When the claim is made that someone is poor as a church mouse, it means they haven’t anything to spare. It’s based on the fact that a church doesn’t have a cupboard or a pantry from which a mouse can steal away even the smallest food crumb. The interesting fact about this idiom is that it isn’t just an idiom used in English although it’s been well-used in English over the years.
The author of a print ad placed in the Milwaukee Sentinel on November 26, 1957 was intended as a plea for donations to build the Milwaukee Boys’ Club described as a real club for a real boy. The ad was referred to in fine print as “one of a series of weekly articles paid for by a member of the Club’s Board of Directors.” The ad was titled, “As Poor As A Church Mouse” and began with this copy:
You must be an oldtimer if you can remember back when this expression was so common. Those were the days before electricity, telephones, automobiles, radios, television and modern plumbing.
And indeed the author of that copy was correct. The idiom wasn’t a recent one in the least.
The Pittsburgh Press printed a Letter to the Editor on March 29, 1935 that was written by Norvin Mack of 525 Sheridan Avenue in Pittsburgh.
Norvin Mack wrote about the minimum government pay of $30 per month to soldiers along with free lodging, food, and medical care. He stated that if a soldier had family — in other words, dependents — that the government would deduct $15 from his pay, match that amount, and send it along to his family. To that end, the minimum pay was $45 per month. He went on to extol the other virtues of being a soldier, and all this was to correct a story that had previously been published in the newspaper.
He was an outspoken sort, and included this paragraph in his letter.
As one who volunteered long before the draft was hardly thought of and who is now as poor as a church mouse I count it an honor to take my position with you on this momentous question. I am supporting my family at common labor, not relief. Plain selfishness urges me to welcome the immediate payment of the bonus but common sense forces the rejection of the plan.
It was in the Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph newspaper edition of April 16, 1912 that an article appeared discussing the move away from throwing rice at weddings and the move towards throwing confetti instead. The sexton of a fashionable New York church was interviewed on the new tradition, and his opinion favored the switch. He was quoted as saying:
“This confetti fashion is very welcome to us sextons. When rice was used our churches were overrun with mice. The saying “as poor as a church mouse” was then meaningless. Why, in my church, where weddings are so popular, several hundreds of mice — fat chaps they were, too — found an ample food supply in the rice that was sprinkled over the brides.”
“Now that rice has been abandoned for paper confetti, these mice have all disappeared. They were starved out. They couldn’t live on paper.”
The title for the story was simply, “Poor As A Church Mouse: Since Confetti Came Into Use, The Saying Has More Meaning Than At Former Times.” How apt is that for a headline?
Episcopalian clergyman and American author Frederick William Shelton (1815 – 1881) wrote and published “Peeps From A Belfry: Volume 3” in 1856. This volume opened with a short story titled, “The Seven Sleepers.” In Shelton’s story, a clergyman by the name of Pettibones approaches Mr. Snapjohn, and after a very brief exchange, Mr. Snapjohn says:
Want money, I suppose. I haven’t a cent, Sir — not a cent. Gave five dollars the other day for church missions, don’t believe the heathen will ever see one cent of it. It won’t do them any good, — not at all, Sir, not at all, so much money thrown into the sea. I am tired and sick of such demands. I’ve got nothing. I tell you I’m as poor as a church mouse — I’m as poor as a church mouse.”
The saying appears in a number of publications throughout the 1700s and 1800s, and is found in other countries. In fact, in German poor as a church mouse is arm wie eine Kirchenmaus and it’s found in a Grimm’s Dutch-German dictionary published in 1719. And before that, it appears in “A Collection of English Proverbs” compiled by English naturalist John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) and published in 1670 (who up until 1670 spelled his name John Wray).
Now, it’s also a fact that Anglo-Welsh historian and writer James Howell (1594 – 1666) published a proverb collection in 1659 entitled, “Paramoigraphy” wherein the idiom was listed as “hungry as a churchmouse.” That being said, Grimm did mention in his 1719 book that the idiom was from the Scottish proverb puir as a kirkmouse. Oddly enough though, the French had a similar phrase: gueux comme un rat d’église.
Although Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version than that from 1659 with a reference to the German and Scottish versions of the idiom, it’s likely that the phrase has existed for as long as mice and churches have co-existed which is to say, for centuries. That being said, Idiomation is confident in pegging this idiom to the early 1600s, allowing it to become part of the vernacular in England.