Ten Leaders: Allies and Strange Bedfellows

Andrew Yarrow


Subjects: Curricula, Teaching thrift, Thrift Collection, Thrift, Visionaries/leaders

More by: Andrew Yarrow



Andrew Yarrow, “Ten Leaders: Allies and Strange Bedfellows,” 2014

The early twentieth-century American thrift movement included a wide array of organizations, many of which had colorful and compelling leaders such as

S. W. Straus of the American Society for Thrift, Sara Louisa Oberholtzer of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s school savings bank division, and Roy Bergengren of the Credit Union National Extension Bureau. Some were wealthy philanthropists like Adolph Lewisohn and Straus. Some were ardent reformers, like Bolton Hall, Charles Stelzle, and Bergengren. While some were politically conservative, like Straus and Oberholtzer, others—like Maggie Walker, Hall, and Stelzle—espoused quite progressive positions.

The movement had many spokespeople like Arthur Chamberlain and Straus and local leaders like Anna Kelton Wiley in Washington, D.C., and Walker in Richmond, Virginia. Many organizations worked together, particularly in planning National Thrift Week activities at the local level and at national conferences like the 1924 gathering in Washington and the 1926 one in Philadelphia, most of their leaders had surprisingly little to do with one another. Lewisohn, chairman of the YMCA’s National Thrift Committee, promoted Thrift Week with J. Robert Stout of the Educational Thrift Service, who also became chairman of the executive committee of National Thrift Week. However, Lewisohn and Straus, both wealthy Jewish financiers, philanthropists, and thrift advocates, attended Jewish philanthropic events in New York and were a part of Palm Beach’s Jewish elite, but appear not to have been at the same ones, and it is notable that Straus did not attend National Thrift Week or YMCA gatherings chaired by Lewisohn. On the other hand, Straus worked closely with Arthur Chamberlain, who he appointed to lead his American Society for Thrift.1

While there were thousands of educators, authors, and others who promoted thrift between the 1910s and about 1930, this chapter will provide snapshots of ten of the movement’s more notable figures, focusing on four categories of leaders—the financiers, the educators, the radicals, and the thrift institutionalists.

The Financiers

Many of the commercial bankers, industrialists, and other businessmen who supported thrift represented the politically conservative flank of the movement, seeing thrift as a set of beliefs to restrain working-class radicalism and draw workers and immigrants into the practices and ideology of American capitalism and finance. However, two of the movement’s most prominent leaders were financiers—S. W. Straus and Adolph Lewisohn—who made thrift a major sidelight of their long careers. Straus was more of a zealot, cajoling educators and political leaders to see thrift instruction as a national imperative. Conversely, Lewisohn was both more of a polyglot philanthropist, making thrift but one of several major causes that he supported, and someone who consorted with Presidents and lived flamboyantly.

Simon William Straus

Simon William Straus—a wealthy Jewish businessman and philanthropist who developed the mortgage real estate bond that helped finance thousands of early twentieth-century American buildings, was arguably the most prominent and tireless leader of the thrift movement during its heyday. Straus founded the American Society for Thrift (AST) in 1913, prodded the National Education Association (NEA) to establish a National Committee on Thrift Education, and wrote the History of the Thrift Movement in America (1920) and countless essays and articles promoting thrift.2

Straus advanced a muscular, moralistic idea of thrift. It entailed “the exercise of the will, the development of stamina, the steadfast refusal to yield to temptation,” he said. He damned waste of resources, time, and energy. He argued with an almost religious zeal that thrift would benefit everyone, helping even the poorest escape poverty and dependence. And he crusaded for thrift to be taught to every schoolchild.3

Something of a scold, and given to long-winded speeches, Straus castigated the American people as “unthrifty,” given to waste, extravagance, and get-rich-quick schemes. He attacked both the wealthy and labor agitators for wanting “to satisfy every whim and follow every fashion.” He was a foe of radical movements, and saw thrift as a “stabilizing influence” for society. Dispelling the idea that thrift was merely about saving money, he said, “Thrift is not an affair of the pocket, but an affair of character.”4

Given to hyperbole, Straus declared in 1915, when he organized the first International Congress for Thrift at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco: This is “the first time in the history of the world that a body of men and women ever came together for the purpose of definitely inaugurating a national thrift movement along broad educational lines . . . Words are incapable of describing the magnitude, significance and possibilities of this movement, if we are faithful to our duties and our opportunities. For if we shall lead humanity into more thrifty ways, and especially our fellow American citizens, we shall, in reality, be turning many a human soul from penury to prosperity, from want to affluence, from failure in everything to success in Everything.”5

During the 1915 conference, Straus persuaded California Gov. Hiram Johnson to proclaim August 11 as “Thrift Day” and took his crusade to the NEA, which was meeting concurrently in Oakland. He persuaded the teachers’ association to appoint a committee to “take such steps as might be necessary to give thrift a place in the curricula of the public schools of the nation.” Arthur Chamberlain, secretary of the California Council of Education, became the committee’s chair and Straus’s right-hand man as AST president. The NEA joined Straus’s American Society for Thrift to launch the first of what were to be many thrift essays contests. By the second contest in 1916, more than 100,000 students and adults submitted 1,000-word essays, with medals given for the best discussions of thrift. Straus went to the federal Bureau of Education, whose commissioner appointed him an advisor on thrift education.6

When U.S. entry into the First World War made thrift a national cause, advanced by President Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Straus promoted the sale of Thrift Stamps and Liberty Bonds and convinced many governors to declare National Thrift Day on the Sunday before Labor Day. Straus worked with the government as well as the NEA, YMCA, the American Bankers’ Association, and other leading thrift proponents to make thrift a national priority.7

Straus brought together a motley crew of governors and educators, suffragists and industrialists to become members and advisors to the American Society for Thrift. The AST opened its headquarters at 565 Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, began publishing Thrift Magazine in 1919, and issued many pamphlets geared to children and adults. Straus wrote syndicated newspaper columns called “Little Talks on Thrift,” which received wide distribution during the 1920s. He traveled widely, speaking on thrift in the United States and Europe, often unfavorably comparing America’s “thriftlessness” to more thrifty habits across the Atlantic. He also was instrumental in organizing many thrift conferences, including what was to be the largest—a 1924 gathering in Washington, D.C., that was attended by representatives of 150 organizations.

Straus, who was born in Ligonier, Indiana in 1866, took over his father’s Chicago banking business in 1898 and incorporated it as S. W. Straus & Company in 1905. Four years later, his growing business floated the first real estate bond to finance construction of an office building. During the next two decades, Straus’s business financed many of America’s early skyscrapers, including the Chrysler and Chanin buildings in New York, as well as many hotels and apartment buildings. As his firm grew, he built a thirty-two-story headquarters in Chicago, moved the company to New York in 1915, and eventually opened branches in more than fifty cities and more than 1,000 employees. He also founded banks in both New York and Chicago, and owned the luxurious Alba Hotel and Sun-and-Surf Beach Club in Palm Beach, Florida. Straus encouraged thrift among his workers by pioneering the idea of a matching savings program, and also attempted to launch an employee-management plan for one of his Chicago businesses.8

Straus, who married Hattie Klee in 1893 and had three children, gave to Jewish and other philanthropies in both the United States and Europe, and was honored by the French government in 1927 for his charitable work. He died in 1930.9

Adolph Lewisohn

Adolph Lewisohn, a German Jewish investment banker, copper magnate, and philanthropist, was a co-founder of the YMCA’s National Thrift Committee in 1916 and was a leading figure in the American thrift movement into the 1930s. A “short, animated man with a shrewd philosophical air,” Lewisohn’s temperament and beliefs differed notably from Straus’s, and he had a rich and varied life in which promoting thrift was but one of many interests.

Lewisohn chaired the Y’s thrift committee through 1933, presiding over thrift luncheons at the Bankers’ Club and thrift dinners at the Astor Hotel every year during National Thrift Week. He became honorary chairman of the National Thrift Week committee, wrote editorials and other articles about thrift, and spoke in many public forums and on the radio about the virtues of thrift. Lewisohn’s prominence among business and financial leaders helped entice many of New York’s elite to support the thrift movement.

He tended to define thrift in more practical terms than Straus and others. Lewisohn came close to equating thrift with efficiency and careful budgeting, with the aim of helping individuals of modest means become independent.10

Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1849, he emigrated to New York as a sixteen-year-old to join his father’s mercantile business, which imported ostrich feathers to be sold to carpet makers and bought pig hair and bristles to be used in mattresses and brushes. Using the profits from these enterprises, Adolph and his brother, Leonard, established Lewisohn Brothers in 1872 and became involved in trading metals. In 1879, they acquired copper mines in Montana, followed by other mines in Tennessee and Arizona. Having met Thomas Edison, Lewisohn saw the future importance of electricity and recognized the value of copper for electrical wiring. By the late 1880s, they formed the United Metals Selling Company with businessmen William Rockefeller—the brother of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil—and Henry Rogers. At one point, they controlled 55 percent of the U.S. copper market.

By the time that Leonard left the business in 1901, Adolph’s business interests had expanded to include gold and platinum mines in Colombia and the new brokerage and investment house, Adolph Lewisohn & Sons. Having become a multimillionaire by his late 40s, Lewisohn turned his attention to the arts and civic matters.

He collected paintings, statues, rare books, and manuscripts, filling his mansion at 881 Fifth Avenue with works by Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet, and Picasso. In addition to his 400-acre estate in Ardsley, N.Y. and home, “Adelawn,” on the New Jersey shore, Lewisohn in 1904 bought and developed a great private camp on Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, Prospect Point, which included a collection of Bavarian-style chalets and Japanese shrines. When he summered there, he would bring his servants and relatives, along with his French, voice, and dancing instructors, and a troop of gardeners who helped him raise prize chrysanthemums and cultivate what were said to be among America’s finest gardens. Always living flamboyantly, Lewisohn danced and sang in his deep baritone in French, German, Italian, and Hebrew at his birthday parties in his Manhattan ballroom until his ninetieth year. After Hitler’s rise to power, Albert Einstein played violin in Lewisohn’s home for one of many benefits for Jewish scientists and others escaping from Nazi Germany.

While this pedigree and lifestyle makes Lewisohn an unlikely proponent of thrift, he was active in progressive causes during the last thirty-five years of his life. Once called “New York’s most useful citizen,” Lewisohn was involved with issues ranging from the care of dependent children to prison reform. He spoke at the first White House Conference on Children, organized by Teddy Roosevelt in 1909 and was an early member of the National Child Labor Committee. Lewisohn chaired a committee on penal reform, appointed by New York Gov. Al Smith, which led to recommendations that prisoners should be employed in occupations that they could take up after leaving prison. Lewisohn was even said to have given money to the socialist newspaper, The Masses.

Very much a member of New York’s German-Jewish elite chronicled in Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd and active in Jewish philanthropies geared to education and children, Lewisohn may seem a curious choice for the Protestant-dominated Young Men’s Christian Association to have made their leading spokesman on thrift. Nonetheless, when President Coolidge reached out to the Y for its thrift work, it was Lewisohn to whom he turned. Similarly, throughout the decade and a half when he headed the Y’s National Thrift Committee, it was Lewisohn who was most quoted by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Lewisohn, who married Emma Cahn in 1878 and had five children (one daughter married investment banker Arthur Lehman), also made huge bequests to Columbia University, the City College of New York, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Brooklyn Museum, which acquired much of his art collection. Columbia University named its stadium Lewisohn and, belatedly, its School of Mines, which Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler was originally reluctant to do because of the philanthropist’s Jewish background. Was it ironic that a great thrift advocate like Lewisohn had spent or given away most of his money by the time he died in 1938? Perhaps not, in light of the conscientious choices he made in disbursing his fortune. A friend of every president from Teddy Roosevelt to Herbert Hoover, Lewisohn was praised by former President William Taft in 1917, who said, “This country is far better off for Mr. Lewisohn’s coming. He has . . . has helped the community by his forethought, his enterprise and the practice of sound business principles. The great field, however, in which he has shown his highest civic usefulness is . . . by devoting his great wealth to aiding his fellowmen.”11

The Educators

Although Straus and Lewisohn clearly promoted thrift education, it was figures like Sara Oberholtzer, Arthur Chamberlain, and Robert Stout who were instrumental in bringing thrift into America’s schools and to the attention of the nation’s teachers. Oberholtzer, a temperance movement leader, devoted more than thirty years to spreading the idea of school savings banks, seeing thrift as a broad philosophy of self-control and an integral part of character education. Chamberlain, a California educator who Straus called upon to lead the American Society for Thrift and who became chairman of the National Education Association’s National Committee on Thrift Education, was an indefatigable advocate of making thrift a part of primary and secondary school curricula. By contrast, Stout—who chaired the National Thrift Committee in the 1930s and was a led the International Benjamin Franklin Society—was an entrepreneur who established a profitable company that served as a middleman between thousands of school savings banks and commercial banks.

Sara Louisa Oberholtzer

Sara Louisa Oberholtzer, a Philadelphia journalist, poet, and temperance crusader, was the leading promoter of school savings banks between 1890 and the late 1910s. Born Sara Louisa Vickers in Pennsylvania in 1841, she was a leading figure in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was active in a variety of women’s causes in both the United States and internationally.

In 1888, when Oberholtzer attended a convention of the recently formed American Economic Association, she became captivated by the work of a New York City school principal who had set up a savings banks for his students. The principal, a Belgian immigrant named John Thiry, had seen banks in European schools and believed that they would be a good way to teach children about money and thrift. Oberholtzer ran with the idea and convinced her WCTU superiors to create a School Savings Bank division and make her its National Superintendent in 1890. She argued that every Prohibitionist should support 10-6-1 school savings because they taught children the evils of waste and want,” which she called the “companions of intemperance.”

Oberholtzer traveled the country, speaking and writing about the virtues of school banks. Their goal was than the “inculcation of the principles of thrift, honesty and self-responsibility; the upbuilding, through the schools, of prosperity and stability for home and State; the improvement of the organic, social and economical conditions under which we live; the moral and financial welfare of the nation.”12

Thrift was a foundational value for Oberholtzer, who saw it as the critical determinant of individual and national success. It was the best antidote to many of the nation’s problems—poverty and inequality, drunkenness, and crime. Oberholtzer inveighed against “the unequal distribution of wealth, which results in great wealth and abject poverty,” and called for “the diffused possession of property.” To her, the remedy was to teach thrift. In one of her earliest writings on the subject, “A Plea for Economic Teaching” (1889), she said: “What we need most as a nation to distribute the wealth of our country properly is a general knowledge of economy and thrift.”

“We all know that thrift and industry are the strong back bones of an individual as well as of a nation, and that in every country the frugal and industrious will always rise among his mates, above the ordinary scale of morality and happiness,” she said. “Lack of industry and economy is the great cause of poverty, crime, vice, pauperism and intemperance . . . The lazy and spendthrift land on a barren coast.”

In subsequent writings and speeches, she declared that thrift, in general, and school savings banks, in particular, would lead to “purer lives,” independence, self-reliance, and manliness.

Oberholtzer published countless pamphlets, distributing them by the tens of thousands, as well as a quarterly magazine called Thrift Tidings, or the Little School Savings Bank Quarterly, which she edited from 1907 to 1923. This slender publication included updates about school savings banks around the country. She carefully chronicled the movement’s growth, recoding precise numbers of students participating and savings accumulated in dozens of communities. She reported that the number of student depositors increased from about 28,000 in 1891 to 400,000 in 1915.

Oberholtzer offered awards to states with the most banks and the most meetings to explain school savings banks. Articles addressed legislative efforts such as Massachusetts’ 1911 compulsory thrift education law and the 1911 federal Postal Savings Bank bill. In the magazine, she also told stories of how children’s saved money benefited individuals and communities. In one case, school savings bank deposits helped fund the building of a church. In another, $80 enabled a boy who had lost a leg to buy a wooden one.13

Thrift Tidings typically opened with a paragraph of Oberholtzer’s homespun philosophy. In the April 1909 issue, for example, she wrote: “In order that thrift and prosperity abound, it is necessary that people understand the practical use of time and money.”

Oberholtzer wrote how-to manuals for schools developing banks, as well as poems and songs such as “Save Your Pennies” and “A School Savings Rally.” At least 50,000 copies of one pamphlet, “How to Institute a School Savings Bank” (1913), were distributed. She also spoke at national and international conferences, won over government leaders in the U.S. Bureau of Education, which published her 1914 essay on school savings banks, and told stories of trekking fifteen miles in a day to interest additional schools.15 In a poem called “The Browns,” Oberholtzer wrote: “We owe our knowledge to the schools/The Browns in chorus say,/If any don’t teach Savings Banks/They’re quite behind the day.”

By the late 1910s, many others—including S. W. Straus and the National Education Association—were working to expand thrift education and school banks. Indeed, the movement proved to be such a success, that the number of schools with banks grew from a handful at the turn of the twentieth century to 3,000 in 1922 and 15,000 in 1929.15

10-6-1 As she wrote in the final issue of her magazine “Thrift Tidings, the humble carrier of the . . . coming of school savings banks, is not especially needed now, because the natural forces have heard and heeded, and the thrift teaching has proved of such value it . . . is being so widely taken up.”16

Oberholtzer also published a number of volumes of poetry. Some of her poems were set to music as hymns. Married in 1862 to John Oberholtzer, she had one son and died in 1930.17

Arthur Henry Chamberlain

Born in Chicago in 1870, Arthur Henry Chamberlain, an educator and textbook writer, became one of the thrift movement’s foremost spokesmen after the National Education Association (NEA) named him chairman of the newly formed National Committee on Thrift Education in 1915 and S. W. Straus appointed him as a leader of his American Society for Thrift (AST). Not one for understatement, he said in 1921: “Never was the need for thrift, practically applied, so great as at the present time.”18

His 1919 book, Thrift and Conservation: How to Teach It, written with his brother James Franklin Chamberlain, was one of the more exhaustive, if not terribly original, explications of the thrift movement’s philosophy. He also wrote one of the many thrift textbooks of the period, Thrift Education: Course of Study Outline for Use in Years One to Eight Inclusive (1928), edited a thrift book series for the Philadelphia publisher Lippincott, and edited the AST’s Thrift Magazine.

In his books, articles, and lectures, Chamberlain described thrift as earning, managing, planning, and saving, while avoiding waste and extravagance. He emphasized that thrift was about more than amassing wealth. Its “social aspects” included thrift of time, energy, health, and natural resources. “Thrift is the habit of character that prompts one to work for what he gets, to earn what is paid him; to invest part of his earnings; to spend wisely and well; to save, but not to hoard,” he declared.19

Chamberlain tirelessly advocated for expanding instruction in thrift in the schools, beginning Thrift and Conservation by declaring: “The need for public school instruction in the principles of thrift education was never so great or apparent as at the present time. The Americans are a most prodigal people.” Year after year, at NEA conferences, he urged teachers and school administrators to either create special classes in thrift or integrate it into virtually every subject. At the 1924 National Conference on Thrift Education in Washington, D.C.—the movement’s largest single gathering, which Chamberlain chaired— he said that math, geography, literature, the sciences, industrial arts, and home economics could all “be enriched and vitalized if they be taught in the light of the principles of thrift.”20

At the 1926 National Thrift Conference in Philadelphia, Chamberlain reported that four million children were depositors in school savings banks in 10,000 cities across the nation and that eight million elementary and secondary students were studying thrift in school. By the time he published his thrift textbook two years later, the thrift movement had already reached its zenith.21

While Chamberlain was very much a leader of the movement, his eclectic career provides little suggestion that thrift would become a major interest. After serving as a school principal in Illinois, he came to California at age twenty-six, when he was appointed professor at the new Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena, which became Cal Tech in 1920. Chamberlain headed the manual-training department and was acting president of the Institute. He also became state director of the California NEA in the early 1900s.

Chamberlain wrote several books on vocational and elementary education, including The Condition and Tendencies of Technical Education in Germany (1908) and The Growth of Responsibility and Enlargement of Power of the City School Superintendent (1913). With his brother, he also authored a series of geography textbooks about each of the world’s continents. One review of their Asia book criticized it for “the priggish doctrine that everything outside our own little parish is outlandish.” 22 Chamberlain died in 1942.

J. Robert Stout

J. Robert Stout, a Ridgewood, N.J., banker and publisher who was born in 1878, was a thrift promoter who turned thrift education into a profitable business. For many years the chairman of the juvenile section of the YMCA’s National Thrift Committee and chairman of the National Thrift Week Committee, Stout founded the Educational Thrift Service (ETS) in 1914.

The company served as an intermediary between commercial banks and school savings banks, which were proliferating in the nation’s schools in the 1910s and 1920s. ETS worked with schools, providing students with passbooks and keeping records of thousands of small deposits for the banks. While banks got good publicity for supporting thrift education, ETS earned a profit. The firm became so successful by the early 1920s that it occupied four floors of New York’s Woolworth Building.

Stout and his brother Rex, who became a prominent mystery novelist, promoted school savings by sending their ETS Gazette to 30,000 teachers a months. They hired sales people to go on the road to drum up more accounts. Stout, who was also a founder and leader of the International Benjamin Franklin Society, arranged for schools with 100 percent enrollment to get buttons and collotype photos of Franklin and Lincoln.

“All children possess a natural saving instinct,” he said. “Cooperation between banks and schools can do much to encourage thrift.”

At the 1924 Washington thrift conference, John Stout, another brother involved with ETS, claimed that the company had helped 1.6 million boys and girls to become bankers. While Stout profited, he also frequently opined on thrift. As chair of the National Thrift Committee, he was a public face of the thrift movement, corresponding with President Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Stout, who was also president of a bank in Ridgewood, wrote an eccentric 1934 book, Myself: A Profit and Loss Statement—Evaluating Ego, Income and Outgo, a Search for Values, in which his topics ranged from savings and charity to bathing and sneezing. Stout died in 1965. 23

The Radicals

The thrift movement’s more radical side included conservationists, labor activists like Charles Stelzle, civil rights pioneers like Maggie Lena Walker, and “simple living” proponents like Bolton Hall. For them, thrift was about taking care of the land and empowering, economically and otherwise, those on the margins of American society.

Charles Stelzle

While many Christians and Jews in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries actively supported efforts to improve the economic well-being and expand the rights of America’s working class—particularly those associated with the Social Gospel movement, Charles Stelzle was one of the leading figures in bringing together the labor movement and Christianity. In his lifelong work against poverty, he sought to economically empower working-class men and youth both through labor organizing and adopting principles of thrift. Stelzle, who was born into poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1869 and went to work at age 8, was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1900. Influenced by the Social Gospel, he preached at churches in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and New York, where he reached out to workers and “boys of the street,” the title of his first book in 1895. Thanks to his organizing abilities, his St. Louis church had 1,400 members of its Sunday school by 1902, the largest of any Presbyterian church west of the Mississippi River.

Stelzle stood beside striking miners in Cripple Creek, Colorado, and steel workers in Pennsylvania, and organized shop floor meetings between ministers and workers. He sought to counter the’ belief that “the church seems to work in the interest of the capitalist.” His success brought Stelzle to the attention of church leaders, who named him to lead the Presbyterian Departments of

Church and Labor and of Immigration. In these positions, he led sociological research projects detailing the conditions of immigrant workers and produced the first church inquiry into an industrial strike.

Stelzle also preached thrift to working-class boys and men as a means of self-improvement. He supported savings banks as a key component of urban boys’ clubs, writing that this was “a practical businesslike way of teaching thrift and economy.” Stelzle was a temperance advocate, believing that alcohol caused workingmen to squander their resources. He also argued that the labor movement taught workers thrift by organizing them to improve their own fortunes rather than turning to charity.24

By 1910, Stelzle had become the nation’s leading Christian trade unionist. That year, he founded the East Side Labor Temple in New York and established an exchange program between unions and ministers. Stelzle allied himself with Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor and a skeptic toward religious leaders. He began writing a weekly column that often addressed thrift and was syndicated in more than three hundred labor newspapers and many city dailies.

While Stelzle’s work was praised by the church in 1907 as “one of the providential movements of the day,” by 1913 conservatives charged that he was a socialist and he was forced to leave his ministry. During the next quarter century, he continued his advocacy in civic and religious groups and as a well-known writer. He directed New York’s Committee on Unemployment and was field secretary for the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in the 1910s. His radical views were expressed just before the end of World War I, when he called for “an industrial revolution,” although he expressly distanced himself from socialism. He also startled one audience by saying that it was neither capitalists nor labor agitators who were “the dangerous classes,” but rather the “complacent citizens” who neglect social issues.

Stelzle published nearly twenty books including The Social Application of Religion (1908), The Gospel of Labor (1912), and his autobiography, Son of the Bowery (1926). During the Depression, he urged churches to “tax” members to provide relief to the unemployed and he managed the Good Neighbor League, founded at President Franklin Roosevelt’s request.

Stelzle married Louise Rothmayer in 1889 and, nine years after she died, Louise Ingersoll in 1899, and had three children. He died in New York City in 1941.25

Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Draper Mitchell, born in Richmond, Virginia in 1864 the daughter of a servant to prominent abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew, was the first woman to charter a bank in the United States and the first African American woman to become president of a U.S. bank. This path-breaking woman also became a leading advocate for thrift among African Americans in the early twentieth century.

After graduating from high school and becoming a teacher, she married Armstrong Walker in 1886 and became increasingly involved in the Independent Order of Saint Luke, an African American fraternal society that she had joined when she was fourteen. She became the order’s Right Worthy Grand Secretary in 1899, expanding its activities to promote economic empowerment of Richmond’s black community.

By 1902, Walker had founded a newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, and a year later she chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, saying: “Let us have a bank that will take nickels and turn them into dollars . . . [for] who is so helpless as the Negro woman?” As president, she intended for the bank to be entirely run by women, but had to hire men because of a lack of qualified women. The bank quickly gained thousands of depositors. By 1909, one-third of the depositors were children.

“We teach them to save with the definite purpose of wise use of the money,” Walker said, explaining her interest in fostering children’s saving. “We try to give them a sense of moral responsibility for its wise use.” Children were given metal pocket banks to collect their pennies; once they had 100, they could open an account at the bank. Directing her comments to children, Walker urged them to “save some part of every dollar you have and the practice will become a habit—a habit which you will never regret, and of which you will never grow shame.”

Walker also established a department store for African Americans, the St. Luke’s Emporium, in 1905, which provided jobs and job training for black women. The Richmond Council of Colored Women, which she also founded, raised money for education and health programs such as the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls.

Although her life was shaken when one of her two sons shot her husband in 1915—accidentally, the court ruled—Walker continued to work for African American economic advancement until her death in 1934. When her bank merged with two others in 1930 to become the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, Walker became chairman of the board; the bank was America’s oldest continuously operating African American-owned bank.26

Bolton Hall

Bolton Hall, a labor activist and founder of the “back to the land movement,” wrote extensively about thrift, notably in his 1916 book, Thrift, and its 1923 sequel, The New Thrift. Whether in his efforts to develop urban and other community gardens or in his advocacy on behalf of industrial workers, Hall made thrift the underpinning of his philosophy.

Offering one of the better definitions of thrift, Hall wrote: “The prudent man looks ahead and gets ready. The frugal man lives carefully and saves persistently. The economical man spends judiciously and uses wisely. The careful man buys only what he needs and wastes nothing. The industrious man works hard and saves hard; the miser hoards; but the man of thrift earns largely, plans carefully, manages economically, spends wisely, and saves consistently.”27

But Hall was anything but an armchair philosopher. Born in Armagh, Ireland in 1854, the son of a Presbyterian minister, he was thirteen when his family came to New York. Hall spent his early adulthood as a businessman and lawyer after obtaining degrees from Princeton and Columbia Universities. While he took cases defending the poor, by the late 1880s, his focus turned to social reform. A follower of social reformer Henry George, Hall helped organize the New York Tax Reform Association and published Who Pays Your Taxes? in 1892, pushing for a single tax based on real estate. Reacting to the horrendous overcrowding of lower Manhattan, he became an advocate for slum clearance.

Popular with working men, Hall was instrumental in founding the American Longshoremen’s Union in 1896. He was said to have been offered the Democratic nomination for governor a few years later, but turned it down. Hall was influenced by Pierre Proudhon, the French radical, the British cooperative movement, and Leo Tolstoy, and befriended American socialist leaders Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman. Opposed to both Marxism and charity, he supported many radical causes, getting arrested for handing out birth-control literature by Margaret Sanger, opposing Tammany Hall, and providing Goldman with a rural retreat in Ossining, New York. He attacked America’s “misfit civilization [that] implies luxury and poverty cheek by jowl” and a society where “we are troubled about petty possessions while children cry for bread.”28

However, his “back to the land” efforts became the cause closest to his heart. In his 1907 book, Three Acres and Liberty, and through the Little Land League that he founded, Hall became a champion of school and “vacant lot” urban gardens, playgrounds, and rural camps for children. Influencing the thrift movement’s belief in home and school gardening, Hall wrote: “If you have a back yard, you can do your part and help the world and yourself by raising some of the food you eat. The more you raise, the less you will have to buy, 10-6-1 and the more there will be left for some of your fellow countrymen who have not an inch of ground on which to raise anything.”29

In 1910, Hall bought seventy-five acres in Watchung, N.J., where he established a cooperative farm called Free Acres, founded on principles of environmental conservation, participatory democracy, and sexual equality. The community, which still survives, attracted celebrities such as actor James Cagney and singer Paul Robeson. Hall was a pioneer in calling for “simple living,” urging city dwellers and trade unionists to go “forward to the land” to produce their own food to break free from price-gouging food producers and become self-sufficient.30

Hall, a tall man who spoke with a brogue and had an “aquiline scholar’s face,” married Susie Hurlbut Scott in 1884 and had one daughter. He died in Georgia in 1938.31

The Thrift Institutionalists

Roy Bergengren and Henry Morton Bodfish, as influential leaders of the credit union and building and loan movements, helped create and develop institutions that would promote thrift. Both building and loans, which dated to the 1800s, and credit unions, which Bergengren built from almost nothing into a national movement, were intended to be cooperative financial institutions to help working-class and poor Americans save, have access to credit, and borrow money to build or buy homes. Both were conceived as populist institutions to serve as alternatives to usurious money-lenders and big commercial banks that, until the early-to-mid twentieth century, primarily served well-to-do customers and businesses. Both men saw thrift and thrift institutions as ways of alleviating poverty and promoting economic independence.

Henry Morton Bodfish

Henry Morton Bodfish promoted thrift as a longtime leader of the building and loan movement. Bodfish, an economist and banker born in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, in 1902, worked to promote home ownership through his work with the United States Building and Loan League, as an academic and writer, and as an adviser to government.

Bodfish, a professor of land economics and real estate at Northwestern University from 1935 to 1944 and later at Stanford and Arizona State Universities, became executive vice president of the U.S. Savings and Loan League in 1930 and head of its educational arm, the American Savings and Loan Institute. He served in a number of capacities with the League, rising to become chairman of the board from 1950 to 1953.

Bodfish lectured and wrote extensively not only about building and loan and savings and loan activities, but also about home ownership and thrift. He was a strong believer in cooperative principles, predicated on an “idealism looking toward the development of habits of thrift,” which enabled members to save and borrow money to build or buy their own homes.

In his 1931 book, History of Building and Loan in the United States, Bodfish argued that because members had to make regular contributions, this self-discipline encouraged thrift. “These institutions were organized so that the working class might develop habits of thrift through having a place where their small savings might be regularly deposited and kept safely while also earning interest.” Like other thrift advocates, Bodfish believed that thrift promoted individual independence—“a citizenry not dependent on doles, nor on charity.”32

Bodfish was called upon by President Herbert Hoover to participate in a National Conference on Home Ownership in 1931, a time when many Americans were defaulting on their mortgages because of the Depression. He helped author the Federal Home Loan Bank Act of 1932, which created twelve federally chartered regional banks to provide loans to savings and loans to finance home mortgages, and became one of the five original members of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. Bodfish also helped create the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation as part of the National Housing Act of 1934, which provided deposit insurance for S & Ls.

Bodfish, who co-authored Savings and Loan Principles in 1938 with Adrian Daniel Theobald, also founded the First Federal Savings & Loan Association of Chicago in 1934, serving as its president and chairman until he retired in 1962. After World War II, he helped revive the National Thrift Committee, moving it to Chicago, and offering to subsidize it through the U.S. Savings and Loan League. Bodfish also was involved with the International Union of Building and Loan Associations, was an adviser to a United Nations housing committee, and helped draft legislation for savings and loans in West Germany, Austria, and Peru.33

A longtime resident of Chicago, Bodfish was active in civic affairs, serving on the city’s planning commission and as president of the Civic Federation. Married twice, he retired to Wickenburg, Arizona, where he died in 1966. True to his beliefs in thrift, Bodfish was a collector of toy mechanical penny banks, which were first developed in the late nineteenth century to help children learn to save. 34

Roy F. Bergengren

Roy Frederick Bergengren, the most influential leader of the credit union movement during its formative years in the first half of the twentieth century, was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1877. A lawyer and commissioner of finance in Lynn, Mass., he attracted the attention of department store magnate and reformer Edward Filene, who had been the leading force behind the 1909 enactment of the first credit union law in the United States.

Hired by Filene to lead the Credit Union National Extension Bureau in 1921, Bergengren had enormous success in organizing credit unions throughout the nation. Despite the opposition of the ABA and the Chamber of Commerce and growing differences between Filene and Bergengren, credit unions proliferated during the 1920s. Bergengren’s movement won passage of legislation in thirty-one other states to charter credit unions, and Bergengren drafted the Federal Credit Union Act of 1934, which President Franklin Roosevelt signed. Bergengren saw credit unions as a powerful means of combating usury, reducing poverty, and economically empowering workers and small farmers. Credit unions were “people’s banks” that would enable Americans of modest means to help themselves and help each other by saving and making funds available for “provident purposes” to buy homes, start small businesses, and lift themselves into secure, middle-class lives. Their goal, he wrote, was to bring “normal credit facilities to the masses of people” at a time when large commercial banks did not make small loans to people who were not well-to-do.

“As a thrift agency, the credit union is unexcelled for several reasons,” Bergengren wrote in 1929. “To begin with, the plan is gauged down to the member of the group who can save the least.” Saving was made particularly easy because many credit unions were employment-based, with payroll deductions going directly into workers’ accounts.

In 1933 testimony to a Senate Banking subcommittee in June 1933, Bergengren argued that credit unions are intended to promote the public good “by developing thrift . . . solving the short-term credit problems of the worker, the small business man, and the farmer, freeing them from the usurious money lenders, and teaching sound economic lessons at a time when such teaching is very essential.”35

Bergengren wrote widely on credit unions and cooperative thrift. During the 1920s, he edited The Bridge, the national credit union magazine, which published articles on thrift and cartoons by Joe Stern that warned of the dangers of loan sharking and displayed the virtues of saving. His books included Cooperative Banking (1923), Credit Union, a Cooperative Banking Book (1932), We the People (1932), Credit Union North America (1940), and Crusade (1952). He was also a gifted orator, giving idealistic speeches proclaiming: “The real job of a credit union is to prove, in modest measure, the brotherhood of man.”

Bergengren established the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) in 1934 in Madison, Wisconsin, which he led until 1945. After World War II, he helped found CUNA’s World Extension Department. By the time of his death in 1955, 20,000 credit unions were operating in the United States with 10 million members, a number that was to rise to almost 90 million in 2008. Bergengren, who married Gladys Louise Burroughs in 1911 and had three children, died in 1955.37

NB: This curriculum has been designed to work hand in hand with IAV’s online Thrift Collection at http://www.americanvalues.org/thrift-collection/, where these readings, as well as many other primary sources on thrift, can be found.


  1. “Ten Rules Listed to Aid Prosperity,” New York Times, December 1, 1931; “YMCA Honors Lewisohn,” New York Times, June 12, 1927; and Augustus Mayhew, “Best Friends: Jewish Society in Old Palm Beach,” New York Social Diary, http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/140335/print.
  2. “Society Founded to Teach the American People Thrift,” New York Times, November 2, 1913.
  3. S. W. Straus, “Thrift: An Educational Necessity,” address delivered to the National Education Association, Detroit, February 21, 1916, 29; Straus, History of the Thrift Movement in the United States (New York: Lippincott, 1920), 110.
  4. S. W. Straus, “Constructive Thrift and Its Place in Humanity’s Problems,” in “Addresses and Proceedings,” National Education Association, 59th Annual Meeting, Des Moines, Iowa, July 3–8, 1921; and “Society Founded to Teach the American People Thrift,” New York Times, November 2, 1913.
  5. Straus, History of the Thrift Movement in the United States, 103, 106.
  6. Quoted in David Blankenhorn, Thrift: A Cyclopedia (West Conshohocken, Pa.: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), 164; and Straus, History of the Thrift Movement in the United States, 71, 73.
  7. “Appeals for Self-Denial: S. W. Straus Urges All to Practice Greater Thrift,” New York Times, July 29, 1918.
  8. “Straus Give Thrift Checks,” Wall Street Journal, December 29, 1926; and Mayhew, “Best Friends: Jewish Society in Old Palm Beach.”
  9. “S. W. Straus,” New York Times, September 8, 1930; and “Simon William Straus,” Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 18 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), 132.
  10. “Economic Efficiency,” New York Times, January 8, 1927; and “Reports Thrift in YMCA,” New York Times, June 29, 1928.
  11. Henning Albrecht, “Adolph Lewisohn,” http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=47; “Adolph Lewisohn Dies at Age of 89,” New York Times. August 18, 1938; “Adolph Lewisohn,” Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders H–M, ed. John N. Ingham (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983), 791–93; “Adolph Lewisohn,” Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 22, Supplement 2, ed. Robert Livingston Schuyler and Edward T. James (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), 383–85; “Adolph Lewisohn,” The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, vol. 33 (New York: James T. White & Co., 1947), 428–29; “Thrift Week at Hand,” New York Times, January 16, 1921; National Thrift Committee of the YMCA, “Tenth Anniversary Report on the National Thrift Movement” (1927), Anna Kelton Wiley Papers, container 301, DC Thrift Committee folder, Library of Congress; “New Thrift Idea Develops,” Los Angeles Times, January 23, 1930; and Adolph Lewisohn, letter to the editor, Washington Post, February 3, 1920; “In the Beginning,” Columbia Journalism Review 42, no. 4 (November/December 2003): 57–61; “Travel the Adirondacks: Millionaires at Play,” The Observer, June 26, 2011; “Personalities,” Barron’s, July 18, 1921; and “A Chronicle in Need,” St. Petersburg Times, May 15, 1988.
  12. Mary Wilcox Brown, The Development of Thrift (New York: Macmillan, 1899), p. 28.
  13. Thrift Tidings, October 1911.
  14. Sara Louisa Oberholtzer, “How to Institute School Savings Banks” (WCTU, 1913).
  15. Carobel Murphey, Thrift Through Education (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1929), 9, 13; Melvin Bowman, “The School Savings Bank,” The Elementary School Journal, vol. 23. No. 1 (September 1922), 57; NEA, Thrift Education: Being the Report of the National Conference on Thrift Education, Held in Washington, DC, June 27 and 28, 1924 Under the Auspices of the Committee of Thrift Education of the National Education Association and the National Council of Education (Washington, D.C.: NEA, September 1924); Papers of Sara Louisa Oberholtzer, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; American Bankers’ Association, School Savings Banking (New York: Ronald Press, 1923), 71; “School Savings Banks,” Wall Street Journal, October 17, 1922; “School Children Developing Thrift,” Wall Street Journal, October 7, 1926; and New York Times, June 30, 1926.
  16. Thrift Tidings, January/April 1923.
  17. W. Espey Albig, “A History of School Savings Banking” (New York: American Bankers Association, Savings Division, 1928 ; and “Sara Louisa Oberholtzer,” Encyclopedia Americana (1920).
  18. Arthur Chamberlain, “Thrift Education,” “Addresses and Proceedings,” National Education Association, 59th Annual Meeting, Des Moines, Iowa, July 3–8, 1921.
  19. Arthur Henry Chamberlain and James Franklin Chamberlain, Thrift and Conservation: How to Teach It (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1919); American Society for Thrift, Proceedings of the Conference on Thrift Education, Philadelphia, June 29, 1926, 6; and “Thoughts on the Business of Life,” Forbes.com.
  20. Chamberlain and Chamberlain, Thrift and Conservation, 17; and NEA, Thrift Education, 4.
  21. “Pasadena Yesterday,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1896; “4,000,000 Children Save,” New York Times, June 30, 1926
  22. William Churchill, “Asia: A Supplementary Geography by James Franklin Chamberlain and Arthur Henry Chamberlain,” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society 46, no. 12 (1914): 944.
  23. John McAleer, Rex Stout: A Majesty’s Life (Rockville, Md.: James Rock, 2002), 150–52; Blankenhorn, Thrift: A Cyclopedia, 254; NEA, Proceedings of the National Conference on Thrift Education, 15; “J. Robert Stout, 86, New Jersey Banker,” New York Times, March 14, 1965; and Herbert Hoover, “Message on National Thrift Week, January 17, 1932,” The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=23144.
  24. Charles Stelzle, Boys of the Street: How to Win Them (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1904), 40–41; Charles Stelzle, Why Prohibition! (New York: George H. Doran, 1918); Charles Stelzle, Messages to Workingmen (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1906), 88;
  25. Charles Stelzle, “Closing the Gap between Church and Workingman,” New York Times, September 3, 1911; Richard P. Poethig, “Charles Stelzle and the Roots of Presbyterian Industrial Mission,” Journal of Presbyterian History 77, no. 1 (Spring 1999); Charles Stelzle, “The Spirit of Social Unrest,” in The Social Application of Religion, The Merrick Lectures for 1907–08, Delivered at Ohio Wesleyan University, April 5–9, 1908 (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1908); and “Charles Stelzle,” American National Biography, vol. 20, ed. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 651–52.
  26. Elsa Barkley Brown, “Constructing a Life and Community: A Partial Story of Maggie Lena Walker,” OAH Magazine of History 7, no. 4 (Summer 1993); “The St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank,” National Park Service, http://www.nps. gov/mawa/the-st-luke-penny-savings-bank.htm; Blankenhorn, Thrift: A Cyclopedia, 166–67; “New Birth Year Uncovered for Maggie L. Walker,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 5, 2009; and “Historic Site: Home of a Black Woman Banker,” Baltimore Sun, August 19, 1984.
  27. Bolton Hall, Thrift (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1916), 12.
  28. Ibid., 180, 246; and Bolton Hall, The New Thrift (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1923), 246.
  29. Quoted in Blankenhorn, Thrift: A Cyclopedia, 147–48.
  30. Hall, Thrift, 108–16, 229; and Hall, The New Thrift, 229.
  31. “Bolton Hall,” Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 22, Supplement 2, 271–73; and Blankenhorn, Thrift: A Cyclopaedia, 147.
  32. Henry Morton Bodfish, History of Building and Loan in the United States (Chicago: U.S. League of Building and Loans, 1931), 1, 8, 13, 17, 18, 255.
  33. “Resume of the National Thrift Committee” (n.d.), Newsom Mss., Manuscripts Department, Lilly Library, Indiana University.
  34. “A Colorful Resident of Town,” Wickenburg Sun, May 26, 1966; and “Morton Bodfish—Bank-Collecting Banker,” Modern Mechanix, August 1951.
  35. Roy Bergengren, “Every Man His Own Money Lender,” Nation’s Business, October 1929.
  36. “Credit Unions Respond to Banking Industry Campaign,” U.S. Newswire, April 28, 1998.
  37. J. Carroll Moody and Gilbert C. Fite, The Credit Union Movement: Origins and Development, 1870–1950 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), 6–7, 38–43, 87, 99, 109–10, 126, 165, 354; Roy F. Bergengren, Cooperative Banking: A Credit Union Book (New York: Macmillan, 1923); and “Roy Frederick Bergengren,” The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, vol. 44 (New York: James T. White, 1962), 271–72.

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