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.