The History of Thrift

NPR has an interview with Lauren Weber, who wrote a book on the history of thrift in the U.S. It’s pretty interesting stuff. Like many people, Weber thought thrift was a dying virtue in this country until she started interviewing people for the book. She found that there are lots of frugal people alive and well in the United States.
Her book, In Cheap We Trust, traces the roots of American frugality back to the Revolutionary War. She mentions Benjamin Franklin, for example, who has been called the apostle of thrift, (Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship. ~Benjamin Franklin) and says frugality has always been part of our national identity.
So if thrift is longterm value here, why do so many people see it as penny-pinching and miserly instead of smart money management? The answer lies in the rise of the consumer culture after World War II:

“So right before the war ended there was a lot of talk about how Americans needed to buy more washing machines, buy cars, get prepared for the consumer economy that was coming and Americans really took that to heart,” Weber says.
And, she says, pop culture offers proof:
“It’s not ironic that Scrooge McDuck, the famous miserly uncle of Donald Duck, emerged in 1947. And Jack Benny’s famous cheapskate character on radio and TV came in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Thrift went from being a national virtue to being kind of a punch line.”

Sounds like a good book. Listen to the whole interview here.

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1 thought on “The History of Thrift”

  1. Interestingly, thrift is a normal way of life for most Europeans and New Zealanders. In New Zealand now, gas is over $8.00 a gallon, food is more than double the cost in the US and Electricity is very expensive. As a result, New Zealanders place higher value on second hand goods. All things second hand go for more here. New Zealanders also only buy things when they really need them. It is not a consuemrist culture. It is also part of life that you don’t own a drier, you conserve electricity and water. It is a very different lifestyle than in the US. (I am an American who has lived in NZ for 6 years).

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