We often picture our Victorian ancestors practicing thrift, frugality and good money management. While those beliefs may be romantic, they are not accurate. America almost always has been a culture of consumption. As shown earlier, even the Pilgrims arrived in America with debt.
Thrift was once openly discussed as being a sought-after virtue and held out as an acceptable social obligation. People have never been totally honest about their personal financial situations. In fact, the 1890 census which was supposed to collect “… the statistics of, and relating to, the recorded indebtedness of private corporations and individuals,” but Robert Porter, the gentleman in charge of the census that year, feared people regarded their debt as part of their private affairs and would “resent any inquiries in regard to it.” He also feared for the personal safety of his census workers and found a way to avoid this line of questioning.
By 1926 journalists had begun to exclaim, “thrift was un-American.” Certainly following the Second World War, it was. Consumerism and the desire to have a better life was much more attractive than saving.
Still, many tried valiantly to promote thrift. How do you think their messages were received?
In an 1849 text is found a great quote about excessive thrift. The author writes, “These establishments are much frequented by economical housekeepers afflicted with that most melancholy of all distempers, a mania for cheap bargains; and many a dollar is paid for ‘cheap’ articles which, in a few weeks, become utterly and irrecoverably useless, while the deluded purchaser is congratulating herself upon the excellent bargain she has made.”