Where does "The streets are paved in gold" come from?

At the time of the great immigrations at the turn of the 19th c. and the teens, Jews in the Old Country referred to America as “Der goldene medina”–the land of gold.

I think the expression “the streets are paved with gold” became a saying then, but I’m not sure if it was Yiddish only, or here in English, or referring only to NYC. Any ideas?

I have always associated it with the English story of Dick Whittington, where it refers to the streets of London. In the story, Whittington comes to London, together with his cat, because he has been told, and naively believes, that the streets are paved with gold, but decides to leave when he finds that they are not. However, as they are leaving they hear the chiming of Bow Bells, and the cat says “Turn again Whittington.” They turn back to London, and Whittington eventually becomes Lord Mayor.

According to Wikipedia, the Whittington story first became a stage play in 1605. Dick Whittington is still performed in Britain as a pantomime at Christmas time: there is probably a production of it performed somewhere in Britain every year. Audiences would be most disappointed if traditional lines such as that about the streets being paved with gold were left out. (I do not know if the line was always part of the story, or the play, but it is firmly entrenched now.)

My guess is that the phrase was only much later applied to New York, or other reputedly wealthy cities.

The historical Richard Whittington, on whom the story and play are presumably, but probably very loosely, based was Lord Mayor in the 12th-13th century.

Interesting. No question of influence of course, from 1600 England to 20th century Europe. A trope of wealth?

Too late for the edit window: this Wicki entry, about the story and play rather than the historical figure, actually mentions teh line about the streets paved with gold.

And if you don’t know about the strange (and ongoing) British tradition of Christmas pantomimes, see here.

Concerning the New Jerusalem: “And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.” Rev. 21:21 KJV


Something I’m wondering, beyond the Dick Whitman legend, is if the California Gold Rush had something to do with it. Hinton Helper’s 1855 book about California, for instance, was titled “The Land of Gold”, and Frank Stockton, most famous for his short story “The Lady or the Tiger”, had an essay in his book, “Stories of New Jersey”, called “New Jersey and the Land of Gold”, about Robert Stockton and Stephen Kearney, two people from New Jersey who were instrumental in the conquest of California.

Nonsense. Like I said, versions of the play are still performed, probably every year, and always with that line. Most British people are very familiar with it. Pantomimes, probably including Dick Whittington are also performed in other countries with strong British influences, such as Australia and Canada. Anyway, there has been plenty of opportunity for the “trope” to have spread from Britain to elsewhere in Europe and to America.


I should have spelled it out clearer: this thread was originally about Yiddish speakers, who of course are from Europe.

And I am saying that the expression, a common English trope and specifically about streets paved with gold, and not just generally about golden cities or some such, has had centuries during which it it could have percolated to other parts of Europe, and to America. My guess would be that that Yiddish speakers actually picked it up from the Anglos after they arrived in America. Sometimes immigrants and ethnic minorities do pick up things from the dominant culture, you know.

I am sure many cultures, more or less independently, have notions of a lands or cities of gold, as with El Dorado (Spanish/South American) -gold is a very widespread symbol of wealth - but I think it is likely that streets paved with gold, comes from the Whittington story.

I was going to point this out as well. It’s a lot older a trope than English pantomime, and has probably been independently reinvented several times, at that.

OK, that has “streets” and “gold,” but it does not have “paved.” I am talking specifically about the phrase “streets paved with/in gold” that is in the thread title. This is an established, constant element in the Dick Whittington story (which, as a folk tale is a lot older than the pantomime - the pantomime is just the main source of its continuing perpetuation); it is not in the quoted passage from Revelations (although it is very possible that that may have been an influence on whoever introduced the phrase into the Whittington tale).

If the question is just about the trope of cities of gold, then I agree that it has probably been reinvented many times. It is rather obvious, as gold is such a widely used symbol of wealth. But if the question is about the phrase “streets paved with gold” (perhaps as translated into Yiddish, or other languages) then I still think the Whittington story is the most likely source (or, even if not the absolutely original source, the main vehicle through which it has been propagated).

Hm. I’m not sure what the difference is between a street of gold and a street paved with gold, but still, that’s fair; I concede that you may be right about the Whittington story being the main vehicle through which that particular phrasing propagated.

You can search Google Books and put in the term “streets are paved with gold” and limit your search to, say, 1800-1850. The phrase appears 117 times(many duplicates). You can see it in American Notes by Charles Dickens, describing his voyage to America.

The OED traces the phrase ‘paved with gold’ (in English, of course) back to 1582. It does mention the Dick Whittington angle, but implies that this is later, when it becomes the obvious example of the phrase having connotations of credulity.

The second quotation it gives is from The Pilgrim’s Progress, which, given Bunyan’s vast popularity, may well be a sufficient explanation for its widespread use in English. But I’m sure that ragerdude and Indistinguishable are right to point to Revelation as the ultimate source. The OED’s earliest examples, especially the Bunyan one, would fit neatly with that.

I found “paved with gold” in Some yeares travels into divers parts of Asia and Afrique dated 1638 - however that may be literal.

But also and in Pilgrim’s Progress, dated 1678. “…the City shone like the Sun, the Streets also were paved with Gold, and in them walked many men…” describing heaven, I think, so again possibly literal.

Here is is from Tobias George Smollett in 1759, describing the mythical city of Eldorado: “…they were fucked into a fubterraneous whirlpool, and thrown up in the kingdom of Eldorado, where the ftrees were paved with gold and diamonds.”*.

*Old-style Ss not altered - with hilarious results!

The story I recall from my childhood, was the bells saying to Dick (and his cat) “Go back go back Dick Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London town.”

Where he signed up as a cabin boy (thus leaving London in a bigger way) and sold his faithful companion and only friend down the river so to speak, his cat, to make his fortune.


The quote about “paved with gold” I always associated as meaning things were so much better and richer there, not really about incredulity - except maybe people believing things were much better than they were…

I doubt immigrants thought the streets were literally paved in gold. At best, it was a metaphor, and it’s also quite likely the phrase was a description of the immigrants used by an outsider.

I thought it was from The Wizard of Oz.

Hehe. I was shocked for a moment. Although, turning <ſ> into <f> is alteration, technically…

(Depending on the font, I suppose, the medial S may or may not have the left-side nub. Apparently the default font here, unfortunately, does not…)

Your argument ſucked me in: it doeſ indeed depend which font you uſe.