If a Cluttered Desk Is a Sign of a Cluttered Mind, We Can’t Help Wondering What an Empty Desk Indicates

Albert Einstein? Truman Twill? Lyndon B. Johnson? Laurence J. Peter? Paul A. Freund? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Many sayings attributed to the scientific genius Albert Einstein concern the mind. Here is a funny example:

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

I haven’t been able to find a solid citation. Would you please help me to determine whether Einstein said this?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this quip. It was attributed to him in the 2000s many years after his death in 1955. The most comprehensive reference about the physicist’s pronouncements is the 2010 book “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press, and the expression is absent. 1

This comical riposte was inspired by a family of admonishments about messy desks, and this website has a pertinent entry here: “A Cluttered Desk Produces a Cluttered Mind”.

The earliest match in this family known to QI appeared in 1911. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

Orderliness and cleanliness are two important factors in efficiency. A disordered desk is an evidence of a disordered brain and a disordered character.

In 1941 a newspaper in East Liverpool, Ohio printed a column titled “Confession” by Truman Twill who was critical of the common adage extolling well-organized desks: 3

A neat desk, they always say, is the sign of a well ordered mind. Important executives make it a point of pride never to have any clutter on their desks. Finally, the desk is immaculate. It is free of clutter as a bald head.

Yet, Twill thought that the cleanliness advice was inherently flawed:

There is a man who has cleaned himself out of the wherewithal to work with, whose empty desk reflects his empty mind, a man who won’t be worth his social security till his desk gets cluttered up again.

So, Twill articulated the idea of the quotation under examination. He employed two concise counterpoint phrases, but the overall column was prolix.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1947 the widely syndicated columnist Hal Boyle satirically advocated the founding of a new international society. Each member would keep a coconut handy to use as a weapon to attack proponents of neat desks: 4

It will be used to bash each and every office wayfarer who comes by and says: “A cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind.”

For this machine age proverb is one of the major falsehoods of the industrial world with its watchword—efficiency. I think it is more likely that “a clean desk is the sign of a fearful mind.”

Thus, Boyle’s viewpoint was distinct. He employed the phrase “fearful mind” instead of “empty mind”.

In 1951 the London humor magazine “Punch” published a piece about a prankster who swapped items between the desks of colleagues in an office: 5

“I like the novelty of an empty pending tray if I have emptied it myself”—“Clear pending tray, clear conscience,” said Purbright, nodding—”but not when it has been emptied by unknown hands.

When a character discovered that another desk was empty he delivered a pronouncement that matched part of the notion under analysis:

“Empty desk, empty mind,” said Purbright, politely.

In April 1955 the “Chicago Tribune” printed an instance of the quip with an acknowledgment to “The Wildrooter” periodical. This was the earliest close match known to QI: 6

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, we can’t help wondering what an empty desk indicates.
—THE WILDROOTER

In June 1955 a Nebraska newspaper printed an instance while crediting an Iowa newspaper: 7

Sidney, Ia., Register: The next time some wise guy looks at our desk and insinuates that a cluttered desk denotes a cluttered mind, we hope we have presence of mind enough to ask him what an empty desk denotes.

In 1965 “The Washington Post” printed an anecdote about President Lyndon B. Johnson who employed both of the conflicting adages: 8

On one occasion he dropped into the press office unexpectedly and glanced at the desk of then Assistant Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff. “Kilduff,” barked the President, “I hope your mind isn’t as cluttered as your desk.” Several weeks later he stopped in again, took a look at the immaculately bare surface of the desk and snapped: “Kilduff, I hope your brain isn’t as vacant as your desk.”

Also in 1977 Laurence J. Peter published the compilation “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time”. He added the saying as a parenthetical commentary on another quotation: 9

He discloses the workings of a mind to which incoherence lends an illusion of profundity. —T. De Vere White (If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is the significance of a clean desk?)

Also in 1977 “The New Yorker” printed an article that included remarks made by Paul A. Freund who was a prominent Professor of Law: 10

We found Professor Freund where we had found him several years ago, almost entirely obscured by a thick jungle of thousands of books, papers, documents, and journals, piled from floor to ceiling, dangling over the edges of tables, and jutting from every available crevice and cubbyhole.

. . . He leaned back in his chair cautiously, to avoid colliding with several volumes of law journals, and smiled. “I like to think that a clean desk represents an empty mind,” he said, and that was that.

In 2006 Albert Einstein received credit for the saying in the pages of “The New York Times”: 11

…Einstein’s oft-quoted remark, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”

In conclusion, the ascription to Albert Einstein is unsupported. The earliest conceptual match located by QI was written by Truman Twill in 1941, but he did not provide a concise statement of the quip. In 1955 the “Chicago Tribune” printed a strong match while acknowledging “the Wildrooter”.

Image Notes: Picture of cluttered desk from time2org at Pixabay. Portrait of Albert Einstein circa 1935 at Princeton accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Missy Helwig and John Knecht whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to Barry Popik for his research on this topic. Also, thanks to the “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” for entries on closely related expressions.)

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not By Einstein, (No page number because statement is absent), Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 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
  3. 1941 April 9, East Liverpool Review (The Evening Review), Confession by Truman Twill, Quote Page 4, Column 7, East Liverpool, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1947 April 24, The Emporia Daily Gazette, Writer’s Desk Piled High With Papers Irks His Fellow Workers by Hal Boyle, Quote Page 11, Column 1, Emporia, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1951 October 10, Punch; or, The London Charivari, The New Broom, Start Page 406, Quote Page 406, Published at the Office of Punch, London. (Verified with hardcopy)
  6. 1955 April 4, Chicago Tribune, Section 2: Today with Women, Good Morning (filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1955 June 4, Lincoln Evening Journal, Always Next Time, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1965 June 28, The Washington Post, President’s Intense Commitment Leads to Creation of Double Image by Laurence Stern (Washington Post Staff Writer), Start Page A1, Quote Page A5, Column 1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  9. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Mind, Quote Page 333, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  10. 1977 November 28, The New Yorker, Section: The Talk of the Town, F.F., Start Page 42, Quote Page 43, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Verified with database of page images at archives.newyorker.com)
  11. 2006 December 21, New York Times, Saying Yes to Mess by Penelope Green, Start Page F1, Quote Page F6, New York. (ProQuest)