Quote Origin: Habit Is Habit, and Not To Be Flung Out of the Window By Any Man, But Coaxed Down Stairs a Step at a Time
Mark Twain? Mabel Thatcher Wellman? Ellen H. Richards? John Harvey Kellogg? Apocryphal?
Question for Quote Investigator: Longstanding habits are difficult to break. This notion has been expressed metaphorically as follows:
A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.
This statement has been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. Also, there exists a family of similar remarks with different phrasings. Variants use the words “flung”, “thrown”, and “tossed”. Were any of these remarks written or spoken by Mark Twain? Would you please explore this topic?
Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest member of this family known to QI occurred in an installment of the serialized version of Mark Twain’s work “Pudd’nhead Wilson” which appeared in “The Century Magazine” in January 1894. The fourth chapter featured the following epigraph. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:¹
HABIT is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs a step at a time. — Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar.
Mark Twain used the expression again within an installment of his work titled “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” published in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” in May 1895. The narrator was a fictional version of Joan of Arc’s page and secretary:²
. . . I was resolved to face about, now, and begin over again, and never insult her more with deception. I started on the new policy by saying — still opening up with a small lie, of course, for habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down stairs a step at a time . . .
In 1896 “Education: A Monthly Magazine” published a piece titled “The Physiological Law of Habit and Its Application To Common School Studies” by Mabel Thatcher Wellman which credited Twain with a variant expression using the word “throw”:³
As Mark Twain puts it, “No man is strong enough to throw habit out of the window, it must be coaxed step by step down stairs.” The surest way of overcoming a bad habit is to start a counter habit which, by its increasing force, makes resistance to the evil grow constantly less difficult . . .
Over the years other variants have entered circulation. These alternate versions were probably constructed based on faulty memories of Twain’s original statement.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1898 “The Pennsylvania School Journal” reprinted the article by Wellman under the title “The Law of Habit”. Thus, the misquotation achieved further distribution.⁴
In 1900 by Ellen H. Richards published “The Cost of Living as Modified by Sanitary Science”, and she included another version of the saying attributed to Twain:⁵
Bagehot said, “There is no pain like the pain of a new idea”; but on the other hand Mark Twain wrote, “You cannot throw habit out of the window; it must be coaxed down-stairs one step at a time.” New habits may be difficult to establish, but once fixed they maintain themselves.
In 1901 Marshall Home published “The MacGregors”, and the epigraph of the third chapter presented an accurate version of the quotation ascribed to Twain:⁶
“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down stairs a step at a time.”
— Mark Twain.
In 1908 “Scribner’s Magazine” published a piece containing another instance of the saying. Quotation marks were employed to signal that the statement was already in circulation, but no attribution was given:⁷
Therefore we must exercise rigid self-criticism if we would not have our peculiarities extend in every direction. “We cannot throw habit out of the window. It must be coaxed downstairs one step at a time.”
In 1915 physician John Harvey Kellogg published an article titled “On Getting Restful Sleep” in the magazine “Good Health”. Kellogg credited Twain with yet another version of the saying:⁸
It has become a habit, and of habits, Mark Twain said that they “cannot be taken by the heels and neck and thrown down stairs, but must be coaxed down, a step at a time.”
In 1927 the following passage appeared in an article by Sister M. Veronica within “The Catholic Educational Review”:⁹
Mark Twain says that a habit cannot be thrown out of the window; it must be coaxed down-stairs one step at a time. Yes, and one is fortunate if, when the last step but one is reached, it does not take a sudden jump up to the top of the stairs again and force us to re-do the work.
In 1948 “Coronet” magazine published a collection of miscellaneous quotations under the title “Wise and Otherwise”. Twain received credit for an instance using the word “tossed”:¹⁰
A bad habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time. — MARK TWAIN
In 1958 “Reader’s Digest” magazine published the following as a filler item:¹¹
Mark Twain: A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.
In 1975 “The Reader’s Digest Treasury of Modern Quotations” included an entry based on the 1958 version of the quotation given above. Twain received credit.¹²
In 1980 a version using “tossed” appeared in “Mac’s Giant Book of Quips & Quotes” edited by E. C. McKenzie. No attribution was specified.¹³
A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it has to be coaxed down the stairs one step at a time.
In conclusion, Mark Twain deserves credit for the statement using the word “flung” which he penned in “Pudd’nhead Wilson” in 1894 and “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” in 1895. Later instances using the words “throw”, “thrown” and “tossed” were not penned by Twain. These variants were probably constructed via faulty memory of Twain’s remark.
Image Notes: View out of an open window in Italy from Jacob Morch at Unsplash. The image has been cropped.
Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Hugh Hyatt whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Hyatt noticed that Twain often received credit for a version of the saying using the word “tossed”, but Hyatt was skeptical because no citation was supplied.
 1894 January, The Century Magazine, Volume 47, Number 3, Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale by Mark Twain, Serialized, (Chapter 4 starts on page 329; the quotation appears as an epigraph of Chapter 6), Quote Page 334, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
 1895 May, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 90, Number 540, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by The Sieur Louis de Conte (Her Page and Secretary) by Mark Twain, Serialized (Chapter 6 begins on page 845), Quote Page 849, Column 2, Harper and Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
 1896 September, Education: A Monthly Magazine, Volume 17, Number 1, The Physiological Law of Habit and Its Application To Common School Studies by Mabel Thatcher Wellman, Start Page 52, Quote Page 52, Kasson and Palmer, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
 1898 February, The Pennsylvania School Journal, Volume 46, Number 8, The Law of Habit by Mabel T. Wellman, Start Page 335, Quote Page 335, Wickersham Printing Company, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
 1900, The Cost of Living as Modified by Sanitary Science by Ellen H. Richards (Instructor in Sanitary Chemistry in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Second Edition, Chapter 3: Household Expenditure: Division Between Departments According To Ideals, Quote Page 36 and 37, John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Google Books Full; View) link
 1901, The MacGregors by Marshall Home, (Epigraph of chapter 3), Quote Page 29, Scroll Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
 1908 March, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 43, Number 3, The Point of View, Begin Page 378, Quote Page 380, Column 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
 1915 November, Good Health, Volume 50, Number 11, On Getting Restful Sleep by J. H. Kellogg M.D. (John Harvey Kellogg), Start Page 479, Quote Page 480, Column 1, Good Health Publishing Company, Battle Creek, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
 1927 November, The Catholic Educational Review, Volume 25, Number 9, One Physiological Aspect of Habit by Sister M. Veronica, Start Page 534, Quote Page 545, The Catholic Education Press, Washington D.C. (Google Books Full View) link
 1948 April, Coronet, Volume 23, Number 6, Wise and Otherwise, Quote Page 128, Column 2, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
 1958 June, Reader’s Digest, Volume 72, Number 434, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 10, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
 1975, The Reader’s Digest Treasury of Modern Quotations, Selected by the Editors of Reader’s Digest, Topic: Leisure and Vices, Quote Page 538, Reader’s Digest Press, Distributed by Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
 1980, Mac’s Giant Book of Quips & Quotes, Edited by E. C. McKenzie, Topic: Habits, Quote Page 225, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Verified with scans)