I was rummaging in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway one day a couple of years ago and found a little book with the attention grabbing title: The American Frugal Housewife with a sub title: Dedicated to Those Who are not Ashamed of Economy.
On the plain, brown cover is the maxim: ‘Economy is the poor man’s revenue, extravagance the rich man’s ruin.’
How could you leave a book like that after you ?
It was jammed in between two massive books and its slender size of about four inches by seven by a half inch thick made it a rescue purchase and an interesting companion.
So, is frugality the umbrella that will keep the worst of the many rainy days to come off our already laden shoulders?
Its author is one Lydia Maria Child and she was a newspaper woman, magazine editor, novelist, poet and reformer during her lifetime which spanned the years between 1802 and 1880
She was a school teacher at 18 and she wrote her first novel at 22. She hid runaway slaves and fought with every government official and bureaucrat who had the misfortune to cross her path.
Back to the book in hand: In a chapter on educating young people in the ways of frugality, Mrs Child wrote: “Generally speaking, when misfortune comes upon those who have been accustomed to thoughtless expenditure, it sinks them to discouragement, or, what is worse, drives them to desperation.
It is true there are exceptions. There are a few, and honourable few, who, late in life, with Roman severity of resolution, learn the long-neglected lesson of economy. But how small is the number, compared with the whole mass of the population. And with what bitter agony, with what biting humiliation, is the hard lesson often learned ! How easily it might have been engrafted on early habits and naturally and gracefully grown with their growth and strengthened with their strength.”
On the state of the economy of her time Mrs. Child wrote: “Nations do not plunge at once into ruin – governments do not change suddenly – the causes which bring about the final blow, are scarcely perceptible in the beginning; but they increase in numbers, and in power; they press harder and harder upon the energies and virtue of a people; and the last steps only are alarmingly hurried and irregular. A republic without industry, economy and integrity is Samson shorn of his locks. A luxurious and idle republic.”
Sounds like she was talking about us! And doesn’t it show just how cyclical these things actually are. And it makes you wonder why all the clever people and their advisors who govern us didn’t understand the predictability of it all.
Under the ‘Hints to Persons of Moderate Fortune’ she advises: The prevailing evil of the present day is extravagance. I know very well that the old are too prone to preach about modern degeneracy, whether they have cause to or no; but laugh as we may at the sage advice of our fathers, it is too plain that our present expensive habits are productive of much domestic unhappiness, and injurious to public prosperity.
Our wealthy people copy all the foolish and extravagant caprice of European fashion, without considering that we have not their laws of inheritance among us; and that our frequent changes of policy render property far more precarious here than in the old world. However, it is not to the rich I would speak. They have an undoubted right to spend their thousands as they please; and if they spend them ridiculously, it is consoling to reflect that they must, in some way or other, benefit the poorer classes.
Keep Up With the Opulent
People of moderate fortunes have likewise an unquestioned right to dispose of their hundreds as they please; but I would ask, Is it wise to risk your happiness in a foolish attempt to keep up with the opulent?
The book was first published in Boston in 1833. Wouldn’t old Mrs. Child get a right suck-in if she came back now and find that things had really changed so much and yet remained the same.
I quoted pieces from the book here before and was informed later by a reader that it’s in PDF form on the web. You’ll find it with a click here.:
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