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The English proverb "A place for everything and everything in its place" is a convenient text on which to base some remarks about the historical study and interpretation of proverbs. We may begin with examples of the proverb. These are surprisingly few in number and recent in date. We learn this from the standard English collections: G. L. Apperson, English Proverbs and Prouerbial Phrases (London, 1929), The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (2nd ed., Oxford, 1948), and Burton E. Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs... (New York, 1948), to which we may add such collections limited in time or space as Morris P. Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor, 1950), which does not include our proverb, and Archer Taylor and Bartlett Jere Whiting, A Dictionary of American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases 1820~1880 (Cambridge, Mass., 1958), which illustrate restrictions in regard to time or place. These are the chief sources of the information used in the following remarks and will not be cited later except for special reasons.

Historical and other studies in proverbs are much complicated by the fact that collectors usually do not indicate where they found their texts and what the dates of the texts may be. An illustration of the value of this information is readily seen in the interpretation of the comparison "like a bull in a china shop," for which see Archer Taylor, Proverbial Comparisons from California (Berkeley, 1954), p. 22. No example of this older than the nineteenth century has been cited and it appears to be unknown in other than English use. This situation is explained by the fact that a bull actually invaded a London china shop in 1773. This explains the lack of early examples and the limitation of the saying to English use.

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Let us now turn to the proverb with which we are concerned: "A place for everything and everything in its place." Marshall McLuhan has recently explained it as an allusion to printing and the necessity of returning type to its box, when it has been used; see his Understanding Media (1964). To be sure, the linotype and other modern procedures dispense with all this and his ingenious explanation must consequently imply the invention of the proverb, if it is to be readily understood as an allusion to a printing shop, at some time before the middle of the last century. The explanation does not rest upon evidence but is expected to win the reader's assent as being obviously true. Explanations of this sort are all too numerous in the case of proverbs for which examples ranging widely in time and place are lacking or have not been collected and studied.

During the last half- century a considerable number of dated and localized examples of our proverb have become available. The first examples appear to be those in Thomas C. Halliburton, Nature, I, 164 (1855) and some other popular novelists who wrote in the next dozen years. In 1875 Ralph Waldo Emerson quoted it in his Journals. The span between Halliburton and the other novelists is great enough to assure us that the proverb was currently used after the middle of the nineteenth century. Samuel Smiles, an author of moralizing and didactic works, wrote in Thrift (1875): "Order is most useful in the management of everything... Its maxim is, A place for everything and everything in its place." This suggests the direction in which we should look for the origin of the proverb. And we are confirmed in doing so by such a maxim as that cited by the forgotten novelist Elizabeth Hamilton who wrote in The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808. See V.S. Lean, Collectanea, III, 448): "Do everything in its proper time, keep everything to its proper use, put everything in its proper place." We shall return to this bit of advice from an orderly housewife. Such modern variations as "A niche for everything and everything in its niche" (1936) and "A tidy person with a place for everything and everything in its place" (1941) are clearly allusions to the household. For examples showing the wide use of our proverb see V. S. Lean (Collectanea, III, 401) with a citation from England (1902), B. J. Whiting from North Carolina (1950), see The Frank C. Brown Collection, I, 459; Austin E. Fife from Virginia (1952); Owen S. Adams from California in 1948 ( Western Folklore, IX, 142), and Frances M. Barbour in 1965 (Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases from Southern Illinois, Carbondale, p. 142). The standard collections cite these (which have been cited to show wide distribution) and more,--enough to establish the general currency of the proverb.

If we look abroad, we find no example of our proverb in Danish, Swedish, and Finnish or in Modern Greek and Italian, as friends experienced in collecting and studying proverbs tell me. This fact should awaken once more doubt of an explanation based on printing practice. If this explanation were correct, we would expect to find an example in German and in languages in which German proverbs are familiarly used. This is not the case. Arguments from both history and geography compel us to look in another direction.

The direction in which we should look has already been suggested, but before insisting on it, let us note a simpler version of the idea incorporated in it. The very simple proverbs "There is a place for everything" and "Everything in its place" are familiar enough to me in daily use, although I do not find them recorded in English collections. Hans Christian Andersen used such a proverb in 1853 as a title for a short story: "Alt paa sin rette plads (Everything in its right place)." Such a saying lends itself easily to expansion as we find in the Danish "Hvert paa sin sted, og pispotten paa skabet," which I need not translate, was reported as early as the end of the seventeenth century.[1] We see a different expansion in the verses of a minor English poet:

"There is a place for everything
In eart, or sky, or sea,
Where it may find its proper use,
And of advantage be,"
Quoth Augustine, the saint.[2]

The origin of "There is a place for everything" is not far to seek. It is a variation of the ancient "Omnia tempus habent, et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub caelo" (To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.--Ecclesiastes 3:1). This may very well have been known to St Augustine, if we insist upon identifying the versifier's ascription. However this may be, this notion is often found in collections of proverbs (see Stevenson, Home Book, pp. 2051:1, 2328:5). However this may be, Montaigne and many others used the idea, and Chaucer credited it to Solomon. More interesting and more important than such details (which prove the wide use of the proverb) is the fact that it was easily expanded. We have already noted an instance in the previously quoted maxim recorded by Elizabeth Hamilton. Similar expansions that Stevenson quotes are the eighteenth- century "Every Thing has its Time, and that Time must be watch'd," Thomas Jefferson's "There is a time for all things; for advancing and for retiring" (1821), and Thomas Babington Macauley's "There is a time for everything,--a time to set up, and a time to pull down" (1832).

The inferences to be drawn from my discussion are various and obvious enough. We cannot safely study the meaning, origin, and history of a proverb without having at our disposal a generous stock of parallels from as many times and places as possible. As far as the available evidence goes, "A place for everything and everything in its place" is a proverb of rather recent origin in England. It is a derivative of "Everything in its place" or "There is a place for everything." This has a counterpart in a still older and still more widely known "There is a time for everything." Proverbs about time and place are closely related to each other and are easily modified by adding details.


*Reprinted from Wolfgang Mieder (ed.) Selected Writings on Proverbs by Archer Taylor, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Helsinki 1975, pp. 129-132

  1. Aage Hansen, ed., Aldmindelige danske ordsproge (Copenhagen, 1944), No. 10789. This collection was first printed at Copenhagen in 1682--1688. See also N. F. S. Grundtvig, Danske ordsprog og mundheld (Copenhagen, 1845), No. 1231; E. Mau Danske ordsprogs- skat (2 vols., Copenhagen, 1879), No. 9557. I am indebted to I. Kjaer for these references and other good counsel.
  1. John Bartlett, Familiar Quotations, 11th ed., Boston, 1939, p. 706.


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