In 1829, American women preparing their family’s Thanksgiving feast could turn for guidance to one of the country’s first self-help books: “The Frugal Housewife” by Lydia Maria Child, a beloved novelist and children’s writer. Child later immortalized her Thanksgiving memories by turning them into the poem “Over the River and Through the Wood,” but here she focused on practical advice. Roast the turkey for at least two hours, she directed; stuffing is improved by adding an egg. It was one of many lessons the book offered to readers who, in the pointed words of its subtitle, “are not Ashamed of Economy.”
Child advocated frugality not from necessity but from patriotic principle. After winning success in Boston’s literary circles, she became distressed at the ostentatious luxury and idleness that she found among the rich. The “false and wicked parade” of luxury, she wrote, is “morally wrong, so far as the individual is concerned; and injurious beyond calculation to the interests of our country.” Proud of America’s promise, Child worried about its future. “We never shall be free from embarrassment,” she wrote, “until we cease to be ashamed of industry and economy.”
Along with practical tips, therefore, “The Frugal Housewife” dispensed philosophical advice. “Economy is generally despised as a low virtue, tending to make people ungenerous and selfish,” Child observed, but in fact “the man who is economical, is laying up for himself the permanent power of being useful and generous.” She may have been thinking of her father, who had worked his way out of poverty, becoming a prosperous baker who could afford to be generous. And he was, especially at Thanksgiving, when he invited the woodcutters and berry-pickers he employed to a meal of “chicken-pies, pumpkin-pies…and heaps of donuts.”
Frugality had empowered her father, and she wanted to instill it in her readers. “Look frequently into the pails, to see that nothing is thrown to the pigs, which should be in the grease-pot,” she urged. “Look to the grease-pot, and see nothing is there which might serve to nourish your own family, or a poorer one.” The most economical cut of veal is the shoulder, Child advised, and the neck is the cheapest piece of mutton. Inexpensive coffee can be made from roasted peas, but “after all, the best economy is to go without.”
Soon after “The Frugal Housewife” was published, Child shocked her readers by becoming an abolitionist. In the 1830s this was a radical position, defying politicians and religious leaders who claimed that slavery was inevitable or justified or both. It meant rejecting what most white Americans assumed was common sense and good taste. But Child, inspired by William Lloyd Garrison, had seen the abolitionist light and was ready to sacrifice her reputation to spread it. In 1833, she published “An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans,” a meticulously researched, book-length denunciation of slavery and the vices that sustained it.
The differences between “The Frugal Housewife” and the “Appeal” were stark. Gone were folksy recipes for preserves and cheerful advice about bedbugs. In their place, readers found descriptions of Africans kidnapped and trafficked, families separated and sold, merciless punishments inflicted on enslaved people. Instead of advice on curing physical illnesses, they found historical, political and economic arguments for curing the moral disease of slavery.
Yet Child’s central message about frugality and self-sufficiency remained basically the same. Slavery, she argued, undermined democracy by producing idle aristocrats unwilling to do their own work. Enslavers then fabricated theories of racial superiority to support their aristocratic habits. “We made slavery, and slavery makes the prejudice,” Child wrote. The institution made sadists out of people who prided themselves on their gentility. If the price of sugar was high enough, it was in a slave owner’s interest to work the people he enslaved to death.
The problem was most visible in the South, but in the final chapter of the “Appeal,” Child argued that Northerners’ appetite for luxury made them complicit in slavery as well. After all, cheap sugar produced by enslaved labor was used to sweeten their Thanksgiving pies. Her challenge to slavery was addressed to all Americans: “What right can a man have to compel his neighbor to toil without reward…in order that he may live in luxury and indolence?”
Exhorting her readers to virtuous self-sufficiency in the kitchen was one thing, but accusing them of complicity in slavery was another. After the publication of the “Appeal,” Child’s readers turned against her, and her book sales plummeted. She spent most of the rest of her life in principled poverty. It was often a struggle, but a frugal housewife knew how to make do.
Child continued to write and organize on behalf of abolition and women’s rights for the next five decades. After the Civil War, her belief in the value of self-sufficiency shaped her hopes for formerly enslaved people, as she assured Black Americans that hard work and frugality would prove them worthy of democratic citizenship in white Americans’ eyes—an assurance that violent voter suppression in the Reconstruction era and beyond proved all too naive. Unlike many suffragists, Child supported the Fifteenth Amendment that extended the right to vote to Black men, even though women continued to be excluded.
When she died in 1880, Child’s friends were shocked to learn that she had left the equivalent of three quarters of a million of today’s dollars behind. She had always protested that she could not afford a new bonnet, the latest novel or a trip to see friends, but it turned out that these privations had been a choice, allowing her to pass on more money to causes she loved. “Oh, it is such a luxury to be able to give without being afraid,” she wrote in her last surviving letter. “I want to rain down blessings on all the world, in token of thankfulness for the blessings that have been rained down on me.” It is perhaps the best Thanksgiving advice this radical, frugal housewife ever gave.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on November 10, 2022, and written by Lydia Moland
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