bags and old shoes, in every rat-hole about the shop.

Another article from 02 February 1842, the Camden Journal in South Carolina reprinted an article from the Charleston Courier newspaper about money found.

In removing some logs which had been lying for a year post upon Commercial Wharf, the laborers found, in a rat hole, about four hundred dollars in bills of the Georgetown Bank. One man found nearly two hundred dollars, including three 50 dollar bills.

It seems to Idiomation that hiding paper money down rat-holes may have been something done in the mid 1800s which would certainly explain the idiom of throwing anything of value down the rathole was a bad idea as rats, like any rodent, are more than happy to shred money to make a comfy nest for themselves.

Idiomation therefore pegs the idiom to the 1850s with a strong nod to the fact that rat holes and bank notes made strange bedfellows long before that time and no idea who published the idiom first.

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