Quacks and Suckers

A couple weeks ago I was preparing for a seminar in which I discussed Charles Vancouver Piper and the early days of turfgrass science in the United States. I recalled—or quite possibly I misremembered, as I haven’t been able to find it yet—having read some years ago something by Piper about nostrums. A nostrum, the OED says, is “a quack remedy or patent medicine, esp. one prepared by the person recommending it.”

Today I looked through the early issues of the Green Section Record, or more specifically the Bulletin of the Green Section of the United States Golf Association, as it was called in those days, looking for something about nostrums. I didn’t find that, but I did find an editorial in the June 1923 issue with the title “Quacks and Suckers”.

The USGA Green Committee at that time was filled with familar names. Piper of course was the Chairman, his colleague Dr. R.A. Oakley was Vice-Chairman, and storied names such as Hugh I. Wilson from Merion Cricket Club, Dr. Walter S. Harban from Columbia Country Club, William C. Fownes, Jr. from Oakmont Country Club, William F. Brooks from Minikahda Club, Alan D. Wilson from Pine Valley Golf Club, and Norman Macbeth from Wilshire Country Club, were also on the committee.

I suppose the “Quacks and Suckers” article was written by Piper, although it was published as an unsigned editorial in the Bulletin. Here are a few quotes from it.

“We have tried to prevent the fatal contact between quacks and those who may fall into the sucker class by making available all the knowledge on the subject of greenkeeping that could be gleaned from science and experience, but time after time we have seen suckers put aside all this and take the bait. We have about concluded that if one is predestined to be a sucker, nothing that we can do will avail, and that about all we can do is to keep on with the work …

The quack always has something to sell. It may be seed, or fertilizer, or what not, or perhaps himself; and when the sucker bites and buys he always gets less than he pays for, and usually, what is worse, he loses time that can never be replaced.

There is no mystery about greenkeeping. There are no secrets. The work has been going on so long that pretty nearly everything has been tried out. When any one comes around trying to sell something or sell himself, remember to stop, look, and listen. If he offers something mixed, or mysterious, or magic, or secret, or special, pass it up. If you want seed, get standard seed from an established seed house that will tell you exactly what they are selling you. If you want fertilizer, see that you know what you want and that you get it and that you pay for what you get. The honest salesman for an honest house never oversells a customer; but a quack goes after the money, and it is nothing to him whether he sells too much, but it is a crime or disgrace in his view to sell too little.

The varieties of quackery are too many to admit of description. They range from the man with the mysterious mixture of seed or fertilizer …”

And I’ll leave it at that. Read the full piece if you are interested in this sort of thing, or go to the November 1921 issue of the Bulletin for the editorial with the simple title Quacks. That’s got a few great quotes in it too, such as this:

“One should distinguish between quackery and incompetence. A man may be merely foolish but wholly honest. The term quack implies fraud as well as lack of knowledge. Quacks are not wholly responsible for their existence. But for that credulous streak in human nature, that apparent desire to be humbugged, that proneness to be a sucker, quacks would cease to be.

“Green-keeping has developed its crop of quacks. They are flourishing … It would be a waste of breath to say harsh things either to or about quacks. As long as quackery is profitable there will be quacks.”

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