The Thrift Movement and Mass Consumption


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Observance of Thrift Week began in 1916 under pressure of the war effort. An educational campaign commemorated and inculcated in adults and children the virtues represented by the "American Apostle of Thrift," Benjamin Franklin, whose birthday anniversary on January 17th marked the inception of each year's week-long campaign. As the Coolidge Papers case file Thrift - Encouragement 1923-29 suggests, the subject of thrift was taught with a particular sense of urgency in the nation's elementary, vocational and high schools during the twenties, when the need for thrift was less obvious than it had been during the war years. A major focus of the week was educating children in the habit of saving and the use of money. Behind it all was the hope that through education it would be possible to achieve a responsible consumerism.

It seems a paradox central to the decade that a campaign to promote the modest virtues of thrift and savings acquired so much importance in an age that, in comparison to what had occurred before, gave such free rein to spending. The mix of national organizations cooperating in presenting Thrift Week is suggestive of this paradox. In addition to the YMCA, which fostered the thrift movement and was the primary sponsor of the yearly thrift campaigns, were such groups as the American Bankers' Association, the American Home Economics Association, the American Library Association, the Associated Advertising Clubs of the World, the Association of Life Insurance Presidents, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Boy Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts, the Farm Mortgage Bankers' Association of America, the Federated Council of Churches, the National Education Association, the National Kindergarten Association, the National Retail Dry Goods Association, and the Retail Credit Men's National Association.

For many Americans during the 1920s, President Coolidge was a modern-day Benjamin Franklin. His words and the image of frugality encapsulated by photographs of him dressed as a simple New England farmer seemed to endorse thrift and saving, and set a reassuring tone for the public life in which consumerism played so great a role.

The potentially dissonant and alarming elements of consumerism were finessed in other ways too, for example, as Leslie Marchand notes in Advertising the American Dream (1935), by calling installment buying "the new thrift" (p. 158) and by equating saving and spending. As one of the most revealing items in the Coolidge-Consumerism collection, the General Collections monograph Thrift Education: Being the Report of the National Conference on Thrift Education, Held in Washington, D.C., June 27 and 28, 1924, Under the Auspices of the Committee on Thrift Education of the National Education Association and the National Council of Education, makes clear, many of the important groups in society cooperated in redefining "thrift" as wise spending, rather than saving pure and simple.

Those involved in the conference read like a "Who's Who" of the socially and politically powerful, national organizations and agencies whose work in one way or another fed into and supported the growth of mass consumerism. The essential point is the interconnectedness of this seemingly disparate network, which included the American Bankers Association, the Bureau of the Budget (of the federal government), the U.S. Department of Commerce - Division of Simplified Practice, the U.S. Department of Agriculture - Office of Extension Work, the General Federation of Womens Clubs, the American Home Economics Association, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, the American Federation of Labor, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Y.M.C.A. - National Thrift Committee, and the Y.W.C.A.

Because the monograph brings together the many strands that coalesced in the making and sustaining of the mass consumer society, it is worth quoting at some length from this brilliant distillation of the elements of consumerism.

The presence on the program of Herbert M. Lord, Director of the U.S. Budget, underlines the far-reaching connections assumed to exist between thrift in government and the national budget, on the one hand, and family thrift and budget-keeping, on the other. (DETAIL NOTE Business Organization of the Government) Both were seen as existing on the same continuum. In summarizing the work of the Bureau of the Budget, General Lord referred to preparing the Government budget, "instituting and prosecuting a scientific reduction in the cost of Government in expenditures. . . . What we are doing here has attracted a great deal of attention, and there have been many interesting and profitable by-products. One of the most valuable of these has been the development of budget interest throughout the country, with particular reference to family budgeting. Many of the women's organizations, realizing the importance of this as a good thrift measure, have been devoting special attention to family budgeting" (p. 57).

The meeting's American Home Economics Association representative declared that "thrift is wise spending" (p. 11). The thrift movement material from the Anna Kelton Wiley Papers (DIRECTORY NOTE Anna Kelton Wiley Papers) makes the same point. A six-page typescript for children, preserved in the Wiley Papers file National Thrift Week in Washington, D.C. 1927 and presumably by Anna Kelton Wiley herself, shows how pervasive consumerist ideas were in the society. The typescript narrates the biography of Benjamin Franklin and the significance of Thrift Week: "Thrift is not only saving it also means wise giving and wise spending. What is the world's greatest business concern to each of us? Why the family to which we belong. . . . Among other important factors, the success of this most important concern depends, as in the realm of commerce, on its ability to make a profit."

The 1924 thrift education conference also invoked President Harding's seminal home-ownership statement, echoed many times over in statements by Commerce Secretary Hoover: "No greater contribution can be made towards perpetuating the democracy of our country than to make our Nation a nation of home owners" (p. 9). A speaker from the New York State League of Savings and Loan Associations stated: "We are promoting thrift by promoting home ownership" (p. 9). (INTRO NOTE The Home)

A speaker representing the Federal Board for Vocational Education offered comments that explain the connection between consumer education through the public schools and "Americanization," the incorporation of immigrant groups into American (consumer) society: "We have two large objectives, production and consumption. Through our agricultural trade and industrial commercial services we are trying to train in right production; through out home economic service we are trying to train for right consumption in the home. . . . We believe that we are doing the biggest piece of Americanization work that can be done. . . . how to earn a good living in this country and how to have good homes and how to have our families properly spend the incomes that come into the homes." (p. 16) (DETAIL NOTE Immigrants)

Department of Commerce initiatives to standardize and simplify industrial practice and procedures were also lassoed into the Thrift Movement. (INTRO NOTE Herbert Hoover) A Commerce Department spokesperson at the conference from the Division of Simplified Practice explained: "Simplified practice means the reduction of variety in sizes, dimensions, and immaterial differences in everyday commodities as a means of eliminating wastes, decreasing costs, and increasing values, in production, distribution and consumption. . . . 'Too many varieties' is recognized as the mother of excessive investment, slow turnover, rapid obsolescence, decreased profits, and economic waste. . . . Waste and wages are paid from the same pocket-book--the pocket-book of the ultimate consumer, or purchaser, of the goods. . . . In the last analysis, thrift is mainly a matter of eliminating waste" (pp. 67-68, 70-71). (DETAIL NOTE Standardization)

Agriculture too was roped into the Thrift Movement, particularly through the work of county extension agents (INTRO NOTE Farmers): "They show how to apply science and successful practice to the immediate problems of the farm, the home, and the community in order that the farmer and his family make a reasonable income, live well, produce a sturdy, God-fearing, industrious family, and take their places as worthy citizens of the Nation. In order to develop a thrift program in agriculture and for the rural home, it will be necessary to get in touch with these forces [the extension agents] at the outset, for they are the agencies created by State and National laws to lead in such matters in the rural regions of America" (p. 75).

The Anna Kelton Wiley Papers contain considerable material relevant to the Thrift Movement. In addition to National Thrift Week in Washington, D.C., 1927, there are the files Thrift Committee for Washington, D.C., 1927-28, and Homemaker-Consumer Life in Washington, D.C., 1922-23. In the latter is a "National Thrift Budget Book," published by the Industrial Department of the Y.M.C.A. International Committee, with Benjamin Franklin's image on the cover and a list of "Ten Financial Commandments." (INTRO NOTE Spirituality).


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