What can a housewife writing in 1832 teach us about frugality and thrift? Plenty, it turns out.

In my recent interview on the Money Blogger Podcast, I mentioned a two-hundred-year-old book called The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Francis Child. This book is in the public domain and freely available via Project Gutenberg.

GRS-reader Tracy pointed me to The American Frugal Housewife in July, and I’ve been reading snatches of it ever since. Americans two hundred years ago were worried about the same things we fret over today. Some of the book’s advice includes:

  • True economy is the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost — fragments of time, as well as materials.
  • Time is money.
  • “In this country, we are apt to let children romp away their existence… The sooner children are taught to turn their faculties to some account, the better for them and for their parents.”
  • Keep an exact account of all you spend. This will make you more careful in spending money, and it enables you to judge precisely whether you live within your income.
  • Self-denial, “in proportion to your income”, is the surest course to eventual prosperity.
  • Do not spend all of your money to purchase and furnish a house. Spend less than you can afford.
  • “Do not let the beauty of this thing, and the cheapness of that, tempt you to buy” things you don’t need.
  • Take pride in frugality! Do not be ashamed of work! Let others be vain and prideful.

Child encourages parents to raise their children with thrifty habits. I love this passage:

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.

I once visited a family where the most exact economy was observed; yet nothing was mean or uncomfortable. It is the character of true economy to be as comfortable and genteel with a little, as others can be with much. In this family, when the father brought home a package, the older children would, of their own accord, put away the paper and twine neatly, instead of throwing them in the fire, or tearing them to pieces. If the little ones wanted a piece of twine to play scratch-cradle, or spin a top, there it was, in readiness; and when they threw it upon the floor, the older children had no need to be told to put it again in its place.

The other day, I heard a mechanic say, ‘I have a wife and two little children; we live in a very small house; but, to save my life, I cannot spend less than twelve hundred a year.’ Another replied, ‘You are not economical; I spend but eight hundred.’ I thought to myself, — ‘Neither of you pick up your twine and paper.’ A third one, who was present, was silent; but after they were gone, he said, ‘I keep house, and comfortably too, with a wife and children, for six hundred a year; but I suppose they would have thought me mean, if I had told them so.’ I did not think him mean; it merely occurred to me that his wife and children were in the habit of picking up paper and twine.

The American Frugal Housewife is fun to read not only for the “quaint” discussions about making fans from turkey feathers, boiling calf’s head, and treating illness with gruel, but also for the anecdotes Child shares. These stories demonstrate that our ancestors struggled with personal finance just as much as we do. Throughout the book, Child encourages readers to do things that might seem familiar to you, such as:

  • Take care your possessions.
  • Buy in bulk.
  • Re-use things.
  • Grow a vegetable garden.
  • Make your own food.
  • Limit meat in the diet, and buy the cheapest cuts.
  • Eat simply and exercise in order to maintain health.

Here’s an anecdote that might have been written today:

There is nothing in which the extravagance of the present day strikes me so forcibly as the manner in which our young people of moderate fortune furnish their houses.

A few weeks since, I called upon a farmer’s daughter, who had lately married a young physician of moderate talents, and destitute of fortune. Her father had given her, at her marriage, all he ever expected to give her: viz. two thousand dollars. Yet the lower part of her house was furnished with as much splendor as we usually find among the wealthiest. The whole two thousand had been expended upon Brussels carpets, alabaster vases, mahogany chairs, and marble tables. I afterwards learned that the more useful household utensils had been forgotten; and that, a few weeks after her wedding, she was actually obliged to apply to her husband for money to purchase baskets, iron spoons, clothes-lines, &c.; and her husband, made irritable by the want of money, pettishly demanded why she had bought so many things they did not want. Did the doctor gain any patients, or she a single friend, by offering their visitors water in richly-cut glass tumblers, or serving them with costly damask napkins, instead of plain soft towels? No; their foolish vanity made them less happy, and no more respectable.

Had the young lady been content with Kidderminster carpets, and tasteful vases of her own making, she might have put one thousand dollars at interest; and had she obtained six per cent., it would have clothed her as well as the wife of any man, who depends merely upon his own industry, ought to be clothed. This would have saved much domestic disquiet; for, after all, human nature is human nature; and a wife is never better beloved, because she teases for money.

The book’s several sections include:

[diagram of beef cuts]

The American Frugal Housewife is endlessly fascinating. We tend to believe our money problems are unique. But the people who have come before us also struggled with money and debt. They also looked to frugality to help themselves save for the future. Here’s more advice that seems contemporary:

Luxuries are cheaper now than necessaries were a few years since; yet it is a lamentable fact, that it costs more to live now than it did formerly. When silk was nine shillings per yard, seven or eight yards sufficed for a dress; now it is four or five shillings, sixteen or twenty yards will hardly satisfy the mantuamaker.

If this extravagance were confined to the wealthiest classes, it would be productive of more good than evil. But if the rich have a new dress every fortnight, people of moderate fortune will have one every month. In this way, finery becomes the standard of respectability; and a man’s cloth is of more consequence than his character.

Men of fixed salaries spend every cent of their income, and then leave their children to depend on the precarious charity and reluctant friendship of a world they have wasted their substance to please. Men who rush into enterprise and speculation, keep up their credit by splendor; and should they sink, they and their families carry with them extravagant habits to corrode their spirits with discontent, perchance to tempt them into crime.

Enough! If I don’t stop myself, I’ll quote the entire book. The American Frugal Housewife is an interesting read, both for amusement and for historical insight, as well as for practical tips.

(Googling reveals that Dawn at Frugal for Life has mentioned this book before. It’s also available for purchase from Amazon if the free on-line version doesn’t suit your fancy.)

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