J. K. Turner? Newton A. Fuessle? Edward Earle Purinton? William C. McCraw? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Office workers whose desks are covered with a jumble of papers are criticized with the following adage. Here are three versions:
- A cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind.
- A messy desk is evidence of a messy mind.
- A disordered desk indicates a disordered brain
World you please investigate this saying?
Quote Investigator: This maxim is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. The earliest close match located by QI appeared in “The Mediator” in 1911. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Show me a man’s tool-box, his bench, or his desk, and I will tell you what manner of man he is. Orderliness and cleanliness are two important factors in efficiency. A disordered desk is an evidence of a disordered brain and a disordered character.
The author of the above passage was not specified, but it appeared in the editorial section. The masthead listed J. K. Turner as editor and Newton A. Fuessle as managing editor.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1922 “The Office Economist” journal published an article titled “Your Desk and Your Production” by Edward Earle Purinton which included advice from an anonymous business expert: 2
The desk of your typist doesn’t fit her. She has to work in a cramped position and stretch continually for papers and supplies that ought to be at hand. The desk isn’t adequate. Overflow means disorder, and a cluttered desk produces a cluttered mind, with confusion and delay.
In 1935 a story from the Associated Press printed a pertinent quotation from William C. McCraw who was the Attorney General of Texas: 3
Attorney General McCraw probably has the “cleanest” desk of any state official. Usually only an ash tray, a pen and paper pad are on it. Even the telephone rests on a side table.
“I can’t work with a dirty desk,” McCraw explained. “Sometimes I think a messy desk is evidence of a messy mind. Papers piled on a desk are papers unacted on.”
In 1947 a business columnist in an Amarillo, Texas newspaper relayed a comment from a military man: 4
Was once told by a high-ranking Naval officer that he judged a man by whether or not he worked from a clean desk. A man who has a cluttered desk has a cluttered mind, he maintained
In 1955 the “Chicago Tribune” printed a comical twist that undermined the maxim’s scolding tone: 5
If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, we can’t help wondering what an empty desk indicates.
In 1961 a cluttered desk was extolled as a positive sign in an Ohio newspaper: 6
Henry Traphagen of Hyde Park Avenue goes along with the theory that a cluttered desk is a sign of genius…
In 1974 a comical addendum was attached to the saying: 7
A messy desk is said to mirror a messy mind. But it’s only people with clean desks who have time to think up silly sayings like that.
In 2012 “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” included an entry for this saying with a citation in 1974: 8
A messy (cluttered) desk is a sign of a messy mind (person).
In conclusion, by 1911 a version of the saying referring to a disordered desk and a disordered brain was circulating, but the name of the creator was uncertain. In 1922 a version featuring a cluttered desk and a cluttered mind appeared but the crafter was unnamed. QI would label the saying an anonymous modern proverb.
(Great thanks to Missy Helwig, John Knecht, and Simon Koppel who inquired about a humorous quotation concerning cluttered desks attributed to Albert Einstein. QI formulated this question and performed this investigation to serve as the first part of a multipart exploration.)
- 1911 December, The Mediator, Volume 3, Number 12, Editor: J. K. Turner, Section: Editorial, Two Men and a Pin, Quote Page 34, The Mediator Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1922 March, The Office Economist, Volume 4, Number 3, Your Desk and Your Production by Edward Earle Purinton, Start Page 5, Quote Page 5, Art Metal Construction Company, Jamestown, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1935 August 6, The Corsicana Daily Sun, Illegal Holiday Is Proclaimed for State Employees by Howard C. Marshall (Associated Press), Quote Page 5, Column 7, Corsicana, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1947 April 17, The Amarillo Globe, Business Briefs: Bonanza From Wheat Gleefully Predicted, And It’s Said The Price Will Be About $2 by Thomas Thompson, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Amarillo, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1955 April 4, Chicago Tribune, Section 2: Today with Women, Good Morning (filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1961 December 27, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Innocent Bystander by Ollie M. James, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1974 June 29, The Ottawa Journal, Notes, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 53, Yale University Press, New Haven.(Verified on paper) ↩