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From rags to riches is a very common phrase in English that is often used to describe either people or stories about people who begin their lives in extreme poverty and end up comfortable and wealthy, often through hard work or exceptional talent. The idiom is thought to have originated with the writings of Horatio Alger, an American writer, whose most popular 19th century works were intended for children, and depicted stories of extremely poor boys whose virtuous deeds or hard work landed them better financial security. Ironically, most of these fictional characters didn’t end up rich, but they did have jobs and a chance to better their situation in life.
Though going from rags to riches may be an idiom that emerged in the 19th century, the concept of moving from poverty to wealth isn’t new. It’s a common theme in fairytales. Cinderella moves from a world of literally wearing rags and doing all the housework to marrying the prince, and note that it is her virtuous deeds, in addition to her beauty, that achieves this. Many other princesses have a rags-to-riches origin in fairytales.
The phrase is often thought tied especially to the American dream, and there’s certainly evidence that many immigrants viewed America as a place where they could end poverty and have a chance to do wonderful things. Yet the idea of going getting rich after a long period of poverty is not unique to the United States and many other industrialized nations told such stories too in the 19th century, and much earlier. In particular, one treasured concept in England was the idea of the earnest person, the person who continued to try again and again, even when life became difficult. Earnestness is one of the main traits of characters like David Copperfield, in Charles Dickens novel of the same name, which is semi-autobiographical. David really does go from rags to riches, as did Dickens, whose father was at one point imprisoned for debt.
The work of Horatio Alger, and many others depicting characters that went from rags to riches began to be somewhat despised or considered lesser literature in the 20th century. However, children still enjoyed some of these tales as evidenced by the continuing popularity of fairytales and even some legitimate sci fi books like Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones, written in the 1950s. While literary critics may find these tales hackneyed or of less importance, they still tend to capture the imagination, and the real life examples of people who went from rags to riches are often of great interest to the public.
One criticism of these tales, especially the ones that are true biographies, is that the most extreme ones encourage capitalism. Such stories can only be possible in a capitalistic society. Unfortunately, capitalism depends on some people remaining in rags, while other forms of economic structures like socialism tend to assure no one wears rags, but no one gets rich.
Whenever I hear the phrase "from rags to riches", I think of the 50s pop song by Tony Bennett. The lyrics suggest the singer would go from rags to riches in his mind if only he could win a woman's heart. I remember the character Carmine from "Laverne and Shirley" would sing it to Shirley whenever he was feeling romantic.
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