Riches Are Like Muck Which Stinks in a Heap But Spread Abroad Makes the Earth Fruitful

Richard Branson? Thornton Wilder? Francis Bacon? Mr. Bettenham? King James I of England? Henry Edmundson? Richard Flecknoe? Clint Murchison? Anonymous?

fertilizer10Dear Quote Investigator: The famous British entrepreneur Richard Branson employed an extraordinary simile. He said that “money is like manure”, and elaborated on the thought as follows: 1

If you let money pile up, it starts to stink. But if you spread it around then it can do a lot of good.

Branson also credited the prominent playwright Thornton Wilder with a remark that was thematically similar. Would you please explore the history of this figurative language?

Quote Investigator: This family of expressions has a very long history that stretches back into the 1600s. The English philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon wrote a piece discussing statecraft titled “Of Seditions and Troubles” that was published in his landmark collection of essays in 1625. Bacon wrote a precursor to the expression under examination that used the word “muck” instead of “manure”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Above all things, good Policie is to be used, that the Treasure and Moneyes, in a State, be not gathered into few Hands. For otherwise, a State may have a great Stock, and yet starve. And Money is like Muck, not good except it be spread. This is done, chiefly, by suppressing, or at the least, keeping a strait Hand, upon the Devouring Trades of Usurie, Ingrossing, great Pasturages, and the like.

Bacon presented the core simile, but he did not extend the analogy to the olfactory organ. Yet, in 1625 Bacon also released a collection of “Apophthegmes New and Old” that included a longer expression with the word “stench” that was attributed to someone named “Mr. Bettenham”: 3

Mr. Bettenham vsed to say; That Riches were like Mucke: When it lay, vpon an heape, it gaue but a stench, and ill odour; but when it was spread vpon the ground, then it was cause of much fruit.

The above simile matched the notion presented by Richard Branson recently. Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the saying. Popik’s entry on this topic is located on his website.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Bacon’s simpler statement was also memorable. In 1650 an instance appeared in another book of aphorisms. Oddly, the words were not credited to Bacon. Instead, all the sayings in the volume were attributed to James I, King of England who had died in 1625. The collection was described as a “Royal Chain of Golden Sentences”: 4

It much conduces to the publick weal, either of a Principality, or Republick, not to suffer the money and treasure of a State, to be ingrossed into the hands of few: money is like muck, not good, unless it be spread.

In 1658 “The Fellow-Traveller through City and Countrey” by Henry Edmundson was published, and a full instance of the saying that matched Branson’s remark and employed the word “stink” was included in a section listing proverbs: 5

Diverse Proverbs of gain and bargaining, most of them Outlandish, wherein are good Counsels to those that will take them. . . .

Riches are like Muck, spread abroad they are fruitful, but on an heap and hoarded they stink.

In 1660 a reference called “Lexicon Tetraglotton, an English-French-Italian-Spanish Dictionary” was published, and a section with proverbs was included. Here were three examples: 6

Of little medling cometh great ease.

Through Peace cometh Plenty.

Riches like muck which stinks in a heap, But spread abroad, maketh the Earth fruitful.

In 1675 the dramatist and poet Richard Flecknoe published an account of his experiences visiting with the Duchess of Lorraine and the Princess and Mademoiselle de Beauvois. He described the witty conversations, games, and parties that engaged the women and their friends at Bersell near Brussells. Here were three of the adages he heard: 7

Who seeks to be more feared then loved, shall find themselves more hated, then feared at last.

To honor any Man for riches only, is to worship the Golden Calf.

Money is like muck, which spred abroad, doth good; but hoarded and heaped up, is like a stinking Dunghill

The linkage of the saying to Bettenham was not forgotten. In 1730 a multi-volume collection of “The Works of Francis Bacon” included a version of the statement attributed to Bettenham. The spelling was modernized: 8

Mr. Bettenham, reader of Grays-Inn, used to say, that riches were like muck; when it lay upon an heap, it gave but a stench and ill odour; but when it was spread upon the ground, then it was cause of much fruit.

In 1737 “A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs” presented the following instance: 9

Riches are like muck which stink in a heap, but, spread abroad, make the earth fruitful.

In 1812 a collection titled “Omniana Or Horae Otiosiores” printed a verse attributed to Richard Flecknoe: 10

Flecknoe has these excellent lines addrest to a miser.

Money’s like muck, that’s profitable while
‘T serves for manuring of some fruitful soil;
But on a barren one, like thee, methinks,
‘Tis like a dunghill that lies still and stinks.

The family of sayings evolved over time, and by 1836 some instances had replaced the word “muck” with “manure”. For example, an article titled “Anecdote of Stock Gambling” in the periodical “The New Yorker” included the following: 11

. . . although the adage which tells us, ‘Money is like manure of no use until it be spread,’ may be good, yet I mean to take my leisure in determining how I shall dispose of mine.

In 1956 “LIFE” magazine published a review of the play “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder. The reviewer reprinted a humorous line spoken by the character Dolly: 12

Money—pardon my expression—money is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.

In 1961 “Time” magazine published a profile of the Murchison family who became wealthy in the Texas oil industry. Clint Murchison Jr. presented an adage he heard from his father: 13

Says Clint Jr.: “There isn’t any sense in having $40 million in the bank or even in securities if you aren’t doing something to enhance the value of those securities. Dad once gave me a great piece of advice. He said: ‘Money is like manure. If you spread it around, it does a lot of good. But if you pile it up in one place, it stinks like hell.'”

In conclusion, Francis Bacon can be credited with the statement in his 1625 essay collection. The extended simile in which a heap of muck was described as malodorous was attributed by Bacon to Mr. Bettenham. It was possible that Bettenham also originated the simpler adage, but most modern references credit Bacon.

Thornton Wilder, Clint Murchison, Richard Branson and others have employed statements in this family, but their words were written or spoken many years after the family originated.

Image Notes: Picture of Richard Branson at the Time 100 Gala in 2010. Author: David Shankbone; image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Fertilizer being spread on an agricultural field; image from Hans at Pixabay. Portrait of Francis Bacon circa 1617 by artist Paul van Somer via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Jeffrey Turner whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake who helped QI to verify the citations in EEBO. All errors are the responsibility of QI. Also, thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research.)

Update History: On February 6, 2016 the 1625 and 1730 citations for Bettenham were added.

Notes:

  1. Website: Richard Branson blog at Virgin.com, Article title: Why money is like manure, Article author: Richard Branson, Date on website: February 13, 2014, Website description: Thoughts of businessman Richard Branson who founded the Virgin Group. (Accessed virgin.com on February 5, 2016) link
  2. 1625, Title: The Essayes or Counsels, Ciuill and Morall, of Francis Lo. Verulam, Viscount St. Alban, Author: Francis Bacon, Quote Page 85, Printed by Iohn Haviland for Hanna Barret, London. (Early English Books Online 2)
  3. 1625, Title: Apophthegmes New and Old, Collected by the Right Honourable, Francis Lo. Verulam, Viscount St. Alban, Author: Francis Bacon, Quote Page 273, Printed by J. Haviland for Hanna Barret, and Richard Whittaker, and are to be sold at the Kings head in Pauls Chuch-yard, London. (Early English Books Online)
  4. 1650, Title: Regales Aphorismi: or a Royal Chain of Golden Sentences, Divine, Morall, and Politicall, as at severall times, and on several occasions they were delivered by King James, Collected by certain reverend and honourable personages attending on his Majesty, Author: James I, King of England, Aphorism Number 224, Quote Page 112, Printed by B. A. and are to be sold at his house near the upper pump in Grub-street, London. (Early English Books Online 2)
  5. 1658, Title: The Fellow-Traveller through City and Countrey, Author: Henry Edmundson, Quote Page 21, Publication: S.l.: s.n. (Publisher and place of publication were not identified) (Early English Books Online)
  6. 1660, Title: Lexicon Tetraglotton, an English-French-Italian-Spanish Dictionary: Whereunto is Adjoined a Large Nomenclature of the Proper Terms; with Another Volume of the Choicest Proverbs in All the Said Toungs, By the Labours, and Lucubrations of James Hovvell, Section: English Proverbs, Quote Page 19, Printed by J.G. for Samuel Thomson, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1675, A Treatise of the Sports of Wit, by Richard Flecknoe, Section: A List of some of their Proverbs, Start Page 29, Quote Page 31, Printed for the author, London. (Early English Books Online) link
  8. 1730, The Works of Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Alban and Lord High Chancellor of England, Volume 3, Section: A Collection of Apophthegms: New and Old, Quote Page 279, Printed for J. and J. Knapton, J. Walthoe, D. Midwinter, et al, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1737, A Compleat Collection of English Proverbs, Also the Most Celebrated Proverbs of the Scotch, Italian, French, Spanish and other Languages by the Late Reverend and Learned John Ray (Fellow of the Royal Society), Third Edition, Section: Proverbial Sentences, Quote Page 18, Printed by J. Hughs for J. Torbuck, O. Payne, and T. Woodman, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1812, Omniana Or Horae Otiosiores by Robert Southey, Volumes 1, Section 62: Richard Flecknoe, Quote Page 105, Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1836 August 20, The New-Yorker, Anecdote of Stock Gambling, Quote Page 339, H. Greeley & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1956 January 23, LIFE, Volume 40, Number 4, Theater: Funniest Fracas on Broadway (Review of “The Matchmaker” by Thornton Wilder), Start Page 131, Quote Page 134, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1961 June 16, Time, High Finance: Texas on Wall Street, Time Inc., New York. (Online Time archive content.time.com; accessed January 20, 2016)