Q: I read an article by John Updike in an old New Yorker that says the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” is believed to come from the lavish lifestyle of the family of Edith Wharton (née Jones). Is that true?
A: No, Edith Wharton’s family is not responsible for the expression. In fact, that erroneous belief is relatively new and apparently didn’t show up in print until dozens of years after Wharton died.
The earliest citation for the expression in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the April 1, 1913, issue of the Globe and Commercial Advertiser, a New York City daily better known as the Globe: “(Comic-strip title) Keeping up with the Joneses—by Pop.”
The comic strip, created by Arthur R. Momand, known as “Pop,” ran in newspapers from 1913 to 1940. It features the McGinnis family’s efforts to keep up with their neighbors, the Joneses, who never actually appear in the comic.
Momand based the Joneses on his neighbors in Cedarhurst, NY, when he and wife were newlyweds living beyond their means in one of Long Island’s upscale Five Towns, according to Robert Hendrickson, author of The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins.
Hendrickson quotes Momand as saying that he first thought of calling the strip “Keeping Up with the Smiths,” but “finally decided on ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ as being more euphonious.”
As for Edith Wharton (1862-1937), she was the daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. Her father’s family, especially two of her aunts, was indeed rich and had lavish homes in Manhattan and upstate New York.
However, we couldn’t find a single written example published during Wharton’s lifetime for the expression used in reference to her Jones relatives.
In fact, the earliest example we’ve found is in “Of Writers and Class,” an article by Gore Vidal in the February 1978 issue of the Atlantic Monthly:
“The Joneses were a large, proud New York family (it is said that the expression ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ referred to them).” An edited version of Vidal’s article appeared later that year as the introduction to The Edith Wharton Omnibus, a selection of her works.
Interestingly, the name “Jones,” especially the plural “Joneses” (often misspelled as “Jones’s”), has been used since the 1870s “to designate one’s neighbours or social equals,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first example of the name used in this generic sense is from Ernest Struggles (1879), a memoir of life as an English station master written anonymously by Ernest J. Simmons:
“There is a considerable amount of importance attached to this public place of meeting—the railway station. The Jones’s [sic] who don’t associate with the Robinsons, meet there. Mr. Jones would not like the station master to touch his cap to the Robinsons, and pass him without notice.”
Note: Simmons’s qualifications for his first railway job included the ability to translate 50 lines of Ovid, speak French, carry a sack of beans, break a horse, and write a tolerable hand.