A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from September 06, 2014
“Fresh Fish Sold Here” (signage joke)

An old story involves the owner of a fish store who painted a new sign, “Fresh Fish Sold Here.” A friend objected to the word “here”—where else was the fish being sold? The owner took out that word, making the new sign, “Fresh Fish Sold.” Another friend objected to the word “fresh”—no one expects to be sold stale fish. The owner took out that word, making the new sign, “Fish Sold.” Another friend objected to the word “sold”—no one gives away free fish.” The owner took out that word, making the new sign, “Fish.” Another friend objected to the word “fish”—everyone could see that and smell it a block away. The owner took out that word and the new sign was blank.

The story has been cited in print since 1890, when it was printed in the New Haven (CT) Register. The story ended with a statement that the fish store owner went out of business because he didn’t advertise.


Chronicling America
28 September 1890, Sacramento (CA) Daily Record-Union, pg. 1, col. 8:
WITH A MORAL.
The Old Story of Mike’s Sign, Which Pleased Nobody.
[From the New Haven Register]
Everyone has heard the story of Mike’s sign. Mike had an elegant sign painted and hung out in front of his establishment, and as he was standing in rapt admiration of its beauties, he was approached by an acquaintance, when the following conversation occurred:

“Hello, Moike!”
“Hello!”
‘Got a new sign?”
“Oi have.”
“But what do you mean by saying ‘fresh fish sold here’? Sure, everybody knows your store is here, and not in Hoboken.”
“Faith an’ yure right,” and he rubbed out the word “here.” Then along came another friend.
“Mornin’, Mike!”
“How are yez?”
“New sign?”
“Oi have.”
‘But it isn’t right.”
“What’s wrong wid it?”
“Rub out the word ‘fresh’; everybody knows your fish are not stale.”
“It’s a large head yez have on. Oi’ll do it,” and a daub of the brush eliminated the word. While he stood gazing at his own handiwork, another friend came along.
“Sure your paintin’ is all wrong, Mike!”
“Arrah, go ‘long wid yez. What’s wrong?”
“Your sign reads ‘fish sold.’ Everybody knows you sell fish. Nobody expects you to give ‘em away. Rub out the word ‘sold.’”
“Sure, an’ you’re right, too,” and out went the word. This was no sooner said than along came another man.
“Phat’s this Oi see? Fish? Whoy, Mike, phat the divil has yez that word there fur? Sure everybody knows yez sell fish, and not cigars or boots or shoes. Rub it out. It’s useless!”
“Faith Oi will,” said Mike, and the last remaining word on the sign disappeared.

The veracious historian who records this time-honored story, abruptly stops right here; but we have private advices from the sheriff who soon came into possession of the vacillating Mike’s business, that after the fish merchant’s failure, he only paid two cents on the dollar to his creditors.

The story of Mike and his sign conveys a warning to men who do not advertise. Men must persistently inform the public that they have “carriages for sale here,” or the public will persistently ignore them. it is a fatal policy to lie back in the complacent assurance that every one knows we sell carriages; and what is the use of advertising? Other things being equal the man who advertises does the largest business.

Google Books
October 1890, The Insurance Journal (Hartford, CT), pg. 412, col. 2:
Everyone has heard the story of Mike’s sign. Mike had an elegant sign painted and hung out in front of his establishment, and as he was standing in rapt admiration of its beauties, he was approached by an acquaintance, when the following conversation occurred:

“Hello, Moike!”
“Hello!”
‘Got a new sign?”
“Oi have.”
“But what do you mean by saying ‘fresh fish sold here’? Sure, everybody knows your store is here, and not in Hoboken.”
“Faith an’ yure right,” and he rubbed out the word “here.” Then along came another friend.
“Mornin’, Mike!”
“How are yez?”
“New sign?”
“Oi have.”
‘But it isn’t right.”
“What’s wrong wid it?”
“Rub out the word ‘fresh’; everybody knows your fish are not stale.”
“It’s a large head yez have on. Oi’ll do it,” and a daub of the brush eliminated the word. While he stood gazing at his own handiwork, another friend came along.
“Sure your paintin’ is all wrong, Mike!”
“Arrah, go ‘long wid yez. What’s wrong?”
“Your sign reads ‘fish sold.’ Everybody (Pg. 413, col. 1—ed.) knows you sell fish. Nobody expects you to give ‘em away. Rub out the word ‘sold.’”
“Sure, an’ you’re right, too,” and out went the word. This was no sooner said than along came another man.
“Phat’s this Oi see? Fish? Whoy, Mike, phat the divil has yez that word there fur? Sure everybody knows yez sell fish, and not cigars or boots or shoes. Rub it out. It’s useless!”
“Faith Oi will,” said Mike, and the last remaining word on the sign disappeared.

The veracious historian who records this time-honored story, abruptly stops right here; but we have private advices from the sheriff who soon came into possession of the vacillating Mike’s business, that after the fish merchant’s failure, he only paid two cents on the dollar to his creditors.

The story of Mike and his sign conveys a warning to men who do not advertise. Men must persistently inform the public that they have “carriages for sale here,” or the public will persistently ignore them. it is a fatal policy to lie back in the complacent assurance that every one knows we sell carriages; and what is the use of advertising? Other things being equal the man who advertises does the largest business.

Google Books
The Six-hour Day & Other Industrial Questions
By Viscount William Hesketh Lever Leverhulme (Lord Leverhulme)
New York, NY; Henry Holt and Company
1919
Pg. 130:
You know the story of a young man who started a fish shop, and fitted it up with marble slabs, and tiles on the wall; then he wrote a sign and put it up. There was his name on the sign, and then, “Fresh Fish Sold Here.” A friend came along and admired the shop, and, after looking all round said, “Look at your sign.” “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Why do you say ‘Fresh Fish Sold Here?’ You do not need to say ‘here.’ You are not selling them across the way.” So the young man painted the word “Here” out, and the sign read “Fresh Fish Sold.” Another friend came and admired the marble slabs and the tiles. When he had admired everything he said, “But look at your sign. Everybody will know your fish is fresh.” He got his paint pot and painted out the word “Fresh.” So now the sign read, “Fish Sold.” Another friend came, and when he had admired the shop and the slabs and the tiles, he too, said, “Look at your sign. Why say ‘Sold?’ Nobody will think you are giving the fish away.” So he took out that word also, and now the sign simply read, “So-and-so, Fish.” Still another friend came, and when he had looked all round he said, “Look at your sign.” “What’s the matter with the sign yet?” asked the young man. “Why say ‘Fish?’” was the reply; “I could smell fish as soon as I turned the corner.”

Google Books
Talk Normal:
Stop the Business Speak, Jargon and Waffle

By Tim Phillips
London: Kogan Page Limited
2011
Pg. 89:
Essential English for Journalists repeats the old joke about word economy: a fishmonger who advertised ‘Fresh Fish Sold Here’ had a friend who insisted he rub out ‘Fresh’, because it was obviously fresh, and ‘Here’ because if you have a shop, it’s obvious where you sell your fish. Then he rubbed out ‘sold’, because no one would give away their fish. Then he deleted ‘Fish’, because everyone could smell it.

Twitter
Paul Wiggins
‏@paulwiggins
. @onetui There’s an old joke about a sign that says Fresh Fish Sold Here and how that sign looks after editing.
7:15 PM - 3 Sep 2014

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityRestaurants/Bars/Bakeries/Food Stores • Saturday, September 06, 2014 • Permalink