Thursday, October 13, 2011

Intelligent Economy - Circa 1915

In 1915, the author of an article on “Intelligent Economy” published in Woman’s Magazine, a UK periodical - not to be confused with the later Woman magazine -  asked the following question: What is economy?  
She then quoted the following in response: “Laudable Parsimony” (from Dr. Johnson)

He looks laudably parsimonious, doesn't he?  
Our writer added another quote:  “Wise frugality that does not give a life to saving, but that saves lives.”  (George Crabbe, who has a softer countenance, I think.)

 Given the privations suffered on the Home Front during the Great War, it was hardly surprising that the author reveals herself to be a bit ticked off with authority, in a manner that seems more than familiar in the present.  Here’s what she said:

“Never before has the Board of Trade been so concerned with our private catering as to bid us consume less meat.”  She goes on to repeat a catalog of advisory notices distributed by various government departments, and as if weighing it all up adds:  “In some ways we have been rather startled at the idea of past and unrealized wastefulness on the part of the ordinary consumer.   Who among us, for instance, ever gave a thought to the question of whether the nation’s supplies of old potatoes were exhausted before we began to demand new ones?” 

 As an island, Britain depended upon much of her food from overseas – particularly the Empire – and in the Great War U-boat activity curtailed many of those imports, as it did in the Second World War.  Niall Ferguson, in his book, The Pity of War, said that WW1 brought the first great age of globalization to an end.  And you thought globalization was new?  Far from it.

But amid the complaints, there is some intelligence in Intelligent Economy that shines through.  Here’s one line: 

“Do not buy something in a sale because it’s cheap.”

Oh dear, that would be me.   You see, I love a sale. I rarely pay full price for anything, if I can help it, and I just love a bargain.  And I have to say, those little red Macy’s 20% discount cards have led me astray (especially on the “extra 15% off” days, when you can double-dip the discount), as have the Bed, Bath & Beyond cards that pop into the mailbox so regularly. Did I really need that cherry stoner?  Or that chopping board? “You can’t use them all at once, can you?” said my husband, wondering if the three-for-$12 set I’d bought at Costco weren’t enough for one household. 

 My friend Maria introduced me to her PPW theory some thirty years ago.  Maria, by the way, was born in the Netherlands to parents who had suffered deeply during the Second World War.  PPW = Price Per Wear.  She told me that if you were buying something to wear to work that you would wear day in, day out, and that you wanted to last, then that’s where you put your money. That ball you would only ever go to once in a lifetime? No, don’t splash out on a gown – that’s where you go cheap.  Remembering PPW means you will bear in mind that the money you’ve shelled  out on clothing has to pay you back in hours spent on your body!

 Just recently we’ve heard a lot about buying more goods from our home suppliers, rather than from overseas (child labor in China, the trade deficit, the jobs of workers at home on the line – the reasons mount up), but it seems so much more strident when couched in the following terms by our 1915 author:

“’Everything is so dear now,’ says the young person who hitherto has bought the lowest price goods, and it will be no bad thing for her if she has to sit down and darn the better hose at 1s 9d or 2s a pair from the English loom, instead of throwing aside the flimsy things at 9d from Austria as soon as holes and ladders appear in them.  For in the former case, the money remains in this country benefiting our own people.  To make use of the home products as far as possible is one of the soundest works of practical economy that we can exercise at the present time.”  (the currency is shillings and “old” pence, so two shillings – 2s – would be about 10 pence in today’s British currency, and about 6 or 7 cents here in the USA)

But here’s an interesting point – the author warns the young women readers not to think their new-found employment – and extra money – will go on forever, and warns them that they will be sent home as soon as the war ends, not simply because the men who have gone to war will be returning to their jobs, but because so many goods (munitions, for example) will not be required.  She was right – many women lost their income in this way, but employers also realized that they could pay women less than men – and (surprise, surprise), they did the job just as well!

But one point quite surprised me, in this “two sides of economy’s coin” that the author brings to her article – many foods were beginning to be sold pre-packaged instead of being sold “loose” (even when I was a child in the early 1960’s, I remember biscuits being sold from big tins – the shop assistant would fill a bag for you – half a pound, for example).  And of course, by biscuits I mean cookies.  She concludes that the cost to health of not buying pre-packaged goods could be more expensive than the risk of (for example) buying milk from the dipper instead of from a sterilized and sealed bottle.  But of course, those bottles were returned for refund in those days.

 I think many of us were raised by women who believed that you had no business even thinking of buying something if you couldn’t afford it.  I remember a saying that was repeated to me, “What’s for you will never go by you.”  I love that one, and to this day, if there’s something I see that I think I want, I leave it behind and come back to the store another day (the regretted purchases mentioned previously notwithstanding).  Sometimes I realize I didn’t want that thing as much as I thought, and there have been occasions when I know I’ll be disappointed if the desired “thing” isn’t there when I return to the store – but there again, if I’ve missed it, I wasn’t meant to have it anyway, so it passed me by.  This process also saves me – most of the time – from falling foul of the need for instant gratification.   Mind you, the less said about the Eileen Fisher sale, the better.

Did your mothers and grandmothers have words of wisdom on the subject of Intelligent Economy? My mother, who lived through the Blitz in London, as well as wartime rationing, has a veritable catalog of such advice? (To this day she saves wrappers from butter and margarine to line a cake tin).  Or have you read about a cost-cutting measure from past times we could use today?  I’ve a few more of those plain “Secrets” moleskin journals left, so I’ll send one each to the first three readers leaving their snippet of advice from the inspiring generation here on the blog (email your mailing address to me via my website – you’ll know if you are among the first three to leave a comment).  And even if you’re not among the first three, we’d all love to hear your comments and timely advice on the subject of Intelligent Economy!

Next time:  Profile of a Heroine – or two.


  1. Always interesting posts, Jacqueline. :-D I can't recall any one thing of advice from my Depression era grandparents who both went from riches to almost rags...but they were workers and never through anything out that they could reuse. Wrapping paper, brown paper and bags, plastic got rewashed and dried and put away for next use, string was wound up and put in the drawer with pins, rubber bands, and other re-usable doo dads. Left overs were always made into another dish entirely and every scrap was used, and the waste went to feed the chooks or the huge veg garden. We all learned to sew because it was a survival skill... I learned to cook in school and added to mine. It saved me many times over the years. I call it guerrilla cooking as I can usually turn a meal out of what ever is in the cupboard.

    I love a good sale. And yes, those Macy's coupons always nag at the back of your mind. However, I don't give into impulse buys anymore...Rule of thumb is: will you regret it if you walk out of the store without it? Most times, the answer is no. Only twice have I really, really regretted not buying something at a given time. :-D

    Who said Pollies know ANYTHING about frugality and saving and using everything up? :-D


  2. I don't remember either of my grandmother's giving advice about this. My dad, on the other hand, always said, "you can go broke buying on sale". I know my maternal grandmother saved money, though.

  3. I'm pretty good at guerilla cooking myself - give me some leftovers and I'll always be able to do something with them. In fact, it always makes me laugh when I see a recipe for Bubble and Squeak, which is basically fried up leftovers, though usually with cabbage. And Shana, I love your Dad's saying - I'll tape that to my wallet, I think!

  4. Marsha said:

    My grandmother always told me, "always pay cash". If she didn't have the money for something she either saved up until she did or she did without it.

  5. My mother always says, "If you don't love it, don't buy it" - which has saved me from many an ill-advised clothing purchase. (But those coupons are hard to resist!)

  6. My grandmother was born in 1885 and was a farm wife in Iowa during the depression. She had a huge garden, canned food, made clothes on her treadle machine out of feed sacks and was thrilled to have her son-in-law's parachute to make "fancy" clothes.

    She was frugal but had high standards. Her comment was "Buy something cheap, you've got something cheap."

  7. katieleigh, I think your mother was absolutely right. I have a similar mantra for those moments of temptation: "If in doubt - don't." It works for me! Jan-Leanne - the story of your grandmother's thrift is a lesson to us all. Though we live busy lives, there is something to be gained from growing even a few vegetables - and I think more people are taking to the garden and growing their own food to save money. I remember my mother telling me that she envied a friend who had managed to lay her hands on some parachute "silk" to make clothing in the war.

    And Marsha, if you read this, let me have your mailing address so that I can send you a "Secrets" journal - you can email me via my website.

  8. My Grandmother and Mother both used to lead by example. They never bought anything until they had saved up. Money was put aside in different tins for coal, food ,and other essentials. Then another tin was used to drop coins in for 'emergencies'. The tins were kept in full view on the mantelpiece.