Reflections on life, marriage, and a young woman who is constantly learning how much there will always be to learn!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

1917 Home Economics

I love to read old books on family and homelife. These make me feel a connection to history in a way that books full of "important historical dates" and political accounts never do.

I've recently been scanning through this 1917 homemaking guide. The chapter on money management is particularly interesting. Apparently, in 1917, $1040 per year (or $20 per week) was considered "the lowest living income affording any comfort." This income was sufficient to maintain a small home or acceptable apartment in the city for the average family.

The guide gives the example of a basic budget, and lays forth the percentage of income that should be reserved for each expense category. My biggest surprise was the instructions that 43% if the average income should be given to food! That percentage is twice as high as the percentage given for rent, of 20%. In my experience today, we rarely exceed 8-10% of our income used for both food and household necessities, and we could do better (I'm working on it!:o). Just goes to show how much food has decreased in price in the past 90 years. Granted, there are only two of us in this household, so that does make some difference. But I still don't know any families today--even large ones--who spend almost half of their income on food!

So rent and food made up 63% of the 1917 income. What was the remaining 37% spent on?

Fuel and light: 5%
Clothing: 10%
Insurance: 4%
Recreation: 2%
Sundries: 16%

(The guide also mentions that families may want to give a portion of their income away, save and invest money, or may have expenses that vary between families such as "carfare" for the "man in the suburbs".)

What simplicity. I don't see credit card payments, car payments, or any other type of debt mentioned. This was in the days when a mortgage was generally the only personal debt incurred. And the homemaking guide makes it sound as though homeownership was a luxury, whereas it was common for many families to rent.

Many middle class men were content to ride on public cars rather than owning their own vehicle. A mere 2% (40 cents per week for the example income) was to be spent on recreation, so I suppose they got by just fine with simple amusements. No flat-screen televisions, netflix, nice restaurants on a regular basis, etc.!

This quote is telling about perceived standards of living in 1917: "in the [household] of large income, it is possible to buy sufficient food to nourish thoroughly every member of the family; to provide a shelter that gives each person enough room to sleep and eat and live comfortably, to buy clothes enough to keep the body warm; to secure an education for the children beyond the compulsory age of fourteen; and to have enough money for recreation." (emphasis mine)

My great-grandparents started out married life in the late '20s / early '30s in small apartments where kitchens and bathrooms were shared between several families. They felt lucky to have their own place at all, as many young couples during that time had to live in the homes of family members when they were just starting out.

How much we can learn from our ancestors about living simply and contentedly!

Thanks to Ladies Against Feminism for providing me with a link to "The Home and its Management".


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a quick comment,

The proportion of income you spend on food is an indicator of poverty, used by the United Nations.

For instance, if you are a multi-millionaire, the proportion of your income spent on food will be tiny.
If you are just surviving, working in a textiles factory in a thirdworld country, then almost all your income would be spent on food (after rent). So perhaps it isn't that food got cheaper, it's just that as Americans, you are now comparatively wealthier than in 1917.

There's a bunch of other interesting indicators as well, that you could use to compare your budget to the 1917 one. I think some are listed in the CIA world fact file too.

12:05 AM, November 01, 2006  
Anonymous Emily said...

Hi Erin,
I've been researching vintage budget breakdowns and have a few posted at my blog, too. Clothing seems to have decreased in price a lot too; the budgets I've posted usually have expense amounts for clothes at around 15% of income.

Interesting point about percentage of food being an indicator of poverty. I think that makes a lot of sense. I'll have to check out the world fact file. I've been looking at old budgets in order to eventually formulate a new one for us that based on simpler times and way of life.


11:56 AM, November 01, 2006  
Blogger Erin said...

Interesting, anonymous. I can see how that would be true, about percentage of income for food=poverty level. We don't have a level of poverty in the US where people actually starve. In that way, most of the world has it so much worse.

I do think food has probably decreased in price in the western world due to industrialization and mass food production. Unfortunately, this has also lowered food quality to some extent. I would love to be able to grow some of my own produce someday. Though we're renting right now, I foresee at least an herb garden and later on a bigger more inclusive one:o)

Emily, I noticed that about clothing also! I would love to be able to spend 15% of our income on clothes nice would my wardrobe be!;o) These older budgets are so enlightening, aren't they? Back when all the things we think we HAVE to have were unheard of! I'll have to come look for the ones you have posted on your site.

12:55 PM, November 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

VERY interesting!!! I really appreciate you taking the time to share all this and for sharing the link, too!! I look forward to reading more!

Mrs. U

9:57 PM, November 01, 2006  
Anonymous The Happy Feminist said...

I would LOVE to get rid of my car! In my late teens/early twenties, my family lived in NYC and didn't own a car. There was no need for one -- it was just fine to walk, use the subway, or take a cab. I preferred walking whenever possible, and didn't get my driver's license until I was 25.
I thought it was heavenly not to have or need a car!

8:36 AM, November 02, 2006  
Anonymous emily said...

Hi Erin,
Here are a couple of links to vintage budgets on my site:

Happy Feminist,
I would also LOVE not to drive. I spent 7 months doing research in Madrid when I was in college, and walking everywhere--or taking public transportation--made such a positive impact on my life, not to mention pocketbook! Now I live somewhere where driving is more necessary, but am trying not to as much as possible.

4:41 PM, November 02, 2006  
Blogger The Happy Feminist said...

Yes, I am stuck driving too. Alas.

7:53 AM, November 03, 2006  
Blogger Erin said...

When I lived in England for a semester, I got to walk everywhere and it was wonderful! (Except for carrying bags of groceries with milk and canned goods for the twenty minutes back from the grocery store...I thought my arms were going to fall off before I got home!) You get your exercise without even trying. And you get to "know" your community in a way that you never would otherwise. I totally agree with you, HF and Emily!

11:27 AM, November 03, 2006  
Anonymous Kathryn said...

It's interesting to think that when your grandparents-and mine-were married, women couldn't vote and had few political rights. Many of them marched to change things. Blacks had no civil rights, especially in the South. Things were not as wonderful as they appeared on the surface. I am glad that those things changed. My grandmother had eight children, and at times was left alone to try to feed and clothe them as best she could. Of course, God is well able, but I wouldn't go back. I think sometimes we forget how things really were.

11:57 PM, November 06, 2006  
Blogger Erin said...

Kathryn, I don't mean to imply that everything was perfect in the past. You're right that we shouldn't over-idealize. However, I do respect the examples of our ancestors in many aspects and believe that I can learn a lot from them in the areas in which they excelled. Frugality and a simpler lifestyle is one of those good areas!

12:48 AM, November 07, 2006  

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