Albert Einstein? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, the dress sense of a leading British politician was criticized, and his sharp rejoinder was based on a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein contrasting the relative importance of shabby clothes versus shabby ideas. Would you please examine the provenance of this statement?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of the quotation located by QI appeared in a 1949 compilation titled “Treasury of the Christian Faith: An Encyclopedic Handbook of the Range and Witness of Christianity” which included the following entry: 1
If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies. — Albert Einstein
Einstein died in 1955; hence, the statement was credited to him while he was still alive. However, the 1949 book did not present a supporting citation, and QI has not yet located any pointers to speeches, interviews, or essays by Einstein containing the saying.
The most comprehensive reference about Einstein’s pronouncements is the 2010 book “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press, and the expression about “shabby ideas” was not present in this volume. 2
This entry presents a snapshot of QI’s research, and more information may be uncovered by other researchers. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1961 the quotation continued to circulate in a religious milieu. A journal called “The Presbyterian Outlook” based in Richmond, Virginia printed the expression as a filler item. The text and ascription to Einstein were the same: 3
If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies. — ALBERT EINSTEIN.
In the 1970s the quotation together with the Einstein ascription appeared in several U.S. newspapers. For example, it was included in a miscellaneous set of six sayings under the title “Quotes” in the October 17, 1974 issue of the “Biddeford-Saco Journal” of Biddeford, Maine. 4
On November 10, 1974 “The Ogden Standard-Examiner” of Ogden, Utah printed the quotation in an editorial. 5 On January 03, 1975 “The San Diego Union” of San Diego, California published the saying together with two other unrelated quotations under the rubric “Worth Repeating”. 6
In 1997 a compilation called “Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes: Wit and Wisdom for All Occasions” included an entry for the saying: 7
If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies.
— ALBERT EINSTEIN
By the 2000s a German version of the saying was in circulation. For example, a 2009 compilation called “Die Besten Zitate der Welt” (The Best Quotes of the World) included an instance: 8
Wenn die meisten sich schon armseliger Kleider und Möbel schämen, wie viel mehr sollten wir uns da erst armseliger Ideen und Weltanschauungen schämen.
Of course, this appearance was very late, and it may have been derived directly or indirectly from the English statement in circulation.
On February 24, 2016 Jeremy Corbyn who is the Leader of the Labour Party in Britain tweeted the following: 9
“If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes & shoddy furniture let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas & shoddy philosophies” Einstein #pmqs
As noted previously, this post summarizes data from ongoing research, and it does not contain a definitive analysis. Currently, QI believes that the evidence is not strong enough to support an ascription of the quotation to Einstein. The saying was credited to the famous scientist while he was still alive, but no direct link has been found to words written or spoken by him, e.g., to an interview, address, or article.
Image Notes: Picture of ripped pants from PublicDomainPictures at PixaBay. Formal portrait of Albert Einstein taken circa 1935 at Princeton; public domain image accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to sputniksteve, ianberriman, KaiRunar, Andrew Old, Gwenelope, and others whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to the kind and helpful librarians at the Reformed Theological Seminary Library of Jackson, Mississippi and the James H. Thomason Library of Presbyterian College, Clinton, South Carolina.)
- 1949, Treasury of the Christian Faith: An Encyclopedic Handbook of the Range and Witness of Christianity, Edited by Stanley I. Stuber and Thomas Curtis Clark, Quote Page 415, Column 1, Published by Association Press, New York. (Verified with scans; many thanks to Reformed Theological Seminary Library of Jackson, Mississippi) ↩
- 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) (A search for the quotation was performed within a digital version of the text) ↩
- 1961 January 23, The Presbyterian Outlook (continuing The Presbyterian Tribune), Volume 143, Number 4, Section: Book Notes, (Filler item), Quote Page 15, Column 2, Presbyterian Outlook, Richmond, Virginia. (Verified with scans; thanks to Presbyterian College, James H. Thomason Library, Clinton, South Carolina) ↩
- 1974 October 17, Biddeford-Saco Journal, Quotes, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Biddeford, Maine. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1974 November 10, The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Editorials: Famous Americans of Past, Today’s Leaders Join in Endorsing Increased Productivity, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Ogden, Utah. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1975 January 03, San Diego Union, Worth Repeating, Quote Page B7, Column 2, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1997, Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes: Wit and Wisdom for All Occasions, Section: Civilization’s Gift, Quote Page 134, Column 2, Published by Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2009, Die besten Zitate der Welt, by Johannes Kugel, (Inside titlepage: Zitat und Redewendungen erfolgreicher Menschen), Unnumbered Page, Norderstedt Books on Demand. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- Tweet, From: Jeremy Corbyn MP @jeremycorbyn (Verified account), Time: 8:36 AM, Date: February 24, 2016, Tweet Text: If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes. . . (Accessed on twitter.com on February 26, 2016) link ↩