Bill of goods

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12 comments on this post.
  1. Sean Work:

    My theory is that at some point a common swindle was to sell someone a bill of goods – not the goods themselves, but just the bill. In a similar vein I’ve seen ebay auctions for the boxes of various popular products.

  2. Tom:

    This was quite a lengthy post that led to nowhere. Word Detective: I hate to tell you but Sean Work is right. The answer to the meaning behind the expression is as simple as that – no etymology per word needed. LOL.

    To be sold a bill of goods means to be sold “the bill” not the goods. In other words you got conned. Better luck next time.

  3. Anonymous:

    If all someone sold you was a bill of goods, without the goods, that would be a scam indeed!

  4. Anna:

    Yeah, that has to be what it is. It is one of my big pet peeves when people use a phrase like that without examining what it could mean. I’ve confused by this one until now. Clearly a bill of goods is the paper with no goods that it lists. I always thought a bill of goods was a list backed by real goods, so how could that be bad? Now I understand — it is the list with nothing to back it.

  5. Brendan:

    My thoughts exactly… someone was shown a ‘bill of goods’ and said I will sell you this for $5000… they pay the money assuming he means the items listed ON the bill of goods, but actually just receives the bit of paper.

  6. G Lampa:

    Agreed. It seems to suggest that all you came away with, after parting with your hard-earned money, is the bill itself. Hence, you’ve been “sold the bill”.

  7. Mike:

    I’ve always felt it meant being compelled to buy a whole collection of goods, including a lot of useless things you wouldn’t otherwise want, in order to get what you do want. If some of the fiction I’ve read has any basis in fact, many a prospector arriving in the old West or Klondike was compelled to buy a whole outfit of picks, shovels, axes, camp stove, tent, etc when all he really wanted was a couple of shovels. So the scam is that you were manipulated into buying a lot of what you don’t need. Still practiced today by cable companies, cellular providers, etc.

  8. Steve:

    To understand what the meaning of “to be sold a bill of goods” was at the time people started uttering it, we have to go back to what was going on at the time. In 1893, Sears, Roebuck & Company was founded. It was the joining of two companies, and a lot of their business was a mail order business. The company came out with a catalog at least once a year from which people could order a wide variety of goods. Back, then, many people lived in places where the choice of things to buy could be pretty limited, especially in small towns, so catalogs were a popular way to purchase things.

    Sears started building small stores in towns from which people could readily purchase the most popular items and from which people could order the rest by looking at a Sears catalog and writing down the catalog numbers of the items. People could pay for the order at the Sears store, and then they would be given a bill of sale, which was basically a receipt for the goods that they had purchased.

    Sears would have the goods delivered to that Sears store, and the customer would be notified when the goods came in. I know this firsthand because as a kid in the 1970s, my parents used to order from the Sears Wish Book Christmas Catalog, and one time my dad had me come with him when he went to pick up the Christmas order. Being a curious kid, when my dad was not looking, I leaned over and looked at the bill of goods to see what was on the list.

    Other companies used to do things the same way–have a customer come in and pay and in return give him a bill of sale–and have him wait for the goods to be shipped from another city. This was common in the first half of the twentieth century when the phrase “being sold a bill of goods” was much more commonly used.

    It is also why the phrase does not seem to make much sense anymore. Today, many of the Sears stores are closing, and people order stuff online instead. The catalogs of old are now web pages that people order from, and they get receipts emailed to them. However, the concept of being sold a bill of goods still applies. If you pay your money online, and the company from which you order your goods sends you an email receipt, yet that company never ships you your purchase, then you too have been sold a bill of goods. You paid, and you got a receipt, but you received no product. :)

  9. Andrew:

    I think what would make this one make more intuitive sense to me would be if the expression were
    “to sell someone *the* bill of goods”

  10. Alistair:

    The best way to think of this phrase, without penning a novella, is to think literally. There’s nothing cryptic here, but the phrase is given to misunderstanding due to the outmoded terminology.

    ‘sold a bill of goods’ simply means to be sold a promise and nothing more. No goods (or whatever was promised) was ever intended to be traded — they or it don’t exist or are not ‘as promised’…. but here’s some paper detailing the transaction.

  11. Jeremy:

    I doubt the scam was ever supposed to be “hey, all I promised you was this piece of paper!” It seems far more likely there was an actual promise of said goods to be delivered that wasn’t followed through on, and by that point the seller was nowhere to be found.

  12. Al:

    Excellent explanation! Very complete! After reading all the details, I finally understood once I read ‘Harry thought he bought nine crates of French champagne, but all he really bought was a bill of goods’. Aha! All Harry received in this purchase was the receipt or perhaps simply the packing slip for nine crates of Champagne, the crates filled only with excelsior. Poor Harry! Unfortunately, scams like this are becoming more and more prevalent these days, it’s terrible! Excellent explanation, thank you!

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