Friday, October 17, 2008

Whither Thrift? Part 1

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 Since 2000, Americans have saved just 2 percent of their income compared with 8 percent in the 1980s. According to, 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.


Mrs. D said...

Yes, I think that more women in the workforce has contributed to over consumption, greed, and a "keeping up with the Jones" mentality.

When you don't have that paycheque you learn to think carefully about each purchase, spend cash (as opposed to charging plastic) and you also have more time to engage in thrify homemaking arts.

Jenny said...

I also agree that to a certain extent women working long hours outside the home has increased consumerism. Apart from being time poor I think some feel they deserve to be pampered and see the only way to do that is to buy presents for themselves, their families and their homes. Also buying things gives instant feedback that your work = money = things. You can't see money in the bank can you.

Milehimama said...

A little late to the party, but I do think that the generation of working mothers contributes to a consumerist society. When I worked full time, I didn't have TIME to do the thrifty things, like mend the holes in the boy's pants. I didn't have time to hunt for lost socks or toothbrushes or pajamas. A certain level of consumerism was expected at work (don't dare show up with generic coffee creamer, or use a sugar bowl instead of packets, even though there were only four people in the office!)

We had to have two cars. I had to have a few pairs of dress shoes. I went through pantyhose like crazy.

Add that to the fact the children were in school and needed more clothes (can't wear the same five outfits every week) and were required to have very specific, name brand things (Ziploc bags, Crayola markers) so everybody would be the same...
Thrift takes time, but it is worth it.