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In my experience, referring to someone in an organization as "chief cook and bottle washer" has multiple possible meanings:

  1. person has a wide variety of duties in the organization
  2. person is very, perhaps uniquely, important to the organization in a non-obvious way
  3. person is almost useless to the organization

#1 seems to be the most common usage, and I'm not sure whether the others are misusages, and, if not, if #3 is ironic or just one of those weird "has two opposite meanings" things.

Also, it's unclear how to parse it. Are "chief cook" and "bottle washer" two distinct professions? If they are, is he chief cook and chief bottle washer, or is he a subordinate bottle washer? Or is "cook and bottle washer" a single profession, of which he is the organization's chief member? Each of these interpretations could imply different ultimate meanings.

And lastly, if anyone knows of an etymology, that would be great. From my failed research, it seems that it might be military in origin.

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2 Answers

The main sense of the phrase I'm familiar with is: someone who is in charge of most all matters in an organization, both the important and menial.

I found a reference to the phrase in Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases by Bartlett Jere Whiting which lists two citations:

  1. 1809 Linsley Love 40: I acts cook, steward, cabin boy, sailor, mate, and bottle washer.

  2. 1844 Hone Diary 2.705: Gen. Jackson’s chief cook and bottle washer, Col. Polk.

I also found an interesting reference from 1835 which referred to the Devil as being the "chief cook and bottle-washer of the slave-trade."

The earliest citation refers to "cook" and "bottle washer" as being just two of the many tasks the narrator needs to perform on board a ship.

Since the earliest citation refers to life at sea, I have a strong suspicion that the phrase originated in the sailing/naval sense. I haven't done any research in 18-19th century naval life, but I imagine that "bottle washing" was a task often performed on sailing vessels. I have to presume that bottles of rum, messages in a bottle, ships in a bottle — all these bottle-related naval tropes have some basis in history. Certainly a bottle-shaped receptacle for drinking is more practical on rough seas than water/grog/rum sloshing over the rim of a mug or cup.

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As almost worthless anecdotal evidence in favor of your etymology, I believe my father (who was in the navy, but considerably more recently than the 19th century) used this expression. –  Peter Shor Feb 19 at 22:09
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I can't share much of my own experience, but Wiktionary notes it as holding all of of the jobs, which fits with how I've usually heard "and bottle washer" appended to a list of duties, implying that the company is small enough, or cheap enough, that no matter how high your position, you also do the menial tasks.

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