This guy was doing inspirational memes before the internet even existed

This guy was doing inspirational memes before the internet even existed

If you’ve ever used the internet - and you’re reading this, so you definitely have - then you’ve probably seen some kind of naff inspirational slogan meme. In fact, you can probably think of two or three off the top of your head, right now; “Just believe” (yep, that’ll cure cancer), “Dreams don’t work unless you do” (congratulations, you’ll be on the property ladder 18 days from now) or, my current personal hatred: “You have the same number of hours in a day as Beyonce” (give me her bank balance and entourage, and we’ll talk). But while it would be easy to think of these patronising annoyances as a modern day development, the millennial version of the cheesy teacher’s display board, there was one guy in America bossing these bad boys years before the internet was even a thing. Far from the heartwarming go-get-ems’ of Instagram, some of them were kind of terrifying.

His name, was Roger Babson and he was born into a wealthy family in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1875. An economist and entrepreneur with a keen interest in the relationship between business and social problems, he was known for being eccentric and particularly enjoyed playing on the "quirky" reputation of his nearby ancestral hometown, the delightfully-named Dogtown. Initially established in the 1600s as an isolated settlement offering protection from pirates and hostile Native Americans, it later became a magnet for an altogether more questionable class of resident - fugitives, vagabonds, widows and single women. The memes of today may sing the praises of the single lady (you go, girl). But 19th-century America took a much dimmer view - they must be witches. Rumours of flickering lights, strange happenings, feral beasts and a series of suspicious deaths did little to help.

Having warned of the onset of the great depression, when it struck, Babson turned his attention once more towards his favourite settlement, which was now abandoned and used only by picnickers and hikers. Having bought the land from the state government, he had a plan. Like any good millennial would, he thought: what better way to solve an international economic crisis affecting millions of people than with a small selection of inspirational slogans? OK, so it probably wasn’t those words exactly, but it’s pretty much the gist. Babson hired a number of unemployed Finnish stone cutters and set them to work carving a series of messages of his choice into the boulders dotted along the path at Dogtown. Thus, the Babson boulders were born. While some of the stones are comfortingly generic, others are, errrr, rather straight-to-the-point:

"Courage, Ideas, Help Mother, Kindness, Loyalty, Be On Time, Get A Job, Industry, Initiative, Integrity, Keep Out Of Debt, Save, Spiritual Power, Study, Truth, Work, Be Clean, Be True, Prosperity Follows Service, Use Your Head, Ideals, Intelligence, Never Try Never Win, If Work Stops Values Decay"

Really, in a time of economic hardship and mass unemployment, is there anything more inspiring and helpful to read than a blunt: “Keep Out Of Debt” or “If Work Stops, Values Decay”? Let’s not even start on “Get A Job”, which is pretty much the equivalent of telling someone on welfare that getting a job is something they should think about.

It’s said that Babson had hoped the boulders would prove so popular that they would inspire other towns and spread like wildfire across the country - the old-school version of going viral. Alas, it didn’t quite work. Not only did other towns fail to feel the love, but by his own admission, even his own family weren’t all that keen: “My family says that I am defacing the boulders and disgracing the family with these inscriptions, but the work gives me a lot of satisfaction, fresh air, exercise and sunshine”. At least he was happy. (As an aside: do the families of today's meme-makers also feel the same kind of eye-rolling embarrassment? I kind of hope so.) 

Clearly one to practice as he preached though, Babson took his "Never Try Never Win" message to heart and, in 1940, ran for President, standing as the candidate for the Prohibition Party. He campaigned on an anti-alcohol, anti-drugs, anti-porn platform, although he also advocated lowering taxes, improving rights for workers and preserving natural resources, the last of which is pretty forward-thinking really. Unfortunately though, the trying was just not enough and he finished third.

Babson had hoped that the boulder-building would be continued after his death, but it seems no one else was quite as keen. Today Dogtown and the boulders have been reclaimed by nature as the area has become overgrown. But it continues to attract curious tourists, as well as modern-day witches and wizards keen to revel in the haunting history of the area. For his part, Babson is more commonly remembered as the man who founded Babson College, the most prestigious entrepreneurship college in the USA, than the pre-cursor to millennial meme culture. But next time you're scrolling through Facebook and come across something nauseatingly inspiring, think of the man who would tell you to "Be Clean" and think of how happy he would be at the fact you're reading that kind of thing.