A Penney Saved

The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials. Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed either in earning or saving money…

A Review of Lydia M. Child’s

The American Frugal Housewife

.The American Frugal Housewife

Almost two centuries ago, in 1832, a remarkable woman named Lydia M. Child published a first of its kind book of “economical household hints” for the homemaker of modest means, entitled The American Frugal Housewife. What made the book a “first” is that, unlike the many volumes of “cookery” available at the time, which were written for the wealthy and presumed the presence of unlimited resources and a houseful of servants, The American Frugal Housewife came proudly to the defense of families with little or no money, the vast multitude of real-world American wives and mothers (and the husbands and children they cared for) who struggled to make ends meet during a 19th Century depression as bad or worse than what followed the famous “Black Tuesday” stock market crash of 1929 – or the recession that is likely on the horizon for us now, as the US economy spins out of control in 2008…

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The 1830’s were tough times in our nation. But Lydia Child was a strong, resourceful and unflinchingly pragmatic equal to her era, a champion of “doing more with less,” and of the pride and inborn dignity of every human being, regardless of their economic station in life (or race, for that matter, as she is best known to History as an anti-slavery activist and an advocate for the fair treatment of Native Americans). She was also an astute observer of the social forces driving the desperate poverty in which so many 19th Century Americans lived, and an uncompromising critic of the path of false pride, thoughtless choice and fiscal irresponsibility by which many had, through their own efforts, fairly earned their strained financial situations for themselves.
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Then, as now, it was popular amongst the poor to blame the rich for their suffering. But, just as remains true today, Lydia Child saw that much unnecessary poverty was being created, not by any real lack of funds sufficient for daily living, but by the expectation so many displayed that, regardless of their actual income, they ought to be free to maintain the same lifestyle as the richest mogul in the land. People created their own poverty by wasting and borrowing their way to the poorhouse, carelessly chasing the appearance of a wealth they did not possess. In 1832, folks of meager means often wasted what little they had hiring servants to cook and mend clothing, as such “unpleasantries” were considered shameful or “lowly.” How many today struggle to keep food on the table and their heat on in the winter while a big screen TV blasts 500 channels of digital cable in the living room, iPhones ring incessantly in every family member’s pocket, and two or more shiny new cars crowd the driveway?
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In The American Frugal Housewife, Lydia Child writes:
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The consideration which many purchase by living beyond their income, and of course living upon others, is not worth the trouble it costs. The glare there is about this false and wicked parade is deceptive; it does not in fact procure a man valuable friends, or extensive influence. More than that, it is wrong—morally wrong, so far as the individual is concerned; and injurious beyond calculation to the interests of our country. To what are the increasing beggary and discouraged exertions of the present period owing? A multitude of causes have no doubt tended to increase the evil; but the root of the whole matter is the extravagance of all classes of people. We never shall be prosperous till we make pride and vanity yield to the dictates of honesty and prudence! We never shall be free from embarrassment until we cease to be ashamed of industry and economy.

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It’s as if she were writing in response to today’s headlines. Why are millions of 21st Century Americans facing foreclosure on their homes in the wake of the so-called “Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis?” Because a lot of people with $30,000 a year incomes bought $400,000 homes they knew they couldn’t afford when they signed the loan papers. Why are many millions more enslaved beneath the burden of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in unsecured, high interest credit card debt? Because, at some time in their past, each and every one of them knowingly signed a contract agreeing to borrow money from a bank or credit card company, and then they went out and charged a bunch of stuff. Why do millions of Americans with moderate incomes spend themselves into oblivion every Christmas? Because they have allowed TV and pop culture to convince them that their children are morally entitled to find just as big a pile of plastic junk under the tree on Christmas morning as any millionaire’s kid…
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Regarding extravagance, as Ms. Child’s defines it, and its destructive impact on individuals, families and our nation, we are in many ways in a much worse position today than were even the poorest Americans in 1832. There are so many more of us in 2008, the enticements and opportunities to spend recklessly are now so ubiquitous in our culture that escape seems impossible, and the load of debt carried by individuals and the nation as a whole (let’s not forget our Federal Government’s out of control deficit spending and our crushing national debt) is staggering in comparison.
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But the path to freedom and prosperity today remains exactly the same as it was in Ms. Child’s time. In The American Frugal Housewife, she writes (these are some quotes from the Introductory Chapter, strung together to powerful effect):
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The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials. Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is possible to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and whatever be the size of a family, every member should be employed either in earning or saving money…

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They who never reserve a cent of their income, with which to meet any unforeseen calamity, ‘pay too dear for the whistle,’ whatever temporary benefits they may derive from society. Self-denial, in proportion to the narrowness of your income, will eventually be the happiest and most respectable course for you and yours…

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In early childhood, you lay the foundation of poverty or riches, in the habits you give your children. Teach them to save everything,—not for their own use, for that would make them selfish—but for some use. Teach them to share everything with their playmates; but never allow them to destroy anything…

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And finally:
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Economy is generally despised as a low virtue, tending to make people ungenerous and selfish. This is true of avarice; but it is not so of economy. The man who is economical is laying up for himself the permanent power of being useful and generous. He who thoughtlessly gives away ten dollars, when he owes a hundred more than he can pay, deserves no praise,—he obeys a sudden impulse, more like instinct than reason: it would be real charity to check this feeling; because the good he does may be doubtful, while the injury he does his family and creditors is certain. True economy is a careful treasurer in the service of benevolence; and where they are united respectability, prosperity and peace will follow.

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I have posted the complete Introductory Chapter of Lydia M. Child’s The American Frugal Housewife, as well as the Table of Contents, a wonderful short chapter on the proper Education of Daughters, and also the “About the Author” segment which I wrote myself for the Better Days Books release of this title as separate posts on this blog. I hope you enjoy them!

If you would like to add a quality hardcover, paperback or PDF e-book download of the complete The American Frugal Housewife to your permanent collection, just follow this link to the Better Days Books website. If you prefer the Amazon Kindle e-book edition, click here.

Remember, Mother’s Day is right around the corner, and The American Frugal Housewife would make a fabulous gift! Anyone you know who loves old books, 19th Century history, or Traditional American skills like cooking, canning, pickling, soap-making etc. will want a copy, too, so if you know anyone who might be interested, please tell them about this blog –Thank you!

Yours in the Frugal Pursuit of Responsible Prosperity!

Samuel F. W. Alger

3/20/2008

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