A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from April 05, 2009
“Hill of beans”

"Hill of beans” (or “not worth a hill of beans") means a worthless thing or endeavor; a “bean” isn’t worth much, so a “hill of beans” isn’t worth much, either. The term is probably most famous today as a line of dialogue in the classic movie Casablanca (1942).

“Hill of beans” is cited from 1853 and 1856. Beans were planted between corn; perhaps corn had a much better market value in the 1850s.


World Wide Words
HILL OF BEANS
[Q] From Spencer James: “Recently the expression a hill of beans has been used by Samuel L Jackson in a Barclays commercial and also in a recent Vodafone commercial. But what does it actually mean? Several of us would love to know!”

[A] A hill of beans in colloquial American is a symbol for something of trifling value, as in expressions like “it ain’t worth a hill of beans”. Its most famous appearance, which brought it to the notice of a wide international public, was at the end of the film Casablanca, in which Humphrey Bogart says to Ingrid Bergman, “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”.

The mundane bean has for at least eight centuries been regarded as the epitome of worthlessness. Even if you know how many beans make five you are unlikely to consider any one of them to be valuable. Part of the strength of the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk is the contrast between the valueless beans Jack was given in exchange for the cow and the riches revealed by the full-grown beanstalk.

The expanded formula of a hill of beans is American. From the evidence, it seems to have appeared in the modern sense about 1860. It is yet another example of the expansive hyperbole so typical of US English in that period. An example from rather later is in The Indiscretions of Archie by P G Wodehouse: “Here have I been kicking because you weren’t a real burglar, when it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans whether you are or not”.

Interrnet Movie Database
Memorable quotes for
Casablanca (1942)

Rick: Last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you’re getting on that plane with Victor where you belong.
Ilsa: But, Richard, no, I… I…
Rick: Now, you’ve got to listen to me! You have any idea what you’d have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten, we’d both wind up in a concentration camp. Isn’t that true, Louie?
Captain Renault: I’m afraid Major Strasser would insist.
Ilsa: You’re saying this only to make me go.
Rick: I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
Ilsa: But what about us?
Rick: We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
Ilsa: When I said I would never leave you.
Rick: And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Now, now… Here’s looking at you kid.

(Historical Dictionary of American Slang)
hill [or row] of beans (used as a symbol of worthlessnewss)
1863 in OEDS I 224: I...karn’t take Preston’s nose—‘tain’t worth a hill o’ beans.
1904 in “O. Henry” Complete Stories 640: Well, he wasn’t a hill of beans to her.
1929 American Speech V 119: They “don’t amount to a hill of beans.”
1942 Epstein et al. (film): “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
1957 Bannon Odd Girl 155: And he’ll never amount to a row of beans.
1990 Cosmopolitan (June) 212: Her domineering father [taunted] her ambition by saying, “you’ll never amount to a hill of beans.”

(Oxford English Dictionary)
a hill of beans (orig. U.S.): a thing of little value (cf. sense 6a).
1863 ‘E. KIRKE’ My Southern Friends v. 80, I..karn’t take Preston’s note’taint wuth a hill o’ beans.
1901 HARBEN Westerfelt 5 He didn’t care a hill o’ beans fer no gal.
1926 D. H. LAWRENCE Let. 4 Jan. (1962) II. 876 Saying my say and seeing other people sup it up doesn’t amount to a hill o’ beans, as far as I go.

April 1853, The Genesee Farmer (Rochester, NY), pg. 125:
Pear on the quince has never amounted to a hill of beans with us yet; it is doubtful whether they will, for the quince itself does poorly, and with the best care is short lived, although in some locations they are fine, but such are rare.

23 August 1856, Janesville (WI) Gazette, pg. 4, col. 4:
it is a well ascertained fact, that this courser, who don’t amount to a “hill of beans” anywhere else than on his own track, reeks little for either rain or storm, but upon this morning he absolutely looked beautiful, and as if he felt proud of his training and his track.

18 September 1856, Menasha (WI) Advocate, pg. 4, col. 1:
There is a great deal of breath used extravagantly, and much said that amounts to nothing more than a hill of beans.

March 1857, The Genesee Farmer (Rochester, NY), pg. 88:
And those who will scarcely raise a hill of beans, or cucumbers, will devour with gusto the luxuries of the garden, when provided by others;...

Google Books
The American Slang Dictionary
By James Maitland
Chicago, IL: Printed and published for the author by R. J. Kittredge & Co.
1891
Pg. 141:
Hill of beans, “not worth a,” used to express absolute worthlessness. 

Google Books
Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present
By John Stephen Farmer and William Ernest Henley
Vol. III
Printed for subscribers only
1893
Pg. 315:
HILL. NOT WORTH A HILL OF BEANS, phr. (American). — Absolutely worthless.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • (0) Comments • Sunday, April 05, 2009 • Permalink