How a little red pamphlet changed the world — and may change you
Can thoughts make things happen?
A middle-aged Chicagoan who beat the Great Depression believed so — and he anonymously spread his mind-power secret to the world. His beguiling method may hold special relevance for people struggling through the lockdown recession today.
A Simple Idea
The messenger of success concealed his identity behind the initials R.H.J., which stood for Roy Herbert Jarrett. By profession Jarrett was a salesman of typewriters and of printing machines. But the seeker-salesman accomplished what few ministers or practical philosophers ever could: He worked out an ethical philosophy of personal attainment, and couched it in everyday, immensely persuasive language. At age fifty-two Jarrett brought his message to the world with a self-published, pocket-sized pamphlet called simply: It Works.
Published in 1926, Jarrett’s twenty-eight-page pamphlet has never gone out of print. It has sold over 1.5 million copies and remains popular — for good reason. It Works is one of the most intriguing and infectious books ever written on mental manifestation. Anyone who wants to taste (or test) such ideas can finish Jarrett’s pamphlet during a lunch break. And many people did so.
Wage-earning Americans who had never before given much thought to metaphysics wound up buying and often giving away large numbers of It Works, sending grateful testimonials to the address that Jarrett printed inside.
As the legend goes at the front of the booklet, Jarrett had sent his short manuscript to a friend for critique. Jarrett identified the friend only by the initials “J.F.S.” The helper returned it with the notation: “IT WORKS,” which Jarrett decided to use as his title.
The legend is true. The friend was Jewell F. Stevens, owner of an eponymous Chicago advertising agency, which specialized in religious items and books. In 1931, the advertising executive Stevens hired Jarrett to join his agency as a merchandising consultant and account manager. For Jarrett, the new position was deliverance from a tough, working-class background, and years of toil in the Willy Loman–domain of sales work. Jarrett became the example of his own success philosophy.
Salesman and Seeker
Roy Herbert Jarrett was born in 1874 to a Scottish immigrant household in Quincy, Illinois. His father worked as an iceman and a night watchman. Roy’s mother died when he was eight. By his mid-twenties, Roy was married and living in Rochester, New York, working as a sales manager for the Smith Premier Typewriter Company. His first marriage failed, and by 1905 he returned to the Midwest to marry a new wife and live closer to his aged father. In Chicago, Jarrett found work as a salesman for the American Multigraph Sales Company. It was the pivotal move of his life.
American Multigraph manufactured typewriters and workplace printing machinery. In a sense, the printing company was the Apple Computer of its day. The company’s flagship product, the Multigraph, was an innovative, compact printing press. It took up no more space than an office desk and could be operated without specialized knowledge. The Multigraph was the first generation of easy-to-use printing devices, allowing offices to produce their own flyers, mailers, and newsletters. Its manufacturer possessed a sense of mission. American Multi- graph had a reputation in the printing trade for its gung-ho culture and pep-rally sales conventions.
“For years,” wrote the industry journal Office Appliances in September 1922, “a feature of every convention has been an address on ‘The Romance of the Multigraph’ by Advertising Manager Tim Thrift.” On the surface, Thrift told his sales crew, the Multigraph could print labels, newsletters, and pamphlets — but one must peer into “the soul of what to some appears as a machine.” The Multigraph, he said, was “not a thing of metal, wood and paint; a mere machine sold to some man who can be convinced he should buy it. Ah, no! The Multigraph is a thing of service to the world . . .”
Cynics could laugh all they wanted, but for Jarrett the company’s motivational tone, combined with the magical-seeming efficiency of modern printing, helped launch him on the idea of It Works.
“Day by Day”
Jarrett’s belief in inspirational business messages dovetailed with his interest in autosuggestion and mental conditioning. Such ideas reached Jarrett through the work of a French pharmacist and self-taught psychologist named Emile Coué, who had visited Chicago. Jarrett’s vision grew from a cross-pollination of American business motivation and the ideals of the French mind theorist.
Born in Brittany in 1857, Coué developed an early interest in hypnotism, which he pursued through a mail-order course from Rochester, New York. Coué more rigorously studied hypnotic methods in the late 1880s with physician Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault. The French therapist Liébault was one of the founders of the so-called Nancy School of hypnotism, which promoted hypnotism’s therapeutic uses.
While working as a pharmacist at Troyes in northwestern France in the early 1900s, Coué made a startling discovery: Patients responded better to medica- tions when he spoke in praise of the formula. Coué came to believe that the imagination aided not only in recovery but also in a person’s general sense of well-being. From this insight, Coué developed a method of “conscious autosuggestion.” It was a form of waking hypnosis that involved repeating confidence-building mantras while in a relaxed or semiconscious state.
Coué argued that many people suffer from a poor self- image. Our willpower, or drive to achieve, he said, is constantly overcome by our imagination, by which he meant a person’s unconscious self-perceptions.
“When the will and the imagination are opposed to each other,” he wrote, “it is always the imagination which wins . . .” By way of example, he asked people to think of walking across a wooden plank laid on the floor — obviously an easy task. But if the same plank is elevated high off the ground, the task becomes fraught with fear even though the physical demand is the same. This, Coué asserted, is what we are constantly doing on a mental level when we imagine ourselves as worthless or weak.
Coué’s method of autosuggestion was simplicity itself. He told patients to repeat the confidence-building mantra:
Day by day, in every way, I am getting better an better.
It was to be recited twenty times each morning and evening, just loud enough to hear, while lying in bed upon awaken-ing and before going to sleep, with eyes closed and the mind focused on what you desire. He advised using a string with twenty knots to count off the repetitions, as if counting rosary beads.
The Magic Hand?
In the early 1920s, news of Coué’s method reached America. The “Miracle Man of France” briefly grew into an international sensation. American newspapers featured Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not-styled drawings of Coué, looking like a goateed magician and gently displaying his knotted string at eye level like a hypnotic device. In early 1923, Coué made a three-week lecture tour of America. One of his final stops in February was in Jarrett’s hometown, where the Frenchman delivered a talk at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall.
In a raucous scene, a crowd of more than two thousand demanded that the therapist help a paralytic man who had been seated onstage. Coué defiantly told the audience that his autosuggestive treatments could work only on illnesses that originated in the mind. “I have not the magic hand!” he insisted. Nonetheless, Coué approached the man and told him to concentrate on his legs and to repeat, “It is passing, it is passing.” The seated man struggled up and haltingly walked. The crowd exploded. Coué rejected any notion that his “cure” was miraculous and insisted that the man’s disease must have been psychosomatic.
To some American listeners, Coué’s message of self-affirmation held special relevance for oppressed people. The pages of black-nationalist Marcus Garvey’s newspaper Negro World echoed Coué’s day-by-day mantra in an editorial headline: “Every Day in Every Way We See Drawing Nearer and Nearer the Coming of the Dawn for Black Men.” The paper editorialized that Marcus Garvey’s teachings provided the same “uplifting psychic influence” as Coué’s.
Coué took a special liking to Americans. He found American attitudes a refreshing departure from what he knew back home. “The French mind,” he wrote, “prefers first to discuss and argue on the fundamentals of a principle before inquiring into its practical adaptability to every-day life. The American mind, on the contrary, immediately sees the possibilities of it, and seeks . . . to carry the idea further even than the author of it may have conceived.”
The therapist could have been describing the salesman-seeker Roy Jarrett. “A short while ago,” Jarrett wrote in 1926, the year of Coué’s death, “Dr. Emile Coué came to this country and showed thousands of people how to help themselves. Thousands of others spoofed at the idea, refused his assistance and are today where they were before his visit.” But Jarrett saw the potential.
Taking his cue from the ease of Coué’s approach, Jarrett devised “Three Positive Rules to Accomplishment” in It Works. In summary, they are:
1. Carefully write a list of what you really want in life — once you are satisfied with it, read it three times daily: morning, noon, and night.
2. Think about what you want as often as possible.
3. Keep your practice and desires strictly to yourself. (This was intended to prevent other people’s negative reactions from sullying your inner resolve.)
Then, express silent gratitude each time an item on your list reaches you.
Just as Coué had observed about American audiences, Jarrett boldly expanded on the uses of autosuggestion. In the steps of the American metaphysical tradition, Jarrett believed that subconscious-mind training did more than recondition the mind: it activated a divine inner power that served to out-picture a person’s mental images into the surrounding world. “I call this power ‘Emmanuel’ (God in us),” Jarrett wrote.
With its ease of methods, the self-published pamphlet quickly found an audience and ran through multiple printings. Many readers swore by it, and wrote in for additional copies to give away to friends (something Jarrett encouraged with a bulk-order form).
It is tempting to look at Jarrett’s three steps and ask: that’s it? What reasonable person could believe, much less attempt, such a rudimentary, even childish, method to achievement?
Indeed, most detractors didn’t try it — and never came to understand why the little book became one of the most popular, if below-the-radar, books of spiritual self-help.
The “secret” to It Works is that it compels us to do something we think that we do all the time but, in actuality, rarely try: come to terms with what we really want. We certainly believe that we know what we want. We constantly tell ourselves I’d like to buy that, work there, date him, and so on. But we rarely, if ever, sit down in a sustained and self-revealing way, stripped of all conformities and prejudices, and lay bare our truest, most absolute desires.
We may or may not want to act on those desires — there may be costs and burdens, ethical or otherwise. There may be unforeseen consequences or compromises. But just as often, we harbor within us a true, noble, and altogether sound life direction that we never articulate or attempt. This is because we are continually distracted by rote thought and internalized peer pressure. We we almost never stop — completely stop — to ask: What do I really want?
And there may be more to the “simple” formula in this little book than just that. The clarified, motivated mind may also possess an agency that we have not yet fully reckoned with in modern Western life, but that is indicated in placebo studies, neuroplasticity, quantum enigmas, and psychical research. There may be unacknowledged mental properties and possibilities that this three-step program sets in motion, or at least hints at. I explore these questions more fully here:
Jarrett’s work broke through — but he felt incomplete. It wasn’t that he chafed at using mind-power for material ends. Indeed, he urged readers to use the book for money, possessions, or just about anything they wanted. But he believed that many had missed the book’s deeper point. “Merely giving you the simple rules to accomplishment, with brief instructions as to their use,” he wrote several years later, “while beneficial, is not satisfying.”
Jarrett’s deeper purpose in It Works was only hinted at by a mysterious symbol he placed on its cover. Below the title It Works appeared a simple drawing of a cross, with its bottom bent at a right angle. The square-and- cross appeared on every copy of the little red book until 1992, when a later publisher removed it. That symbol, wrote Jarrett’s friend Stevens, “was really the undisclosed reason for the book.”
What was this beguiling square-and-cross, which some readers ignored, some wondered at, and a publisher later cut?
Five years after producing It Works, Roy Jarrett made a little-known and final foray into publishing. In 1931, he produced a thoughtful and ambitious work, The Meaning of the Mark. The longer volume served as an inner key to It Works — it explained his strange symbol and dealt directly with the moral quan-daries of success-based spirituality.
Jarrett explained that the cross-and-square was his personal symbol of spiritual awakening. Its meaning, he hoped, would be intuitively felt by readers. The square represented earthly values, particularly the need to treat others with the respect one seeks for oneself, which Jarrett saw as the hidden key to achievement. But there was another part to the matter. Personal attainment could find its lasting and proper purpose only when conjoined to the cross, the presence of God. Together, individual striving and receptivity to the Divine would bring man into the fullness of life. Jarrett wrote:
The definition of correct thinking for our purpose is: “thoughts which are harmoniously agreeable to God and man as a whole.” Thoughts agreeable to God come to you through the intuitive messages from your soul, often intensified by the senses. Thoughts agreeable to man come to you more frequently through the senses and are often intensified by intuition.
By dwelling on the meaning of the square-and-cross, he reasoned, the reader could be constantly reminded to unite the two currents of life.
The success of It Works helped Jarrett attain a lifestyle that, while not extravagant, went beyond anything his laborer father could have hoped for. Jarrett and his wife retired to a sunny hacienda-style bungalow in a tidy middle-class section of Beverly Hills. But their California idyll was fated to be short-lived. Jarrett died there in 1937 at age sixty-three of leukemia. He had been diagnosed three years earlier.
Jarrett didn’t embark on his career as a writer until the final years of his life. He produced both of his books while in his fifties. His success arose not despite the lateness of his start but because of it. Like British seeker James Allen and the best New Thought pioneers, this self-educated man from ordinary life devised a philosophy that had been tested by the nature of his own personal conduct and lived experience. Only then did he deem it worth sharing.
(This article is adapted from the author’s One Simple Idea, a history of the positive-mind movement, which can be consulted for source references.)
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