Thrift is a peculiarly American virtue—or, to be more precise, thinking of thrift as a virtue rather than just a practical necessity is peculiarly American. We can see this in the conspicuous place that Benjamin Franklin assigns to thrift and frugality in the list of thirteen virtues that Franklin commends to his fellow Americans in his Autobiography.
Now, Franklin’s list of virtues certainly reflects his own peculiar intellectual bent. Franklin includes chastity on his list, with the note, “Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring”—leaving it open to interpretation how many dalliances are allowed under the “rarely” provision. The final virtue on his list is humility, which he explains by writing “Imitate Jesus and Socrates”—a pairing that would have occurred only to Franklin.
But, to return to frugality, which appears near the top of Franklin’s list of virtues. Frugality requires living modestly:
We kept no idle Servants, out Table was plain and simple, our Furniture of the cheapest. For instance my Breakfast was a long time Bread and Milk, (no Tea) and I ate it out of a twopenny earthen Porringer with a Pewter Spoon.
Franklin admitted that frugality isn’t always easy. Having boasted of “his twopenny earthen Porringer,” Franklin continued:
But mark how Luxury will enter Families, and make a Progress, in Spite of Principle. Being call’d one Morning to Breakfast, I found it in a China Bowl with a Spoon of Silver. They had been bought for me without my Knowledge by my Wife, and had cost her the enormous Sum of three and twenty Shillings, for which she had no other Excuse or Apology to make, but that she thought her Husband deserv’d a Silver Spoon and China Bowl as well as any of his Neighbours.
Franklin recommends to limit some expenditures so as to be able to spend more on worthy causes:
Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself: i.e., Waste nothing.
Being able to do good for others plays a chief role in Franklin’s understanding of frugality. Franklin’s own thriftiness was the basis for his enormous philanthropy. Having started in poverty, Franklin grew rich on the basis of his thriftiness and shrew business sense. With his wealth, he underwrote many civic enterprises in his later years, from libraries to schools to “fire societies” (or subscription fire departments).
Franklin’s thrift is certainly American in flavor. Thrift certainly wasn’t considered a virtue in the ancient world; Aristotle’s list of virtues includes liberality and magnificence in spending rather than careful husbanding of drachmas. A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber emphasized American’s thriftiness in describing how Americans are characterized by what Weber called “the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism.” Weber singled out Franklin as epitomizing Americans in this way.
Recognizing the importance of thrift to American civic life, in 1916—just about a century ago—the YMCA inaugurated “Thrift Week.” As a nod to Franklin as the model of thriftiness, Thrift Week began on January 17, Franklin’s birthday. During this annual event, schoolchildren and adults alike were urged to save their pennies, open bank accounts, and purchase insurance. The culmination of Thrift Week was a call to give to charities, emphasizing the ability to be charitable as a chief benefit of thriftiness.
Thrift Week is now barely noted, although our daughter’s Girl Scout troop will participate in a session about financial literacy during this year’s Thrift Week. Some are urging a return to marking Thrift Week. Wouldn’t it be terrific if there were a widespread marking of Thrift Week in 2016, its centennial year?
Photo credit: Livingston Frost Photograhpy via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC (modifications have been made)