Back in the 1800s, the expression “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” meant the opposite of what it does now. Then it was used mockingly to describe an impossible act.Which got me thinking: if that's true, when did it become a metaphor for self help?
An 1834 publication ridiculed a claim to have built a perpetual-motion machine by saying that the inventor might next heave himself over a river “by the straps of his boots.” An 1840 citation scoffs that something is “as gross an absurdity as he who attempts to raise himself over a fence by the straps of his boots.”
Fortunately other people have researched the question, giving us a good start. The long list of nineteenth-century uses presented here shows that the phrase was pretty quickly applied to social or moral uplift, but usually in a mocking way:
Madison City Express (Wisc.), 2 Feb.1843: His Excellency is certainly attempting to lift himself up by his boot-straps, or, what is much better, is "sitting in a wheel-barrow to wheel himself."This started to change in the 1920s:
Southport Telegraph (Wisc.) 14 Feb. 1843: The Racine Advocate, in speaking of the subject, significantly remarks that 'the Governor must be trying to pull himself up the boot-straps.'
New Englander and Yale Review 6 July 1848: We have no great objection if teachers' conventions and associations pass resolutions of self-commendation; though this process of acquiring "due dignity" reminds us of the experiment sometimes made by boys, untaught in the natural laws of action and reaction, who try to elevate themselves to a more conspicuous position by means of their boot straps.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as its earliest example of the phrase, and it appears to illustrate the contemporary meaning: “There were ... others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps.”I thought this would trace back to the British or American self-help movement, Samuel Smiles and all, but I can't find any evidence of that. The references above are the only ones I found in an hour of searching that date to before the 1950s. So I think the prominence of the phrase in a positive sense must date to the new conservatism of the Nixon/Reagan period, not so old at all.
A 1931 volume of Pattern Makers’ Journal notes, “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps; shake off your cloak of indifference and voluntary serfdom.” And in 1927, Britain’s Sunday Times published an editorial ridiculing the headstrong American belief in self-improvement as exemplified by “the American bootstrapper.”
Incidentally Robert Heinlein wrote a short story in 1941 titled "By His Bootstraps," but it concerns time travel and the resulting paradoxes, so I think we should make this another ironic use; it's easy enough to bootstrap yourself to success if you have a time machine.