Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 8, 2011

When there are too many people trying to manage an activity, the chances increases dramatically that things will not turn out well never mind as expected.

On February 24, 1998 the Richmond Dispatch-Times ran a news story about the budget negotiators. Democrats outnumbered Republicans on the budget conference at the time 5 to 3 and it expanded the number of participants to include another 4 was hotly debated.  The title of the news story was:

Will Too Many Cooks Spoil Budget Broth?

But that’s not what readers of the St. Petersburg Times read about on September 2, 1950.  The International News Service had written the following about the residents of Wycombe (PA):

Too many cooks spoil the broth, but that’s not the way with the residents of Wycombe.  They’ve built their own firehouse.  This project was not to determine how many residents of this little community were born construction workers.  It was imperative.

Now, 50 years before that, in Pennsylvania, in the Easton Free Press of July 25, 1900, on the topic of “Friends of Chinatown: New York Mongolians Interviewed on the Situation” Minister Conger’s comments were included in the news story:

“Do you think the chances will be good for hustling Americans to go to China at the close of the war and make money, as you intend doing?”

“Well, maybe; if there are not too many of ’em going.  But, as the ‘Mericans say, ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth,’ you know.”

English clergyman, university professor, historian and novelist. Charles Kingsley (1819 – 1875) wrote “Westward Ho!” published in 1855.  In Chapter XV, he wrote:

After which there was a long consultation on practical matters, and it was concluded that Amyas should go up to London and sound Frank and his mother before any further steps were taken. The other brethren of the Rose were scattered far and wide, each at his post, and St. Leger had returned to his uncle, so that it would be unfair to them, as well as a considerable delay, to demand of them any fulfilment of their vow. And, as Amyas sagely remarked, “Too many cooks spoil the broth, and half-a-dozen gentlemen aboard one ship are as bad as two kings of Brentford.”

Almost a century before that, Anglo-Dutch courtier, diplomat, art advisor, miniaturist and architectural designer Balthazar Gerbier (1592 – 1663) wrote “A Brief Discourse Concerning the Three Chief Principals of Magnificent Building” published in 1662.

When an undertaking hath been committed to many, it caused but confusion, and therefore it is a saying, Too many Cooks spoils the Broth.

Two generations before Balthazar Gerbier, John Hooker alias Vowell Joh Hooker of Exeter, friend, confidante and servant to Sir Peter Carew (1514 -1575) wrote “The Life of Sir Peter Carew” published in 1575, in which the following passage is found:

It chanced unto this gentleman, as the common proverb is, — the more cooks the worse potage, he had in his ship a hundred marines, the worst of them being able to be a master in the best ship within the realm; and these so maligned and disdained one the other, that refusing to do that which they should do, were careless to do that which was most needful and necessary, and so contending in envy, perished in forwardness.

But while John Hooker’s friend, Sir Peter Carew states that it is a common proverb, Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this saying.

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2 Responses to “Too Many Cooks Spoil The Broth”

  1. […] meaning of this expression is not dissimilar to the expression too many cooks spoil the broth which was covered by Idiomation earlier this year on March 8, 2011. Share […]

  2. […] Bruce at Historically Speaking traces instances of “too many cooks spoil the broth” historically. The earliest instance she finds is a […]

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