Arguably the 21st century’s most important ethical imperative — using resources wisely, or what many people call sustainability — traveled for much of American history under the name of “thrift” and for decades was formally celebrated each January by millions of American children and adults. Tragically, that history has been largely forgotten. But for the sake of our future, we can now remember a bit of it, thanks to my colleague Andrew Yarrow’s new book, “Thrift: The History of an American Cultural Movement.”
One of the great institution-building efforts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the spread of the Young Men’s Christian Association across the United States. Largely aimed at rural-born boys and young men newly arriving in cities and towns, the YMCA’s special blend of recreation and character education featured the idea of stewardship, which says that all our possessions (health, wealth, the natural world around us) are not ours to do with as we please but are gifts from God that we hold in trust. Another and somewhat more secular word for stewardship was thrift, which comes from “thrive” and meant the ethic of wise use.
Local YMCA-sponsored thrift clubs — usually focused on encouraging more careful spending and starting savings accounts — began appearing in the 1890s. The idea caught on, and soon enough the national YMCA had a “Thrift Division.” A National Thrift Committee was launched in 1916 and by 1920, National Thrift Week — beginning always on Jan. 17, Benjamin Franklin’s birthday — was being observed in more than 300 U.S. cities and towns. Besides the Y, scores of other organizations took part, including the American Library Association, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Jewish Welfare Board and the League of Local Building and Loan Associations. The official slogan for Thrift Week 1922 was “Spend Time and Money Wisely.”
The American thrift movement of nearly a century ago had ideas that sound strikingly modern. Anna K. Wiley, a thrift advocate who had also been a leader of the Woman’s Suffrage League, campaigned tirelessly for healthier food, even persuading President Calvin Coolidge to substitute whole wheat bread for white bread at White House dinners. During Thrift Week 1927, she told a Washington, D.C., assembly of schoolchildren: “Thrift means simplicity of living, a love of nature, and not a love of the artificial pleasures which cost money.”
In 1919, the thrift educator Arthur H. Chamberlain, as chairman of the Committee on Thrift Education of the National Education Association, co-authored a book titled “Thrift and Conservation: How to Teach It.” This curriculum says: “The resources upon which the happiness, and in fact, the very life of man depends, are ours to use but not to waste. The people of all generations are the rightful heirs of nature. We therefore hold these resources in trust, and it is our duty to guard our trust faithfully and to pass it on as little impaired by our use of it as possible.”
A 1923 school book for younger children, by way of urging children to “save wood, coal, and gas,” says: “Old Uncle Thrift said: ‘We will be a thrifty nation, when we all learn conservation.’ ” A 1924 national convention on thrift education sponsored by the National Education Association, the American Society for Thrift and other groups featured presentations from the National Park Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and several independent national conservation organizations.
In his book for teachers, Chamberlain even makes a distinction between conservation and thrift. Conservation, while important, merely avoids waste. Thrift does more — it produces a growth of resources. Thus: “Conservation applied to our forests will prolong their life for many years. Thrift dictates that we plant both seeds and trees, thus adding to our capital.” Perhaps Chamberlain was remembering the old English proverb: “Planting of trees is England’s old thrift.”
In any case, Chamberlain’s important distinction is as contemporary as this morning’s headlines. A recent story in the New York Times reports that Samso, a small island that is part of Denmark, is now a world leader in the area of renewable energy. Samso today “actually generates more power from renewable sources that it consumes over all.” Making two blades of grass grow where only one grew before. Thrift!
So the next time you are supportive of an idea aimed at increasing sustainability — no more plastic bags at grocery stores, reducing food waste, more bicycles and fewer cars, more saving, more use of green energy — you can take your pick of attitudes. Either you’re a cool, modern person on the cutting edge of progressive social change. Or you’re as old-fashioned as grandma’s nightgown, committed still to that venerable and often-overshadowed American value of thrift.
NOTE: David Blankenhorn’s interview of Andrew Yarrow, author of “Thrift: The History of an American Cultural Movement,” can be found here in both video and podcast formats.