‘low man on the totem (pole)’: meaning and origin

The colloquial phrase low man on the totem (pole) denotes the person with the least amount of experience, authority and/or influence in a group or organisation.

The noun totem pole denotes a wooden post carved and painted with totem figures, erected by some Native-American peoples. Totem poles have a variety of functions, including as records of family or clan histories, structural supports for houses, and memorials.

Incidentally, the phrase low man on the totem (pole) does not apply to actual totem-pole carvings, which are often not arranged in a hierarchical order, and may show important figures near the bottom.

It was apparently the U.S. comedian Fred Allen (John Florence Sullivan – 1894-1956) who coined this phrase in a portrait of his friend, the U.S. journalist, humorist and author Harry Allen Wolfgang Smith (1907-1976). This portrait appeared in the Introduction to Low Man on a Totem Pole (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1941), by H. Allen Smith—as mentioned by Jack Broudy in the review of Low Man on a Totem Pole, published in The Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts) of Wednesday 14th May 1941:

To such famous mysteries as the case of the Mary Celeste and the identity of the low person who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder, must now be added the title of H. Allen Smith’s racy, risable [sic] and often rowdy book.
The tag, “Low man on a Totem Pole,” may sound as incomprehensible as a gum chewer on the telephone until you learn that it was taken from a phrase in the riotous introduction contributed by Fred (Persimmon Puss) Allen. That explains everything except, of course, the title.

The actual phrase used by Fred Allen in the Introduction to Low Man on a Totem Pole is low man on any totem pole—this is an extract from this introduction:

He [= H. Allen Smith] is a little man. He might be a midget who forgot himself and overgrew a few inches. Physically, Smith is a waste of skin. He weighs about one hundred and ten pounds with his bridgework in and the complete works of Dale Carnegie under each arm. There isn’t enough meat on him to glut a baby buzzard. At a cannibals’ buffet Smith would be the hors d’oeuvre. […]
[…]
If Smith were an Indian he would be low man on any totem pole. His epidermis boasts no incision, birthmark, wart or tattoo display. As a mural Smith would be pretty dull. His complexion is a sort of sloppy pastel. When he flushes he turns the color of a meerschaum pipe that has been smoked twice. If Smith passed you in a Turkish bath (which is improbable) you wouldn’t turn around. You would simply look at him and shrug your sheet.

In the above-quoted review, Jack Broudy wrote that the phrase sounded incomprehensible. It soon caught on, however, and the earliest occurrence of low man on the totem (pole) that I have found is from the caption to the following cartoon, published in the Milwaukee Sentinel (Milwaukee, Wisconsin) of Tuesday 2nd September 1941—titled Low Man!, this cartoon depicts the Taxpayer as a figure carved at the bottom of the Tote ’em Pole, carrying the burdens of War and Taxes:

The Taxpayer is low man on the totem pole of War and Taxes; no matter how heavy their burdens he has to TOTE ’EM!

The second-earliest occurrence of low man on the totem (pole) that I have found is from the account by Virginia Boren of a lecture given by the U.S. philanthropist, educator and journalist Robert Carleton Smith (1908-1984)—account published in The Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington) of Thursday 23rd October 1941:

Hearing a Lecturer Extraordinary—Extraordinarily Different

Looking like a character out of a Noel Coward drawing-room drama, wearing a tie that world famous symphony conductor Arturo Toscanini gave to him, figuratively patting three college degrees in his vest pocket (he’s an economics professor by training) and shoving several nice fat lecture contracts into another pocket, Mr. Carleton Smith came to the Washington Athletic Club yesterday to charm the women and amuse the men!
Now Carleton Smith could be the low man on the totem pole. He could be the end minstrel. He could aptly, albeit neatly, introduce Einstein to an audience. He could conduct for Toscanini, and he no doubt could get Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, to give him an interview on women’s hats. He certainly could get wide ribbons in the diplomatic service!