Thrift – the forgotten virtue

Writing a Presidents’ Week column in National Review this week, Amity Shlaes rightly calls Calvin Coolidge the “prophet of thrift,” also pointing out that thrift is the most neglected virtue in modern life. Whatever happened to thrift, anyway?

The generation of Calvin Coolidge, perhaps particularly those of that generation born and raised in New England, were weaned on the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin, to whom thrift meant working productively, consuming wisely, saving proportionally, and giving generously. After all, “thrift” finds its etymological root in the verb “to thrive.” Franklin’s thrift became the cornerstone of a new kind of secular faith in the ordinary person’s capacity to shape his lot and fortune in life, exemplified by later works like Samuel Smiles‘ treatise on Thrift. Smiles starts out his 400-some page opus by observing that “some of the finest qualities in human nature are intimately related to the right use of money – such as generosity, honesty, justice, and self denial – as well as the practical virtues of economy and providence.”

Most people shared the view that thrift is both a private virtue that helps to develop the best in human character, and a public virtue. Indeed, as Smiles writes, “it is the savings of individuals which compose the wealth – in other words, the well-being – of every nation. On the other hand, it is the wastefulness of individuals which occasions the impoverishment of states. So that every thrifty person may be regarded as a public benefactor, and every thriftless person as public enemy.”

On the eve of America’s entrance into World War I, the leaders of the nation’s major civic organizations began to think about how they could support preparedness efforts for the battle ahead. The YMCA launched National Thrift Week, to be observed every year starting on January 17th, Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, to teach children – and adults – habits of saving money and using it wisely. Though it was endorsed at its founding in 1916 by Herbert Lord, later the second director of the U.S. Bureau of the Budget, the popularity of Thrift Week grew significantly in the years to come. Here’s a New York Times article on Thrift Week 1922.

Even after the war had ended, the relatively prosperous decade of the 1920s witnessed the peak celebrations of National Thrift Week. By that time, the YMCA had lined up a broad array of cosponsors, ranging from the Girl and Boy Scouts to the American Red Cross and the U.S. Postal Service, totaling some fifty partnering organizations. Thrift Week celebrations were held in cities and towns across the nation. In a testament to their popularity, Coolidge’s secretary, C. Bascom Slemp, rather wearily wrote in response to yet another request from some local thrift leaders, “Among the most frequent [requests for a comment from president Coolidge] are requests for statements to be used in thrift campaigns.” Coolidge, himself, was seen by his countrymen as a paragon of thrift at the time, due in some measure to his political agenda (which included paying down the national debt and lowering taxes), but also in large part to the public perception of him as a frugal New England farmer.

Each day of the week was assigned a particular kind of thrifty behavior: Pay Bills Promptly Day, Life Insurance Day, Own Your Own Home Day, Budget Day, Safe Investment and Make a Will Day. These names may sound a little old-fashioned and perhaps a bit too earnest for twenty-first-century Americans, but who can deny the value of these practices some eighty years later?

Thrift Week not only educated people about how to save up money for themselves and their family. It also expanded their understanding of the very purpose of thrift. In explaining why Share with Others Day was included at the end of this celebration, one of the organizers wrote, “The great majority of us have money enough to spare for the needs of society from our store. A margin is there from which thrifty people can contribute to answer the call of humanity.” Thrifty people can afford to be generous!

Sentiments such as these have been lost in the consumerist wave of the mid-20th century. But perhaps the era of spending beyond one’s means – both at the personal and the national level – is coming to an end. Who knows, we may yet see the return of Thrift Week!

[note: text partly adapted from materials on the Bring Back Thrift Week homepage , which is well worth visiting]

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