The early uses of the phrase clearly refer to the carrot and the stick as separate. At a press conference on 25 May 1943 Winston Churchill stated: “We shall continue to operate on the Italian donkey at both ends, with a carrot and with a stick.” After the war articles in The Economist and Time applied that metaphor of “sticks or carrots” to workplace management.
But the contrast of carrot and stick goes back decades earlier—as we’d expect from a phrase based on managing horses. Or, more often, donkeys. Here are three examples from children’s literature.
Belinda, “Our Pet Donkey,” The Children’s Prize (London), October 1872:
If any little boy or girl has a donkey who is sometimes sulky and obstinate, I should very much like them before using the whip or stick to try what a little persuasion will do in the shape of a bit of bread, or a slice of carrot; and, I will venture to say, that a far greater victory will be won by these means than by any whip that was ever made.Anonymous, Ups and Downs of a Donkey’s Life (London: 1876):
“The child will do; question is as to the donkey. Some will learn, some won’t—and if they won’t, why they won’t, go that's the end of it,” said the showman.D. B. M., “Contributors to Seaside Pleasures,” Chatterbox (Boston: 1891):
“Minna can get him to do anything; besides, here’s my stick—he knows that,” said Sam, grimly.
“Oh, bother sticks! I believe in carrots, myself. We’ll give ’em a month and see—it’s slack time now.”
The writer of this once saw two boys deliberately beat a starved-looking donkey with a thick stick, till the weapon broke in their hands, and it is this cruel habit of tormenting donkeys which teaches the animal to retaliate with a kick or a vicious bite. Every boy should aim at winning the love of the humble animal which contributes so much to the amusement of his seaside holiday. Why should he not even be thoughtful enough to put a crust of bread or a morsel of carrot in his pocket, with which to reward it at the close of the hour’s ride? To see the poor donkey’s enjoyment of the offered dainty would be a sufficient reward for his thoughtfulness to any boy with a kindly heart for dumb animals.Already writers were making an analogy between managing a donkey and managing people, as in this passage from “The Reality of Duty,” Lord Blachford’s analysis of the autobiography of John Stuart Mill for The Contemporary Review (London), August 1876:
…praise and blame were to him mere instruments for the formation of expedient characters, by an arbitrary association of pleasurable ideas with expedient actions. They were to man what carrots or sticks are to a horse or an ass—engines of manufacture, not revelations of truth. It was this carrot and stick discipline to which Mr. John Mill was subjected, and which he accepted dutifully as flowing from that perfect wisdom of which up to this time his father had been the representative.Michael Quinion also noted that several other European languages have variations on the “carrot and stick” phrase.
To be sure, there are early examples of the “carrot on a stick” image. One of Quinion’s correspondents mentioned that in 1851 a German humorist had described such a scene. Then it came into English, probably first in visual form.
Rev. William Arnot, “This Present World,” The Family Treasury (London: 1872):
I have seen a pair of pictures which, by way of parable, represented the two principal propelling forces in action as applied to an ass. In one of the pictures a brace of boys are belabouring a loaded donkey on the hinder parts with stout sticks, but all in vain; for the poor brute has evidently made up his mind that on the whole it is better to bear the blows, than trudge to market with his burden. He prefers meekly to bear the lesser ills he knows, than fly to others that he knows not off [sic]: he therefore stands stock-still on the road.Even when describing a character dangling a carrot from “a long, slender pole,” however, Arnot’s main point was the contrast between enticing a donkey with a carrot and beating it with “stout sticks.”
In the other picture an old woman is comfortably seated on her donkey’s back above a couple of panniers staffed with vegetables. She is armed with a long, slender pole like a fishing-rod; but in this case it has neither a fly at the one end nor a fool at the other. A fine fresh carrot by way of bait is attached to the point of the pole, which the cunning angler keeps dangling a few inches before the donkey’s nose; and he, in the fond hope of overtaking the savoury mouthful, is carrying mistress and panniers at a rattling pace towards the market-town. The wise woman casts out of the canvas a leer of satisfied superiority at the baffled boys as she gallops past.
Thus, there are two methods of urging forward a donkey or a man; one is both more easy and more successful than the other.
A generation or two later, other writers referred to the same sort of comical picture or story.
Thomas Stevens, Through Russia on a Mustang (New York: 1891):
But that morning, as I rode along, there flashed into my mind a cartoon I had once seen of a donkey race, in which the victory had been won by an ingenious jockey who held a carrot on the end of a stick a foot or two in front of his ass’s nose. In its eagerness to reach the carrot, the donkey put on such a tremendous burst of speed that it immediately outstripped its competitors and won the race.Editorial, The Railroad Worker (Chicago), March 1917:
…it might be like the proverbial method that it is said the London costermonger employs to secure speed from his donkey, “the tieing of a carrot on the end of a stick and keeping it a distance from the end of his nose, so that the poor donkey will, as the saying is, chase it, in hopes of catching up with the carrot which cannot be done.”“The Donkey and the Carrot,” Public: A Journal of Democracy (New York), August 1919:
…the whole situation is admirably typified in the old cartoon which showed Punch riding a donkey which he urged to greater speed by holding a carrot on a stick in front of the animal’s nose. In this combination the donkey represented labor, the carrot prices, while Mr. Punch combined in his person the landlord and the monopolist.Those passages don’t discuss an actual method of getting a donkey to move. A 1912 volume of Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia did describe a “stick and carrot race” as a fun party game for children “at the seaside, where donkeys can be hired for about ninepence an hour”: “Each competitor tries to incite her steed to its top speed by dangling a fine carrot before its nose.”
However, there were many practical guides to working with equines published in the 1800s, just as there are manuals on automobile maintenance today. And none recommends dangling a carrot from a stick while seated on the back of a donkey.
Probably with good reason: donkeys aren’t stupid. If they see the carrot keeps moving away from them when they walk, they usually stop wasting their energy. If we had to spend more time with donkeys today, we’d know that.