Lydia Maria Child Taught Americans to Make Do With Less

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1829, American women preparing their family’s Thanksgiving feast could turn for guidance to one of the country’s first self-help books: “The Frugal Housewife” by Lydia Maria Child, a beloved novelist and children’s writer. Child later immortalized her Thanksgiving memories by turning them into the poem “Over the River and Through the Wood,” but here she focused on practical advice. Roast the turkey for at least two hours, she directed; stuffing is improved by adding an egg. It was one of many lessons the book offered to readers who, in the pointed words of its subtitle, “are not Ashamed of Economy.”

Child advocated frugality not from necessity but from patriotic principle. After winning success in Boston’s literary circles, she became distressed at the ostentatious luxury and idleness that she found among the rich. The “false and wicked parade” of luxury, she wrote, is “morally wrong, so far as the individual is concerned; and injurious beyond calculation to the interests of our country.” Proud of America’s promise, Child worried about its future. “We never shall be free from embarrassment,” she wrote, “until we cease to be ashamed of industry and economy.”

Along with practical tips, therefore, “The Frugal Housewife” dispensed philosophical advice. “Economy is generally despised as a low virtue, tending to make people ungenerous and selfish,” Child observed, but in fact “the man who is economical, is laying up for himself the permanent power of being useful and generous.” She may have been thinking of her father, who had worked his way out of poverty, becoming a prosperous baker who could afford to be generous. And he was, especially at Thanksgiving, when he invited the woodcutters and berry-pickers he employed to a meal of “chicken-pies, pumpkin-pies…and heaps of donuts.”

Frugality had empowered her father, and she wanted to instill it in her readers. “Look frequently into the pails, to see that nothing is thrown to the pigs, which should be in the grease-pot,” she urged. “Look to the grease-pot, and see nothing is there which might serve to nourish your own family, or a poorer one.” The most economical cut of veal is the shoulder, Child advised, and the neck is the cheapest piece of mutton. Inexpensive coffee can be made from roasted peas, but “after all, the best economy is to go without.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

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