A Disordered Desk Is a Sign of Genius

Leo Tolstoy? Edwin H. Stuart? Elinor Glyn? Henry Traphagen? Art Buchwald? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While I am working hard on a complex project my desk usually becomes messy, but I take comfort in the following sayings:

  • A cluttered desk is the mark of a genius.
  • A messy desk is the sign of a creative mind.
  • An untidy desk is a sign of brilliance.

Would you please explore the history of this modern adage?

Quote Investigator: A strong match appeared in the journal “Typo Graphic” in 1947. The editor Edwin H. Stuart sent a questionnaire to his readers, and he was disappointed with the low response rate. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1947 December, Typo Graphic, Page Title: Well Thanks, Brother, Article: Don’t Blame Us, Quote Page 36, Column 2, Publisher Edwin H. Stuart, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Library of University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)[/ref]

When you did not reply we assumed that you may have: Moved to another city. …

Or, that you’re one of those geniuses who have a piled-up desk and you threw the card in the pile and it got lost.

Tolstoi said that a disordered desk was a sign of genius and we see lots of littered desks in our rambles around Pittsburgh.

Stuart used the alternative spelling “Tolstoi” while crediting Leo Tolstoy. QI has not yet found support for this ascription; however, QI has not attempted the difficult task of searching for a Russian instance.

This website also has articles about two related expressions: “A disordered desk is an evidence of a disordered brain” and “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, we can’t help wondering what an empty desk indicates”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1850 “The Science of Practical Penmanship” referred with incredulity to a proverb about another type of sloppiness and its connection to genius:[ref] 1850, The Science of Practical Penmanship: Or The Analysis of Taste and Freedom by Thomas P. Dolbear, Seventh Edition, Section: Introduction, Quote Page xi, Published by Thomas P. Dolbear, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

… the proverbial absurdity, that “a bad hand writing indicates genius.” If so, geniuses must be more numerous than is generally supposed. How ridiculously absurd is the idea that a wretched scrawl has any connexion with genius.

In 1926 the novelist and screenwriter Elinor Glyn stated that a messy desk evinced efficiency in some professions:[ref] 1926 December 21, The News-Herald, Amusements: Love’s Blindness, Quote Page 9, Column 4, Franklin, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

“A business man’s desk,” she says, “is an index to his mind. A cluttered desk means work undone very often, and forgotten odds and ends.

“There is an exception. Newspapermen have untidy desks and are still generally efficient. I know a famous editor who does his work on the corner of a desk piled high with newspapers.”

In 1938 columnist Edwin C. Hill suggested that a cluttered desk sometimes facilitated work:[ref] 1938 September 24, The Morning Herald, Human Side of the News by Edwin C. Hill, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

A man with a cluttered desk, flouting all the laws of business efficiency, kicks out an amazing lot of work. Great literature and deathless names have come out of dirt, disorder and insolvency.

In 1940 an editorial in “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut pointed out that a messy desk did not impede Charles Dickens:[ref] 1940 February 1, The Hartford Courant, Desk-Strewers, Quote Page 12, Column 3, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Yet there are those who ascribe special virtue to the owner of a cluttered desk. Any man who is able to produce gems of work from a topsy-turvy counter is accorded inordinate powers of concentration. Dickens was like that: The more messy the writing table, the clearer his expression.

By 1947 the modern proverb had emerged from the pen of Edwin H. Stuart although he credited Leo Tolstoy as noted previously in this article:

Tolstoi said that a disordered desk was a sign of genius and we see lots of littered desks in our rambles around Pittsburgh.

In 1950 Stuart wrote a short item in “Typo Graphic” titled “Genius!” in which he shared the adage with readers again:[ref] 1950 May, Typo Graphic, Odds and Ends: Flotsam and Jetsam from the Activities of the Cognoscenti, Quote Page 19, Column 1, Publisher Edwin H. Stuart, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Library of University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)[/ref]

An artist associated with the design and drafting staff of the U.S. Steel group located in the Chamber of Commerce Building, had a sign over his desk saying, “Don’t clutter up the exhibit.”

And his desk really is an exhibit—everything on it except the kitchen sink. Oh well, Tolstoi said, “A disordered desk is a sign of genius.”

In 1955 a journalist in Dixon, Illinois mentioned the saying:[ref] 1955 March 8, Dixon Evening Telegraph, Take It From Here by C. J. C., Quote Page 1, Column 1, Dixon, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Mrs. Shaw had often chided her newsroom reporters and editors for their untidiness . . . I once wrote a column in tongue-in-cheek rebuttal. I had pointed out quite discreetly, that some psychologists regarded a messy desk as a sign of genius. I knew she had read it but she never mentioned it.

In 1961 “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Ohio printed a remark from a reader:[ref] 1961 December 27, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Innocent Bystander by Ollie M. James, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

We didn’t intend to stomp this subject to death, but we have received conflicting viewpoints.. Henry Traphagen of Hyde Park Avenue goes along with the theory that a cluttered desk is a sign of genius . . .

In 1971 the humorist Art Buchwald received credit for an instance:[ref] 1971 July 21, The Sedalia Democrat, Ginger Snaps by Ginger Moore, Quote Page 4B, Column 4, Sedalia, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Recently Art Buchwald had a column on cleaning desks and he stated that it was his belief that a messy desk was a sign of intelligence and dedication. Naturally after observing the desks in my office I have to agree.

In 1972 the adage was displayed on a sign that featured in a department store advertisement printed in a Baltimore, Maryland newspaper:[ref] 1972 November 19, The Baltimore Sun, Section: Advertisements, (Hutzler’s Advertisement) Pick a present from our new and novel gift selection, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Humorous desk markers . . . “I said, maybe and that’s final”, “Danger! Human being at work”, “A cluttered desk is the mark of genius”

In conclusion, this adage was popularized by Edwin H. Stuart by 1947. He credited Leo Tolstoy, but that linkage is currently uncertain.

(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 third part of a multipart exploration. Special thanks to Dennis Lien who obtained photocopies of the crucial 1947 and 1950 citations in “Typo Graphic”. Much thanks to Donna Halper who pointed to precursors about bad handwriting such as the 1850 citation. Many thanks to researcher Peter Reitan who shared with QI interesting precursors dated 1926, 1938, and 1940. Also, thanks to the “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” for an entry on this expression and other related expressions. Additional thanks to Barry Popik for his research on a related expression.)

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