Friday, August 27, 2021

Frank Tinney, Ida May Chadwick and Joseph Zilch - Why "Zilch" Means "Zero"

Zero, zip, zilch, nada – that’s what has previously been known about the ultimate origin of the word, “Zilch,” an Americanism meaning “zero.” 

It has generally been understood that the word was borrowed from the use of the surname “Zilch,” most frequently as “Joe Zilch,” as a generic placeholder name.  In 1998, in the wake of President Clinton’s use of the expression “Joe Six-Pack,” William Safire, surveyed the history of similar “Everyman” monikers in his syndicated “On Language” column.  He speculated that “Joe Zilch was “probably a play on zero.”   

He signs checks John Doe (on a joint account with Jane Doe); the editor William Allen white in 1937 called him John Q. Public, and in 1883 the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner named him the forgotten man, a moniker that Franklin Roosevelt adopted while campaigning for president in 1932.

His first name soon changed to Joseph. The average Joe appeared as Joe Blow (1867), Joe Doakes (1926), Joe College (1932), G. I. Joe (1943) and, in Britain, Joe Bloggs (1969).  Although Joe Zilch (1925, probably a play on zero) and Joe Schmo (1950, rhyming with hometown Kokomo) are derisive, Joe Cool (1949) gets respect.

“On Language, The Return of Joe Six-Pack,” William Safire, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 3, 1998, page E-8.

Safire’s speculation that “zilch” was a “play on zero” may be off base, since the earliest known use of “zilch” to mean “zero” dates to the early-1950s, decades after “Joe Zilch” became popular.

Fairly Nice Things to Know.

The latest okay slang word among sports in the Maryland Air National Guard is “zilch,” which means “nothing.” 

The Evening Sun (Baltimore), July 5, 1954, page 27.

But why Zilch?  Zilch is a real last name, but not very common – why would it refer to an everyman.  The name appears to be Germanic.  The 1880 United States census lists several Zilch families distributed in different locations across the United States.  A quick look at a representative sampling of those entries revealed Zilches born in (or whose parents were born in) “Hesse,” “Prussia,” “Baden” and “Germany” – all in what is now called, simply Germany; with a couple Zilches born in France thrown in for good measure.

Did a specific person named Zilch inspire the word?

As it turns out, the answer to that question is yes.  “Joe Zilch” was derived from a specific man named Joseph Zilch, who lived in Camden, New Jersey.  His wife was Ida May Chadwick, a vaudevillian who was billed as the world champion woman buck and wing dancer.  During an appearance on the same bill with a comedian named Frank Tinney in the late-1910s, Tinney ad-libbed her husband’s name to refer to an unseen, off-stage character.  He got a laugh and decided to keep the name in his act for years, as the name of various unseen, off-stage characters.  Columnists like Nunnally Johnson, O. O. McIntyre and Walter Winchell used the name in their columns in the mid-1920s and the name caught on.


“Joe Zilch”

The edgy humor magazine, Ballyhoo, famously made frequent use of “Joe Zilch” and its variants beginning with its first issue in 1931.  The show-biz columnist Walter Winchell wrote a column entitled, “The Diary of Joe Zilch,” for the New York Evening Graphic and Variety, from as early as 1926.  

An early example of “Joe Zilch” as a placeholder dates to 1925. 

The Evening Telegram is now carrying pictures of its signed women writers at the heads of their columns.  Wish they would plaster the likeness of Frank Vreeland at the top of his tower of chat.  We have been an ardent Vreeland fan ever since he first started his theatrical comment column in the “Herald,” yet if we met him on the street we wouldn’t know him from Joe Zilch.

“Right off the Desk,” Nellie Revell, Variety, October 7, 1925, page 9.

Nunnally Johnson, who later wrote screenplays for The Grapes of Wrath and The Dirty Dozen, used the name regularly in his column for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, beginning in 1923.  He first used the name in series of pieces about the pending announcement of the winner of the fictional “Bok Peace Award.”  In the first piece, dated December 30, 1923, the name of the presumptive winner was given as “Joseph Zilch of 456 Mermaid ave., Fond du Lac, Wis.”  A month later, it was “Joseph Zilch of 42 Palmetto st., Baton Rough, La.”  Within the next few days, and in connection with new storylines, “Joseph Zilch” would be a grocery store manager on Pearl Street and a well known “commentator on Congressional actions” who lived at “675 Pineapple Street, Girard, Alabama.” 

But Nunnally Johnson did not coin the name.  He almost certainly borrowed it from a running gag used by the comedian Frank Tinney.  “Joe Zilch” was the name of his “mysterious off-stage friend”[i] who never appears onstage, which made the name perfectly suited for use as a generic everyman, a nobody – a zero.

In one surviving skit, “The Coachman and the Widder,”  Frank Tinney played a coachman driving Joseph Zilch’s widow home from the funeral; the coachman recognizes the deceased’s name as the name of his childhood friend who stole his true love from him, she recognizes the coachman as her old flame, and the two are reunited.

But the high peak of the evening is when [Tinney] comes on with Marion Sunshine and sings the sad romance of “The Coachman and the Widow.” This sweet ballad has a rather involved scenario about a widow who is driving away from the burial services of her husband (the late Joseph Zilch) when, in the coachman she recognizes an old sweetheart of hers.

New York Times, August 27, 1922, section 6 (Drama, Music, Fashion), page 1.

TINNEY (the Coachman): “Joseph Zilch?  He was my boyhood friend, but he stole from me the woman to who I was bequeathed to.  Tell me, what did Joseph die from?

THE WIDDER: “It was a wreck.  In going, he left me penniless.  I didn’t know what I was going to do until I met you just now.  Silas, you loved me once – ”

TINNEY: “I do love you still, Imogene Merriweather.  Here, here, hear what I have to say. (Plucking chrysanthemum.) Take this begonia.  And never let it be said that a coachman did not treat you – hansom.”

The Tampa Tribune, September 28, 1924, page 13.

After which they launch into song.

“Oh, give me back my husband,”

  The wretched widow cried,

As from her carriage window

  She stuck her head outside.

“Whoa!” yelled the coachman,

  And stopped his horses fleet,

And with these words consoled her,

  As he lit down from his seat:



“Driving down the avenue

  In my horse and carriage,

Sometimes to a funeral,

  Sometimes to a marriage.

Sounds of laugher, sounds of tears

  Mix with the noise of the wheels.

Although I am only a coachman

 I know how a broken heart feels!”


New York Times, August 27, 1922, section 6 (Drama, Music, Fashion), page 1.

But even Frank Tinney, who developed the never-seen character, Joe Zilch, did not coin the name.  He borrowed the name from the husband of one of his co-stars, Ida May Chadwick.  Joseph Zilch was a graduate of Brown University, an occasional vaudevillian and a longtime car, truck and automotive parts salesman in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey.  The various descriptions of precisely how and when the name was used and the character developed disagree on minor details, but nearly all of the major details of Zilch’s life, marriage and connection to Tinney are corroborated by contemporary accounts.


Joseph Zilch

After his death in 1953, Joseph Zilch’s hometown newspaper related the story of “Joe Zilch”, as told to them by his family.

‘Joe Zilch’ Dies At Home Here; Former Actor

Joseph A. Zilch, the man who reputedly put the name “Joe Zilch” into the English language to mean just about any average man, died Saturday at his home, 4108 Federal st., this city.  He was 68.

According to members of his family, he played a vaudeville skit years ago in the troupe of Ida May Chadwick, his first wife.  His part was exceedingly minor.  A little later, according to the story, he was playing on the stage of the Chestnut Street Opera House, in Philadelphia, also in a minor part, with Frank Tinney.  The late great comedian, doing an ad lib, is reputed to have introduced him to the audience as “the great Joe Zilch.”

Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey), January 26, 1953, page 4.

Across the river, Frank Tinney’s hometown newspaper gave a slightly different account.

Mr. Zilch, who retired recently as a salesman with the B & L-GMC Truck Sales Co . . . traveled with a vaudeville trio headed by his first wife, Ida May Chadwick.  The Chadwick trio appeared on the same bills with the late Frank Tinney, Philadelphia-born comedian.  The widely-used comic cognomen, Joe Zilch, was created by Tinney during a performance at the old Chestnut Street Opera House.  He used the name to ad lib during an emergency when the scenery collapsed.  Tinney remarked that “Joe Zilch was quite an architect.”

Philadelphia Inquirer, January 26, 1953, page 9.

Standing alone, the family’s story might seem contrived, but it is consistent with earlier versions of the story published in the ‘20s and ‘30s by two entertainment columnists.  In the early-1930s, after Ballyhoo magazine’s use of the name started attracting more attention to it, Walter Winchell wondered whether the real Joseph Zilch might have the legal right to stop the comedic abuse of his name.

Wonder if Ida May Chadwick’s husband has any legal right to halt the joshing of his real name – which is Joe Zilch?  Funny how that clowning began.  Ida was part of a show in which Frank Tinney starred and the Zilchs honeymooned with the troupe.  And one dull matinee Tinney found the audience very difficult to amuse – and for want of something funnier to say to cover up a flop quip – he spied the groom sitting in a box and exclaimed: “Ah! My friend Joe Zilch is with us!” . . . This enticed a wow response, they say . . And the comedian ‘kept it in” – getting roars with the name wherever he appeared . . . Today the tag is among the glorified with one humor magazine [(presumably Ballyhoo)] cashing in most heavily with it.

Nevada State Journal (Reno), April 22, 1932, page 4.

Winchell’s musings about the origin of the name might have come as a surprise to Ida May Chadwick.  Several years earlier, she wrote to Winchell to complain about his repeated use of her husband’s name in his column.  He denied any connection, claiming it was merely a coincidence.

Miss Chadwick was formerly married to Joe Zilch, and wrote Walter Winchell, the New York “Graphic” columnist, why he picked on that name for his Joe and Honey Zilch “diary” creation.  Winchell averred he picked the name out of the air and that it was a coincidence.

Variety, October 26, 1927, page 31.

The comedic use of her husband’s name may not have been the only reason for their divorce, but she reportedly identified it as a problem.

New York, June 15. Frank Tinney used to have a comedy name which brought many chortles.  He used it as a peg upon which to hang an occasional wheeze.  It was Joe Zilch.  This was real – the name of a husband of a girl in the show.  She recently divorced him and said among other things she was tired of the comedy name. 

“New York Day By Day,” O. O. McIntyre, Palladiumn-Item (Richmond, Indiana), June 15, 1925, page 6.[ii]

Ida May was not just annoyed about an unfortunate coincidence, in the way that all women named Karen are annoyed by the current pejorative use of “Karen.”  The use of the name “Joe Zilch” was no coincidence; her husband was almost certainly the inspiration.  Contemporary sources verify that Joseph Zilch acted onstage with Ida May Chadwick, that he married her, and that she performed with Frank Tinney at the Chestnut Street Theater in Philadelphia during their marriage, consistent with the story told in his obituary four decades later.

Chadwick Trio in New Act.

The former well known Chadwick Trio now numbers five, and are “breaking in” a new playlet, entitled “Wiggins’ Training Camp,” written by Herbert Hall Winslow.

“The Chadwick Trio, presenting ‘Wiggins’ Training Camp,’ have one of the oddest and jolliest little sketches seen on the vaudeville stage this season,” is how an out of tow squib describes the new one.  Raymond Knox and Joe Zilch are the two added members.

New York Clipper, October 4, 1913, page 15.

Seven years later, Mr. and Mrs. Zilch of Camden, New Jersey, celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary, which lines up neatly with the year he is said to have joined her act.[iii]


Ida May Chadwick

Joseph Zilch’s wife, Ida May Chadwick, had been performing with her parents, generally billed as “The Chadwick Trio” for most of her life.  Their signature act for many years was a skit entitled, “For Sale – Wiggins Farm.”  Ida’s signature character was Tillie Wiggins, known as the “original Hee Haw girl,” a naïve farm girl visiting town for the first time.

“The Great Chadwick Trio,” Hartford Courant, May 1, 1908, page 6.

Ida May’s specialty was “buck and wing dancing” or tap-dancing.  Promotional material for their act claimed that she had won, and defended several times, the title of “champion woman buck and wing dancer of the world.”  She is said to have first won the title at a contest sponsored by Richard K. Fox at Tammany Hall, New York City in about 1905, when she would have been twelve or thirteen years old.  

She played a version of her signature character and danced her signature style of dance decades later, in the pre-code film, “Pardon My Gun” (1930).  You can view her act on YouTube (from about 17:33 to 20:51).[iv]


Frank Tinney

As part of a successful, touring vaudeville act, Ida May Chadwick’s path would have crossed Frank Tinney’s any number of times over the years.  Tinney had been performing since being discovered by “the famous Dumont’s Minstrels in Philadelphia, his native city”[v] at about the age of six.[vi]   He performed at “entertainments for various charities” around Philadelphia until he finished school.  His parents “were always opposed to his histrionic ambitions” and “pleaded with him to learn some serious trade or profession instead of wasting his time with ‘that foolish acting business.’”  To please them, he trained, apprenticed, and earned his professional license to work as an embalmer and undertaker.  If something happened, he would always have a career to fall back on.[vii]

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. (1914). Publicity photo of Frank Tinney in the stage production Watch Your Step. Retrieved from

He was a regularly touring professional by the early-1900s.  Early in his career he was pigeon-holed as a blackface comedian, and performed in that idiom for many years until he was a headliner with enough clout to change his image and show his own face on stage. 

Tinney’s startling transition from his traditional blackface make-up to white face (he appears without burnt cork in the major portion of “Tickle Me”) is explained by him:  “It was only by chance that I ever happened to do blackface at the beginning of my career.  I got into a minstrel show and I was compelled to anoint my face with burnt cork,” said he.  “Gradually I gained a chance to do a few specialties, and I presently had a reputation as a blackface comedian.  Naturally I carried my black face with me into vaudeville, and the longer I blacked up the longer I had to do it.  All this time, however, I was longing for a regular comedy part and a chance to throw off my blackface disguise.  But, though I did get into the comedy role, it was not until my advent with ‘Sometime’ a season or two ago that I had the opportunity to expose my real skin to the footlights.

The Baltimore Sun, November 6, 1921, part 4, pages 1 and 10.

One of Frank Tinney’s signature bits was to engage in patter with the orchestra leader.  Columbia Records released recordings of two such bits, creatively entitled, “Frank Tinney’s First Record” and “Frank Tinney’s Second Record.”  Both records can be heard on the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox.

“Frank Tinney’s First Record” (1915), Library of Congress, item jukebox-652059.[viii]

“Frank Tinney’s Second Record” (1915), Library of Congress, item jukebox-652094.[ix]

The jury is still out on whether his routine is still funny or not – you be the judge.

“Say Max,” says Frank Tinney,” let me have two tens for this five.” And Max Hoffman, because he gets part of his salary for letting Frank Tinney talk to him, dutifully passes over the tens.  “That proves it!” exclaims Tinney. “Proves what?” asks Max, weakly.  “Proves you don’t know one note from another!”  Besides being a Tinney foil, Max leads the orchestra at the Century Theatre, almost a job in itself.

New York Tribune, March 4, 1917, Part Six (“The Tribune Graphic”), page 4.

He lent his name to “Oh Henry!” candy bars, and the ad copy was written in the style of one of his conversations with the orchestra leader, but this time he was supposedly talking to an “Oh Henry!” candy bar.

“Say Frank, when you start kidding the orchestra leader” said Oh Henry! – “All I want is just to be out front with my ears pinned back.”

“If what I hear is true” answered Frank “you usually are out in front.”

And that’s true! Wherever people gather you’ll find Oh Henry!

Daily Times (Davenport), November 12, 1923, page 11.

Frank Tinney was also a skilled musician. “He was a good pianist, a clever coronetist and an expert with the bagpipes, and he could draw tunes out of sleighbells and such musical paraphernalia of the vaudeville stage.”[x]  He worked the bagpipes into one his orchestra leader-patter bits.

Frank Tinney, always in blackface, with his red and gold uniform and his bagpipes, was always a favorite.  Coming on stage Tinney would sound a mournful note on the bagpipes.  “Is that thing sick?” the orchestra leader would ask. “No,” from Tinney, “It’s ill; Ill Torvatore,” with which he would go into his monologue, neglecting the bagpipes entirely.

The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey), June 23, 1956, page 28.

Tinney appeared on the same bill with the Chadwick Trio at Percy C. Williams’ Orpheum Theater in Brooklyn, New York  in 1910, three years before Joseph Zilch joined the troupe.

Frank Tinney, a clever burnt cork artist, will make his first appearance here in an act of comedy.  . . . The Chadwick Trio offer “For Sale – Wiggins’ Farm,” affording Ida Chadwick, buck dancer, a chance to shake a foot.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 11, 1910, page 31.

But it was nearly a decade later when she performed in the same company with Tinney, on the stage of the Chestnut Theater in Philadelphia, where her husband’s name would be used, but not in vain.


“Some Time”

In 1918 and 1919, Arthur Hammerstein’s production of “Some Time” had a long run on Broadway with Ed Wynn in the lead role, before closing in July.  Years later, Ed Wynn would become a familiar voice and face on film.  He voiced the Mad Hatter in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, sang “I Love to Laugh” as Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins, and earned an Academy Award nomination playing Mr. Dussell in The Diary of Anne Frank.  And in 1919, he was already big enough to say no to joining the touring company of “Some Time.”  Frank Tinney took over his role when “Some Time” went on the road.

“Four Peaches with ‘Some Time’ Chest. St. Opera House,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2, 1919, News Section, page 20.

In November of 1919, after stops in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey, the touring company of “Some Time” arrived for an extended stay at the Chestnut Theater in Philadelphia, with Frank Tinney in the lead and Ida May Chadwick as one of the principals. 

“Frank Tinney and Ida May Chadwick, Chest. St. Opera House,” Philadelphia Inquirer, November 9, 1919, News Section, page 20.

“Some Time” At Chestnut, Frank Tinney Scores in Hammerstein Show of Theatrical Life. 

The old bagpipe stunt of Mr. Tinney, who, by the way, appears in a blackface makeup for only a few minutes, was well received, as were his gags about local people and places. . . . The hit made by Ida May Chadwick was well earned and her hard-sole buck dance recalled days when this was all the style.

Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), November 4, 1919, page 14.

Ida May’s husband, Joseph Zilch, had started his own truck dealership and automotive parts company in Camden in 1918, after having sold cars and trucks in Philadelphia for more than a decade, so he may not have had the time to be a full-time actor any more, if he ever had been.[xi]

Courier- Post (Camden, New Jersey), August 17, 1921, page 16.

Zilch was not listed in the cast, although he may have had a small role.  There is a Joseph Chadwick listed in the cast, although that may have been Ida May’s father, whose name was also Joseph.  But even if Joe Zilch were not in the permanent cast, he lived across the river in Camden, New Jersey, so he may have attended some of the performances.  And, as an ex-vaudevillian, he could easily have been put on stage in a small role at some point.  In any case, he would have been in the right place for Frank Tinney to know him, or at least know of him, and to borrow his name in an ad-lib.

The plot of “Some Time” is even consistent with one of the “Joe Zilch” origin stories, in which Tinney supposedly made the ad-lib in response to a problem with the set.  “Some Time” revolved around the lives of stage actors, and much of the action took place onstage or backstage.  Frank Tinney played the role of the property master.  In one scene, a character who is an actress is trying to tell a sad story about her life to other cast-members, and is repeatedly interrupted by the prop-master, played by Tinney, who launches into one of his comic bits after each interruption.  It seems plausible that a bit about a problem with the set could have been part of the plot. 

Regardless of precisely when or why Frank Tinney made his first “Joe Zilch” reference, he apparently kept the bit in his act throughout the run of “Some Time,” and incorporated the device of an unseen character named “Joe Zilch,” in one form or another, in other bits in other shows.

No contemporary references to “Joe Zilch” published during the run of “Some Time” have been uncovered, but there are numerous references to his use of the device from another Hammerstein production starring Frank Tinney, staged three years later.

“Daffy Dill”

Daffy Dill

A musigirl comedy produced at the Apollo Theatre by Arthur Hammerstein on August 22nd, with the following principals: Maron Sunshine . . . Frank Tinney . . . . Book by Guy Bolton and Oscar Hammerstein. Music by Herbert Stothart.

Comedy! Actual fact! If you don’t believe it – (and I don’t blame you if you don’t!) – go and see! Not only comedy, but humor which is something else again and an even rarer commodity on the musical show boards of Broadway.  Frank Tinney and the writers of a trite but fun-filled book are responsible for the innovation. . . .

Theater Magazine, Volume 36, Number 259, October 1922, pages 228 and 268.

A reviewer from Life Magazine mentioned Tinney’s coachman skit and the name of the deceased, “Joe Zilch.”  Ironically, the skit caused the reviewer to have a change in heart about their favorite actor, replacing Ed Wynn (whose role Tinney  had taken in the touring company of “Some Time”) with Frank Tinney.

Just as we begin to get it settled in our mind that Ed Wynn is our favorite actor, Frank Tinney comes back after a year’s absence and we are thrown into an emotional turmoil again. . . .

The end came during the sentimental number called “The Coachman’s Heart,” in which Joseph Zilch, Mr. Tinney’s mysterious off-stage friend, was represented by his widow in the dental personality of Marion Sunshine.  Mr. Tinney as the humanitarian coachman, wearing a mustache in precarious adjustment which gave him the look of a dissipated Arnold Bennett, exerted all his old-time fascination and we ended up on the floor under the seats.  May Ed Wynn, wherever he is, forgive us.  We were tried beyond our strength.

Life Magazine, Volume 80, Number 2080, September 14, 1922, page 20.

Tinney used the same skit after he left “Daffy Dill.”

The inimitable Frank Tinney, once more in Keith time, came back to Brooklyn yesterday for a week’s stay at the Orpheum Theatre.  While “The Coachman and the Widow” skit, previously heard here, serves as a foundation for the comedian’s act, there is much that is new and clever in the turn he is doing now.  The latest offering he calls “Meet My Wife.”  It is fifteen minutes crammed full of laughter.

The Brooklyn Citizen, March 20, 1923.

The skit was memorable enough that a reviewer recalled Marion Sunshine’s “nationally known” role as Mrs. Zilch in a review of another show several years later.

In “Daffy Dill,” Miss Sunshine created the role of the nationally known Mrs. Zilch in “The Coachman and the Widow” with Frank Tinney. . . . Miss sunshine displayed as shapely a pair of legs as were ever insured for any fabulous sum.  It is claimed she does the fastest Charleston in the world. 

The Morning Call (Allentown), September 9, 1926, page 22.

And after his life and career collapsed following the exposure of his love-nest and the ensuing scandal and divorce, “Joseph Zilch” was on the short list of his accomplishments, even after his long career.


PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 7. – Rumors that Frank Tinney, noted comedian, was on his way to Hollywood to visit his divorced wife, were set at rest today when it was discovered that the creator of “Joseph Zilch,” was convalescing in a Philadelphia sanitarium.

The Evening News (Philadelphia), February 7, 1927, page 1.



The earliest known example of a “Zilch” in print , apart from descriptions of Frank Tinney’s act, appeared in the “Joe Quince” comic strip in 1923.  As was the case in Tinney’s act, the Zilch in the comic strip is named, but does not appear in the story. 

The character of Joe Quince was a guy who had once been a retail sales clerk, but who had quit his job after inheriting a fortune.  He quickly lost his fortune, but liked the high life, so he spent his time pursuing one get-rich-quick scheme after the other; sometimes swimming in cash, at other times penniless.  Along the way he picks up a sidekick named “Mose,” who participates in all of Joe’s misadventures, sharing the wealth or envying one another’s money as each one’s fortunes went up and down.  Joe was the relative brains of the operation; Mose was portrayed as uneducated, gullible and naïve.

In the episode at issue, they are both down on their luck, and Joe Quince can no longer afford to keep Mose on as his valet (a position he had held only briefly while his chips were down and Joe’s were up).  Joe Quince recommends Mose to a friend of his to work as an “office boy.”  On his first day at the office, the boss asks Mose to look up the telephone number of a company that starts with G.  Mose takes too long to find it because he is reading the entire book, looking for the name, instead of just looking it up alphabetically.  The caption above the strip reads, “Lucky He Wasn’t Looking Up a Mr. Zilch.”


Davenport Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), September 1 1,1923.

Nunnally Johnson started using the names “Joseph Zilch,” “Joe Zilch” and other Zilches in his columns in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in December 1923. 

H. I. Phillips, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, used the name “Abner Zilch” as a placeholder name in one of a list of proposed less long-winded and more honest “forms for future nominating speeches.”

FORM No. 5

“Friends:” I offer the name of . . . the name of . . . Well, for the moment it has escaped me.  Oh, yes, Abner Zilch, a good man or money refunded. Thanks.”

(Note: Almost ideal. So brief it should make Mr. Zilch unbeatable.)

Philadelphia Inquirer, July 5, 1924, page 14.

Nellie Revell used “Joe Zilch” in the show-biz weekly, Variety, in October of 1925, and Walter Winchell was writing a regular feature, “Joe Zilch’s Diary,”  in the New York Evening Graphic and Variety by 1926.  “Joe Zilch’s Diary” followed the exploits of a married couple, Joe and Honey Zilch, who performed together in the same vaudeville act.  In one column they fought about money.  In other columns he was jealous of the time she spent with the acrobats, and annoyed that that she liked “cooch stuff.” 

Walter Winchell’s vaudeville fans are wondering why he doesn’t do more of the “Joe Zilch Diary” for “The Graphic.” This is excellent fooling with a fine flavor of hokum fun, and reveals the clever Walter at his humorous best.  Winchell was in the variety racket himself once upon a time and knows all its ins and outs and its rich humanity.  When he takes a night’s sleep and lets himself go at the typewriter, young Mr. Winchell writes in a vein of originality flavored with his own Broadway vocabulary that is all his own and a circulation builder for his paper.  Walter dearly loves a new nifty, and nowadays in the night clubs when he approaches, the cry goes up among rival columnists: “Hide your gags – here comes Winchell.”

“The Playboy of Broadway,” Walter J. Kinsley, Vaudeville News and New York Star, September 10, 1926, page 10.

Many other writers also got in on the “Zilch” act, frequently using “Joe” as a placeholder name, although not exclusively.

Of course, the development of the conscious ego is no greater here [(Miami Beach)] than on Broadway. It is just a trifle easier to handle.  Society editors in Miami do not smile any more at mimeographed announcements that “Miss Minnie Zilch, of the Bronx, leader of New York’s Four Hundred, is entertaining at the Flamingo for dinner.”

“New York – Day by Day,” O. O. McIntyre, Battle Creek Enquirer (Battle Creek, Michigan), February 24, 1926, page 4.

The superintendent doesn’t intend to ask his cops to give nine rahs for and the keys to the city to, let us say, Mr. Joseph Zilch of Steubensville, O., as Mr. Zilch putters into the city in his 1913 sedan but he would like to see a figurative arm of the law extended in a fashion that will excite Mr. Zilch to “Ah! Pittsburgh, the ideal city.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 16, 1926, page 5.


Get this over with.  To go home from Paris without having lunched at Ciro’s would stamp you everlastingly the Parvenu.  You have been in twenty restaurants just like Ciro’s.  In New yOrk. In Chicago. In Boston. Even in Cincinnati. A ceiling, four walls; some carpet on the floor.  Your fellow lunchers – Americans, all of them.  There is Joseph Zilch, President of the Buttonhole Makers Union of Hoboken.  There is Sol Ginsberg of “The Elite Cloak and Suit Co.,” of New York. . . .  They are all here.  If their names you do not know, their faces are familiar.  And not a single Frenchman; not even on the sidewalk, outside.

Bruce Reynolds, Paris with the Lid Lifted, New York, G. Sully & Company, 1927, page 117.

There are many other examples from the period, but one magazine garnered attention and notice for regularly using the name “Zilch” as the names of characters mentioned in its pages.



The funniest thing about the magazine Grace won’t allow me or the boys fetch into the house is this Zilch name.  Elmer Zilch, as an unknown hero, just as Elmer Zilch, tickles me.  Nothing is any funnier to me than a “big speech,” especially if it has oratory in it, with flights like “none other than Elmer Zilch.” . . . . I wish they’d run Elmer Zilch for something or other this year.  Wouldn’t that be great? “Our candidate, whom we will nominate with a tremendous majority and triumphantly elect – none other than Elmer Zilch! Hooray!”  

Wilmington News-Journal (Wilmington, Ohio), May 28, 1932, page 4.

It’s not clear why the name was so funny, although the magazine referred to is clearly Ballyhoo, which published its first issue in August 1931.  Even Variety, where “Zilch” had been in use for more than five years, noted the influence of Ballyhoo on the increased popularity of the name.

That Zilch Tribe

Influence of ‘Ballyhoo’ was made patent the other morning at Rutgers university, where a subscription paper was passed at chapel for a charity fund.

In addition to the regular contribution more than a million was contributed by various members of the ‘Zilch’ family.

Variety, December 15, 1931, page 50.

The first issue of Ballyhoo included no fewer than twenty-eight appearances of the surname “Zilch,” although none of them were “Joe”; the initials O., W. W. and Z. Z. Zilch; Miss, Mr. and Mrs. Percy and Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Zilch; Oswald, Henry, Oscar, Charles, Langhorne, Percy, Montmorency, Luther, Lewellyn, Zadrack, Harry, Fred, Bolton, Peter, Oswald and Herman Zilch; La Belle and Emma Zilch.

The most remarkable thing about Ballyhoo is how modern it looks.  The artwork looks like 1970s Playboy (or so I’m told), with nearly as much cartoon nudity, and the advertising satire would fit right in with Mad Magazine or National Lampoon. 

“Oh, pardon me Old Man, this is Miss Zilch,” Ballyhoo, Volume 1, Number 1, August 1931, pages 16-17.

“Mr. and Mrs. Adolph Zilch” and “Mr. and Mrs. Percy Zilch,” Ballyhoo, Volume 1, Number 1, August 1931, page27.


“La Belle Zilch says, ‘I really am 36!’” Ballyhoo, Volume 1, Number 1, August 1931, page29.


“Lizzy Zilch, Yonkers, New York,” Ballyhoo, Volume 1, Number 1, August 1931, page 33.


“Zero Zilch”

Today, the words “zero” and “zilch” are frequently grouped close to one another, as “zero, zip, zilch” (and sometimes “nada”) or “zero, zilch, zip” (and sometimes “nada”).  The two words share a common first-letter, which likely contributed to zilch eventually being given the meaning, “zero.”  But even before “zilch” standing alone, the name “Joe Zilch” might suggest something insignificant or unimportant.

The genealogy of Joe Zilch is doubtful, but he symbolizes the fellow who does not mean much in the scheme of things.

“New York By Day,” O. O. McIntyre, Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 16, 1937, page 4.

In the 1940s and 1950s, “Zilch” was used in radio and television slang to denote an unknown person in the studio.

ZILCH – The standard name used to describe anyone who walks into the studio and whose name is not known.

CBS, Radio Alphabet, a Glossary of Radio Terms, Hastings House, 1946, page 78.

Zilch: Anyone who walks into a TV studio whose name is unknown, and therefore unimportant in showbiz terms.

Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1951, page 4.

And a couple examples of “Zero Zilch,” used as a placeholder name of an insignificant person, illustrate, perhaps, the genesis of the later transition of “zilch” to “zero.”

“Zero Zilch” was the name of a character in a radio whodunit from 1933.

The story revolves, with dizzy speed, around the murder of a member of the Zilch family.

Caltana Christoph will be heard in the role of Martha Bloomington who is forced to marry the villain, Zero Zilch, a Zero who doesn’t amount to anything, and who roundly deserves to be rubbed out.

Oakland Tribune, March 27, 1933, page 7.

 “Private Zero Zilch” was the fictitious name of a man who missed winning a prize by one spot, after giving away his place in line.

This is the story of Private Zero Zilch, who just missed being the 200,000the man to enter the USO club on Somerset street.  Poor Private Zilch was just behind Seargeant Thomas Smith, the Trenton man whose picture you saw in the papers the other day.  As a matter of fact Zero, our hero, stood aside to let Sergeant Smith enter the USO club, as befits military courtesy, and thus lost out on fame immortal.  It has been ever thus, as I learned later in an interview with Private Zilch, whom I found sobbing alone in the dark room at the USO club, where soldiers develop pictures as a hobby.  All his life he has come in second best, always finishing just out of the headlines.

“Of All Things,” Ed Olly,  The Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey), September 21, 1943, page 4.


“Joe Zilch” Approaches Zero

Despite the occasional use of alternately-named “Zilches,” “Joe” or “Joseph” persisted as the most common first name of the proverbial “Zilch” everyman.   References to “Joe Zilch” in print have been on the decline since the early-1960s, although examples appeared in print regularly through the 1990s and into the early 2000’s.  In 1976, for example, headlines around the country spoke of “The Spooks vs. Joe Zilch” when “senior intelligence officials” used a hypothetical American named “Joe Zilch” to illustrate the dangers of Soviet spying, and that “their efforts to protect the national security through counter-intelligence wiretapping were being thwarted by Attorney General Edward Levi’s refusal to authorize” certain wiretaps.

The most recent example of “Joe Zilch” found in the wild while researching this topic is from 2011, in a column by the Reverend Al Perkins in the Montgomery Advertiser (Alabama).  Seventy years after the death of the man who inspired the expression, “Joe Zilch” may have had its last hurrah, even though Joseph Zilch was a real person.   Ironically, word “zilch” lives on, even though it’s “nothing.”


[i] Life Magazine, Volume 80, September 14, 1922, page 20.

[ii]  NOTE: The resources used to prepare this piece identified the earliest known examples of Walter Winchell’s “Diary of Joe Zilch” as being from the summer of 1926, which is a full year after Ida May Chadwick divorced her husband Joseph Zilch.  If that is, in fact, the earliest date Winchell used the name, it would not be clear whether she would have had reason to write to Walter Winchell to complain about his use of her husband’s name during her marriage, which ended by 1925.  It is possible that Walter Winchell used “Joe Zilch” in his columns much earlier than known, in publications not found while researching this piece.  It is also possible that she could have complained to Winchell even after her divorce, if she were still referred to as “Mrs. Zilch” in her personal life off the stage.

[iii] Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey), May 21, 1920, page 6 (“Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Zilch, of the Cooper Square Apartments, will entertain a house party at their home in Belmawr over Sunday to celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary.”).

[iv] “Pardon My Gun” (1930)

[v] The Baltimore Sun, November 6, 1921, part 4, page 1.

[vi] The Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), July 6, 1927, page 4 (an interview with his father, Hugh Frank Tinney, who was in Lancaster visiting his sister). Frank Tinney was 62 years old when he died in 1941 (Cincinnati Enquirer, January 2, 1941, page 18), so he would have been born in about 1879.

[vii] The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 25, 1911, page 18.

[viii] Prince'S Orchestra, Tinney, F. & Prince, C. A. (1915) Frank Tinney's first record. [Audio] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

[ix] Prince, C. A., Tinney, F. & Prince'S Orchestra. (1915) Frank Tinney's second record. [Audio] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

[x] The Baltimore Sun, November 6, 1921, part 4, page 1.

[xi] Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey), February 3, 1930, page 18. (“After selling motor trucks in Camden for 12 years [(since 1918)] . . . one agent here has secured the franchise for Stewart Motor Trucks in this vicinity.

. . . Mr. Zilch is the pioneer motor parts man in Camden.  When he came here from Philadelphia where he had been associated in the automobile and truck business since 1904, to found the Commercial Motors and Parts Co., there was no company handling motor parts and only one motor truck agency.”).