‘every little helps’: meaning and origin

The phrase every little helps means: every contribution towards a goal is valuable, regardless of how small it may be.

In Britain, this phrase is particularly associated with Tesco, a British groceries and general merchandise retailer, which has used Every Little Helps as its slogan since 1993.
—Cf. also the punning slogan You shop, we drop, which promotes the home-delivery service of Tesco.

In The history of Tesco’s slogan Every Little Helps, published by Creative Review, the freelance copywriter Nick Asbury is quoted as declaring the following about Tesco’s slogan Every Little Helps, which was created by the London advertising agency Lowe Howard-Spink:

“It’s clever because it’s rooted in folk wisdom—a saying that has been passed down through generations. Exactly the kind of thing your grandma used to say. So it carries the everyday authority of a proverb.”

And, indeed, the phrase every little helps has been proverbial since, at least, the early 18th century. The earliest occurrences of this phrase that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From A Defence of the Grammatical Commentaries, against the Animadversions of Mr. Edward Leeds, Master of Bury School, under the Name of (An Old Man, and who that Old Man is, if it be worth while to look the following Pages will Discover) (London: Printed for S. Keeble, 1707), by Richard Johnson (1656/7-1721):

Who knows but that three Years more may discover another Fault, as these three last have done one in the word Sicanis, which tho’ it be but one, yet one thing is something, and every little helps, is as good a Proverb as the best.

2-: From The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Friday 12th December 1740:

Wye’s Letter, verbatim, London, Dec. 6.
IT is said the King of Poland (Elector of Saxony) is confirmed to the Great Duke’s Party, in assurance that his Son shall be made King of Poland; and that the King of Prussia has joined the same Interest, on Promises of the Investiture of the Dutchies of Bergue and Juliers. The Duke of Modena has also assured the Queen of Hungary of his Attachment to her Majesty, and is for that End recruiting his Troops.—Every Little helps; and may the House of Austria have Support enough to maintain the Imperial Dignity for the Great Duke, without being obliged to France for it, since a new Dependence of a new Emperor on the French Court must necessarily give the finishing Stroke to the Liberties of Europe.

3-: From Some Impartial Thoughts on the Woollen Manufacturies, wherein the Merits of the Several Pieces wrote on this Subject within these few Years are occasionally considered (London: Printed for T. Cooper, 1742), by George-Andrew-Patrick-Briton:

In order to shew his extensive Knowledge of his Subject, he gives us the following Causes of the Decay of the Woollen Trade.
[…]
2. ‘From the Importation of Russia Drabs.’ To obviate which he would lay a high Duty on that Manufacture. Thus every Little helps to puzzle the Matter.

4-: From the postscript to an unsigned letter on a possible French invasion of Britain, published in The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Tuesday 27th September 1743:

P. S. In this Computation of the Naval Forces of France, I have not reckon’d the Fishing Boats, of which that Nation has enough to transport 30 or 40,000 Men at least: Such Vessels may perhaps be thought not worth Notice; but I am of Opinion that they are capable of doing us not a little Mischief: With a fair Wind and good Weather, a Body of Troops may be easily wafted over in one Night’s time from Dieppe, Havre de Grace, Calais, Boulogne and St. Valery. To conclude, I must also reckon the Naval Force of Spain, which we know has given us Trouble enough these several Years; and, as every Little helps, I may likewise throw into the Account the Shipping of the Two Sicilies, which, tho’ inconsiderable, will contribute not a little towards the Ruin of our Mediterranean and Levant Trade.

5-: From Number V of The Midwife, or The Old Woman’s Magazine (London: Printed for Mary Midnight, 1750):

A Letter from Mrs. Midnight to Mr. Hoyle, partly complimentory [sic], and partly objurgatory.

Mr. Hoyle,
Permit me, Sir, to address you with that Reverence and obsequious Deportment, which is due to the Author of a Book more read and studied than the Bible. Permit me to add my Congratulations to those of the Publick on your useful and important Treatise concerning the Game of Whist. Every little helps (as the old Woman said when he did something in the Sea) the Applause therefore of Mother Midnight will be some little Adjunct to your universal Fame, that Name whose hundred Throats are hoarse with your Praises, yet who still despairs of doing Justice to your Merit.

6-: From The South Sea Fortune, or The Chaplain advanced to the Saddle. Containing the genuine private Memoirs of a worthy Family in Gloucestershire, from the fatal Year 1720, to the Year 1748. Written by Mrs. Richwould, one of the most interested Parties (London: Printed for J. Wren, 1758):

Every little helps (is a saying); so, though this letter brought not my dear husband with it, yet it convinced me of his best endeavours, and of the inclination he had for my society. It brought me an account of his health, his wealth, and of the time, when I might no longer feed myself upon hopes; but, if providence preserved him, enjoy him personally; all which were no small support to my spirits.

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