That Wonderful One-hoss Shay

February 2018

Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the famous Supreme Court justice, was not only a renowned professor of anatomy at Harvard but by popular acclaim the genial poet laureate of Boston, which he preferred to call “the hub of the solar system.” Despite his usual good humor, Holmes was an aggressive Unitarian and spent much time assaulting the Puritan theology of his forebears. He was also fond of horses and carriages; and when, in 1858, he sat down to write a burlesque of the relentless logic by which such a divine as Jonathan Edwards had defended orthodox Calvinism, he decided to make a “one-horse chaise” the vehicle of his satire.

The result, which appeared in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly , was “The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or, the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay: a Logical Story.” The poem has been popular ever since, and at least until recent times was a favorite with elementary school teachers, who found that children liked its clip-clop rhythm and its humor even if they failed to absorb the theological implications. There was something very funny about “the wonderful one-hoss shay,/That was built in such a logical way/It ran a hundred years to a day,/And then, of a sudden, it …”—but you had to read to the end of the poem to find out what it did all of a sudden.

Along the way, from stanza to stanza, there were delightful touches as Holmes described the Deacon’s meticulous choice of materials and his construction of the marvellous shay, which was finished in 1755:

That was the year when Lisbon-town Saw the earth open and gulp her down, And Braddock’s army was done so brown, Left without a scalp to its crown. It was on the terrible Earthquake-day That the Deacon finished the one-hoss shay.

The Deacon’s theory, simply put, was that all previous chaises had a weak spot somewhere:


And that’s the reason, beyond a doubt, That a chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out.

The solution was equally simple:

But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do, With an “I dew vum, ” or an “I tell yeou, ”) He would build one shay to beat the taown ’N’ the keounty ‘n’ all the kentry raoun’; It should be so built that it couldn’ break daown: “Fur,” said the Deacon, ”’t’s mighty plain Thut the weakes’place mus’ stan’ the strain; ’N’ the way t’fix it, uz I maintain, Is only jest T’ make that place uz strong uz the rest. ”

So the very best of everything went into the one-hoss shay, without a single detail skimped on:

… the Deacon inquired of the village folk Where he could find the strongest oak, That couldn’t be split nor bent nor broke,— That was for spokes and floor and sills; He sent for lancewood to make the thills; The crossbars were ash, from the straightest trees; The panels of white-wood, that cuts like cheese, But lasts like iron for things like these; The hubs of logs from the “Settler’s ellum,”— Last of its timber,—they couldn’t sell ‘em, Never an axe had seen their chips, And the wedges flew from between their lips, Their blunt ends frizzled like celery-tips; Step and prop-iron, bolt and screw, Spring, tire, axle, and linchpin too, Steel of the finest, bright and blue; Thoroughbrace bison-skin, thick and wide; Boot, top, dasher, from tough old hide Found m the pit when the tanner died. That was the way he “put her through. ” ” There!” said the Deacon, “naow she’ll dew!”

And do she did, for a whole century, while “Deacon and deaconess dropped away,/Children and grandchildren—where were they?/But there stood the stout old one-hoss shay/As fresh as on Lisbon-earthquake day! ”

And then comes the great finale:

First of November, ‘Fifty-five! This morning the parson takes a drive. Now, small boys, get out of the way! Here comes the wonderful one-hoss shay, Drawn by a rat-tailed, ewe-necked bay. “Huddup! ” said the parson.—Off went they. The parson was working his Sunday ‘s text,— He got to fifthly, and s topped perplexed At what the—Moses—was coming next. All at once the horse stood still, Close by the meet’n’-house on the hill. First a shiver, and then a thrill, Then something decidedly like a spill,— And the parson was sitting upon a rock, At half-past nine by the meet’n’-house clock,— Just the hour of the Earthquake shock! What do you think the parson found, When he got up and stared around? The poor old chaise m a heap or mound, As if it had been to the mill and ground! Tou see, of course, if you ‘re not a dunce, How it went to pieces all at once,— All at once and nothmgfirst,— Just as bubbles do when they burst. End of the wonderful one-hoss shay. Logic is logic. That’s all I say.

Holmes demonstrated in the poem that he knew a great deal about the construction of carriages; but the modern reader is still left to guess at just what the one-horse chaise looked like. Mr. Charles R. Morris, president of the historical society of Milton, Massachusetts, has done some research on this point and has sent us the picture shown on the opposite page—an authentic “reconstruction “of the wonderful one-hoss shay. It seems that a carriage-builders’ trade journal, The Hub , republished Dr. Holmes’s poem in March, 1871, together with this illustration. The editor, George W. Houghton, had sent a preliminary sketch to Holmes for his approval. After some discussion the sketch was made into an engraving for the trade journal, where it drew much interest from professional readers.

Holmes followed this up with a complimentary letter to the editor, which was published on May 15, 1871:

Dear Sir:

I have often looked over the numbers of The Hub with much interest, and been struck with the intelligence brought to bear, in the literary form, on a calling at first sight belonging to the workshop rather than the editor’s table. The last number you sent me, with the Deacon’s remarkable one-horse vehicle, illustrates still further the taste and skill brought to bear in your publication. I may be pardoned for saying a word in favor of the old “shay,” which is evidently a careful and conscientious study from past fabrics of aspect similar to that which I have described. The parson’s horse is not exactly ewe-necked , as I described him, and is a little below the clerical standard which I had in my head, but I am afraid that very good men have sometimes been drawn by animals not much better to look at, nor much better groomed. …

I am, yours very truly, O. W. H OLMES