Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

Jessica Peixotto criticism of the U.S.Thrift culture during the Progressive Era

Blayac Juliette, Triangle- Université Lyon 2

Session: From Sweatshops to Thrifty Households: the substitution of household management for factory reform in the American Progressive Era Session organizers: Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche (CRASSH, Cambridge, UK) and Harro Maas (CWP, UNIL, Switzerland), contact: harro.maas@unil.ch, cc2006@cam.ac.uk According to Calder (2009: 50), “Thrift had long been deemed a core value of American citizenship, as well as a mainspring for national prosperity.” Going back to Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard Almanac published in the 18th century, thrift is a moral art of living that frugality, wise spending, and saving. It knows its heyday during 1910-1930, instrumentalized by the government's need to channel household savings into war bonds (Tucker, 1991). This culture is notably supported by the Home Economics movement founded by Ellen Swallow Richards in 1899. Its goal was to improve the living conditions of American households through the education of women on various questions such as hygiene and nutrition. As women became the main household consumers, this notion gradually became increasingly important in their training. In particular, through the distribution of budget books, Home Economics courses wanted to transform American women into good consumers with thrifty behavior (Yarrow, 2014). This article aims to present the criticism of the thrift culture at the beginning of the consumerist society by the economist Jessica Peixotto. Professor at Berkeley, she helped to found the Department of Home Economics in 1916. Through her innovative cost of living studies (Peixotto 1923 and 1927), she also showed that the lack of thrift in poor households was not due to families’ supposed mismanagement of their budget but instead to the deficient level of their wages. Indeed, in this period characterized by price inflation, unprecedented consumption possibilities, and the general increase of living standards, thrift was an unattainable ideal that needs to be demystified.

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Keywords: Peixotto; Progressive Era; Thrift; Household Management

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