Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Whither Thrift? Part 2

Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic, named after the window of the house, not after the couple, but their image was the first that came to mind when I thought about American parsimony.

See Part 1

As many know, in the mid-19th century, there arose ladies, prominently including Catherine Beecher Stowe, who wrote books and magazine articles of advice to middle-class housewives and mothers. The advice was enclosed in the moral message of the Victorian age to women: it is the mother’s duty to raise strong, moral children to be proper citizens of the United States. Thus began the ceaseless drumbeat we have heard in thousands of books and tens of ladies’ magazines ever since. During the 19th century and into the early 20th century, this advice industry consciously bolstered the virtues of hard work, self-reliance, and thrift as hallmarks of the middle class.

What I never knew is that during the early years of the 20th century, a new trend emerged that called for loosening the middle-class values of thrift and self-reliance, according to a fascinating article by Daniel Horowitz in American Scholar (Summer 1985), entitled “Frugality or Comfort: Middle-Class Styles of Life in Early 20th Century.”

Horowitz contrasts two mavens of home economics who were born a generation apart: Ellen S. Richards (1842–1911) and Martha B. Bruère (1871–1953), who both offered instructions on how the family income should be spent. Both of these women were highly educated, Richards at Vassar and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Bruère at Vassar and the University of Chicago.

Ellen Swallow Richards: MIT's first woman graduate and first woman professor. Trained as a chemist, she was an expert in all areas of sanitation and domestic chemistry.

Richards argued for the standard model of the old middle class of small-town merchants, farmers, and entrepreneurs, with its emphasis on frugality and savings. Amenities, comfort, and vacations and recreation outside of the home were eschewed for savings and investments: home ownership, education of children, and books and other objects in the home that would be long-lasting. To withstand the centrifugal forces moving against the family as the husband moved into the world outside the home, Richards argued for home-based social life and family dinners in which everyone was present.

Bruère, an editor of Good Housekeeping, literally argued that women should not ponder the family budget when purchasing a hat.

Bruère was an editor of Good Housekeeping, and sought the household budgets from the magazine’s readers. She and her husband, an industrial relations expert, became the first analysts of the middle-class household budget, rather than the ideal budget, and published a book, Increasing Home Efficiency, on their findings in 1912. Bruère describes a family whose budget represented the Richards’ way of thinking: in their early married years, the family had saved money for the education of their two children, so these offspring could move a “step above” their parents. Even with their children earning their own way, this couple still saved 17.5 percent of their income and spent only 1.6 percent of it on vacations, travel, books, and amusement.

Horowitz notes that Bruère contrasted this family unfavorably with another that had chosen “conveniences and ease over frugality.” Bruère urged households to increase the money they spent on comfort and what were called advancements—charity and cultural recreation outside of the home—to attain a worthwhile standard of culture alongside an adequate standard of the necessities. Although this standard of culture was meant to differentiate the middle-class—and the ethnic and racial distinction is clear in the work of both women—Bruère and her husband argued for a more cosmopolitan outlook and for the family to look outside of itself for entertainment and social life.

Woman's Home Companion is another magazine that Bruere wrote for. One motivation for both Bruere's and Richards' interest in home efficiency was a desire to boost the birth rate of middle-class families, which had fallen precipitously with the dramatic increase in divorce and other social and economic changes in the 1890s.

As reported by Horowitz: “Society and individuals need to plan, they concluded, ‘and perhaps the most important result of all budget-making will prove to be the harmonizing of our individual plans with a program of social welfare.’… For the Bruères the most problematic kind of excessive saving occurred when middle-class people limited present pleasures in order to provide for retirement. The fear of poverty in old age, they believed, was ‘paralyzing’ the middle-class home. … The three hundred dollars (twelve percent of income) that the average middle-class family put aside for savings and insurance, their ‘most serious financial mistake,’ forced them to ‘cut off $300 a year from their pleasure and usefulness.’”

Then, most fascinating, the Bruères also argued for some form of Social Security, as Horowitz quotes them: “We still labor under the delusion that that we can provide individually for retirement. These old people are pensioned without honor, and yet every one of them who has lived in this country, who has paid for the products of industry, who has ridden on the railroads, has contributed to the government. Suppose they had contributed directly their $300 a year savings, would they not then be sure of incomes in their old age, whether the individual judgment on investments was good or bad?”

The fact that the $300 is not going to be spent by the family directly on ease and comfort but handed over to the government, seems contradictory to the Bruères’ emphasis on consumption in the present. The unifying thread of both propositions though is that the middle-class family cannot be a fortress onto itself. It must become part of the wider stream of society and begin to rely on others and, ultimately, it seems, the government.

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