This is the first of two reflections on how Americans lost their zeal for thrift.
In the midst of the current financial crisis, I think Sarah Palin was the first public figure to say that “Main Street” Americans all had a responsibility to live within their means. The Washington Times chimed in with an unabashedly old-fashioned editorial on October 12 titled: “A Penny Earned…”
Above, Benjamin Franklin, aka poor Richard, America's most famous promoter of thrift.
The Times notes: “As the financial crisis that apparently started here at home winds its way around the globe, the order of the day for ordinary taxpayers is hiding in plain sight. Politicians and economists call it fiscal discipline. Our Founding Fathers called it personal responsibility."
"The days of thrift seem long gone, as Americans now seem to prefer debt-financing as a way of life. Credit-card debt has tripled since 1990, with the average American owing approximately $9,000 on their credit cards, according to USA Today and bankrate.com. Since 2000, Americans have saved just 2 percent of their income compared with 8 percent in the 1980s. According to CardWeb.com, approximately 43 percent of American families spend more than they earn each year and personal bankruptcies have doubled in the past decade…. Who now adheres to Benjamin Franklin's dictate that ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’?... For centuries, capitalism has been buoyed by a Christian ethic that champions hard work, self-reliance and thrift—values that have been, well, devalued in recent years.”
That is certainly the case. However, we have also been told that it is a patriotic duty to buy, buy, buy, as the American consumer has been the engine of the global economy and the service industries here at home.
Abigail and John Adams and their home in Quincy (below).
The debate over consumer spending and debt as opposed to household thrift is nothing new in America. Even in the days of the founding of our republic, the life style of Abigail and John Adams, for instance, stood in stark contrast to that of Thomas Jefferson. Abigail’s letters to her husband and children show that, for her, living within one’s means was a cardinal family virtue, and their homestead reflected it. Their personal friend and political foe, Thomas Jefferson, was a connoisseur of fine wines and antiques, enjoyed high fashion, and poured a fortune into his sublime home in Monticello. The third President was always way over his head in debt, having to borrow from friends and foes alike to keep his financial house of cards from turning his life into ruin.
Thomas Jefferson and his home, Monticello (below).
I don’t know if the differences in life style between the two families translated into the fiscal policies of their respective parties, who were locked in bitter political war in the first two decades of the republic. However, for many Americans who came to these shores as immigrants and the many that headed west to the American frontier, frugality was hardly a choice, but a necessity. On the wagon train routes across the prairies and the Rockies, possessions were a liability—and often had to be left behind or be tossed over the wagon side on the trail.
The history of quilt making also testifies to the importance of frugality in the American colonial and 19th century home. Quilts were pieced together from scraps of fabric that had first been clothing. The scraps were too precious to be thrown away. The quilts were filled with the remnants from worn out coats and torn blankets.
Illinois quilt, 1860: a study in thrift.
Families who managed their own homesteads were severely punished for waste and over-consumption. Money saved was needed for the year when bad weather wiped out the crop or disease ran riot among the livestock. Money saved was also reinvested in the homestead—an iterative process of investment that has made American farmers the most productive in the world.
These are among the reasons the domestic arts were all geared to enabling a family to achieve the maximum gentility with the greatest thrift. That was the housewife’s job. (It makes me wonder if today's high level of women working outside the home has fueled the consumer frenzy.)
Hard work, self-reliance, and thrift persisted as virtues of American culture throughout the 19th century. The devaluation of thrift and frugality was helped along by social scientists, who began to agitate in the beginning of the 20th century for the more urbanized middle class to decrease savings and increase consumption. See part 2.