Archive: Jan 2010

Just after writing the post below about the ways the recent economic crisis may have shifted cultural attitudes toward consumption and frugality, I picked up Daniel Bell’s classic Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and found this:

“What we owe to the future is a capacity to produce.”*

This concern for the future, I think, underlies many of the behaviors we associate with the habits of people who lived through the Great Depression. The meaning of all that patching and mending, of raising chickens in the backyard and so forth, was not just to reduce consumption expenses, but to conserve the resources they did have for production–for future-building.

Of course, the ability to fix things and grow your own food are themselves types of productive capacity. In less complex societies, with less division of labor, survival depended upon those skills. One had to be able to provide for most, if not all, of one’s own needs independently, or within the household unit.

By the time my grandparents were born, that was no longer the case: for example, both my paternal grandparents grew up in the city of Chicago, and had to buy clothes and some of their food from stores, rather than making everything themselves. This isn’t a bad thing–just a modern thing. As Emile Durkheim–one of the founding fathers of sociology–famously argued, specialization and the social division of labor are necessary conditions for the material and intellectual development of societies. His point was that if everyone had to attend to their own survival needs, rather than paying someone else to provide them with food, clothing, and other necessities, it would be difficult for any one person to pursue certain valuable but time-intensive specialties, like scientific research.

My grandparents didn’t have the family wealth necessary to specialize that much: the Great Depression cut short their educations, so that my grandmother had to drop out of school at 15 to begin earning money as a maid for wealthier families, and my grandfather (who had hoped to become a lawyer) made it only part way through an associate’s degree¬† program before his tuition money ran out and joined the Marine Corps.

While their individual trajectories were curtailed by the Great Depression, their frugal habits meant they accumulated a surprising amount of productive capacity at the family level of analysis. Specifically, they were able to save enough so that their first child, my father, could get a good education at a private Catholic school, and then become the first person in the family to earn a college degree. My grandparents themselves continued to live very modestly–in their 60s, they subsisted on Social Security and lived in a single-wide trailer in Florida mobile home park.

But because they were able to give my father the benefit of all the productive capacity they’d accumulated–their savings from blue-collar jobs, and all the methods they used to avoid spending money in other ways–he was able to make big leap in upward mobility. That future-oriented momentum made it possible for me to go even farther, so that the granddaughter of a woman who had to leave school in the 10th grade could graduate with a PhD from Harvard 70 years later. My grandmother died a few years before I graduated, but I think of her and my grandfather often, not only because I loved them but because I feel obliged to keep building on what they started.

That’s where the satisfaction of fixing things comes from: I’m not only remembering people I loved through imitation, but perpetuating their legacy by conserving productive capacity in many of the same ways they did.

Thus, what economist Robert Solow has written of the intergenerational transmission of wealth also holds for cultural and social capital:

“We have actually done quite well at the hands of our ancestors. Given how poor they were and how rich we are, they might properly have saved less and consumed more. No doubt they never expected the rise in income per head that has made us so much richer than they ever dreamed was possible.”**

To the memories of Rose Marie Coglianese Harrington (1913-1996) and William Joseph Harrington (1911-1999).


*Bell, Daniel. 1979. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. London: Heinemann Educational Books. p. 273.

**Solow, Robert M. 1974. “The Economics of Resources or the Resources of Economics.” American Economic Review 64: 1-14.

Glen Elder’s landmark study of the effects of economic catastrophe over the life course, Children of the Great Depression, turned 35 last year, and history threw it a little party by reminding us of the dramatic ways in which events in the stock market can shape the biographies of an entire generation.

It will be years before we know how the many job losses and home foreclosures of the past year will affect today’s children. But it has been fascinating to watch the ways in which young adults have altered their behavior to resemble

SAN FRANCISCO: Heidi Kooy holds one of her chickens as she walks through her yard, which she calls the 'Itty Bitty Farm in the City.' Kooy is one of many Americans who have started to raise chickens in their urban yards to try and save money on food costs during the economic downturn.

the frugal habits of their grandparents and great-grandparents. The much-mocked Early Bird Special at restaurants is not just for senior citizens anymore, and tiny urban backyards are hosting experiments in micro-level animal husbandry. My paternal grandmother used to tell me about her large, poor Italian immigrant family raising chickens in the backyard of their home on the South Side of Chicago, but having grown up in a very rural suburb–about a quarter mile from a very fragrant dairy farm–I could not get my head around the idea of chickens living in the city. But apparently it works, and if the pic at left is any indication, urban poultry wrangling is enjoying a revival.

And so, more generally, is frugality. The habits themselves are nothing new–I know I picked up a lot of them just from observing my grandparents, which makes me a grandchild of the Great Depression–but it seems that the broad scope of the economic crisis made it more socially acceptable for those of us non-senior-citizens who love the Early Bird Special, or city-dwellers who try to raise our own food, to let our freak flags fly.

For a long time, prior to the most recent financial meltdown, there did seem to be a kind of stigma attached to frugality. For example, it was fine for teens and young adults to wear thrift shop clothes, but–at least in the milieux I frequented–it was understood as a phase, rather than as a way of life. And while recycling was de rigeur, it usually involved bottles and jars that formerly contained pricey products from gourmet groceries.

But in the economic boom of the 1990s, when I was a young adult setting up house on my own for the first time, I found that the version of frugality I’d learned from my grandparents just drew a lot of puzzled and faintly disapproving responses. Nobody bothered me about stuff I did in the privacy of my own home, like making chicken broth from the leftovers of a roasted chicken (yum!), or turning fabric remnants (the cheap leftovers found in bins at sewing stores) into home crafts projects.

But out in public, it was another story. Like the time I took a pair of dull tweezers to the local hardware store, to see if the staff could sharpen it for me. (I had a whetstone to sharpen kitchen knives, but it was too thick for use with the tweezers, and sandpaper was too bendy.) From the looks I got, you would have thought I had asked the hardware store’s staff to remove my gall bladder. The response was, in short, “we don’t do that here…and why would anyone ask in the first place, you weirdo?” I was advised, in tones ordinarily reserved for the cognitively impaired, to go out and buy a new pair of tweezers, like a normal person. (I nodded politely and found a place in Texas– Tweezerman–to do the sharpening by return mail.)

Still, I wondered, why the weird reaction from others? Why should anyone care if I wanted to sharpen a dull pair of tweezers rather than throwing them away?

Two things:

  1. First, I drastically underestimated how common it is (was?) for Americans to throw away perfectly usable and/or fixable items. For example, while searching the web for pointers on how to darn a thin cotton pillowcase, I ran across this on a blog about household tips:
      “…back in my free-spending years I would throw away a perfectly good shirt or pants rather than repair them. That included throwing away clothes that just needed a button sewn on.”
    I’m still in shock at this statement. I somehow made it to the ripe old age of 41 without realizing that grown men and women would throw away a perfectly good piece of clothing for want of a button.

    How little I knew: Apparently, Americans toss 70 percent of their old clothes into the trash, even though much of is perfectly usable, needing only cleaning or minor repairs. All told, this adds up to a minimum of 6.6 million tons of clothes per year going into American landfills.  (In Los Angeles, clothing makes up an astounding 10 percent of landfill content.)
    It’s all reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, in which a recorded voice whispers in the ears of newborn babies,
    “I do love having new clothes . . . old clothes are beastly, we always throw away old clothes. Ending is better than mending, ending is better than mending.”

    2. Outside the context of a widespread economic crisis, fixing and saving things probably came across as eccentricity rather than frugality.
    This illustrates a classic insight at the heart of sociology and social psychology: the power of the situation. Context shapes attributions, especially how we judge the actions and motives of individuals.
    In good economic times, a non-senior-citizen showing up for the Early Bird Special might draw a few snickers and snide remarks; but where there is widespread experience and recognition of financial hardship, the same behaviors by the same people receive more favorable interpretations.

So the one positive thing I can say about the economic meltdown that began in September 2008 is that it made the world a little more welcoming for grandchildren of the Great Depression–people like me, who learned to enjoy mending and darning, making our own clothes and growing our own food (some of it, at least), and eating supper at 5pm!

In honor of those wonderful teachers, my grandparents, and the good things they took out of their experiences of poverty, I spent New Year’s Eve on a mending spree: darning a silly (but beloved) pillowcase as painstakingly as if it were the Shroud of Turin; learning a new knitting technique to shorten the sleeves on a sweater (miraculously, it worked!); and restringing a broken necklace. It was a surprisingly satisfying way to celebrate the end of a broken decade.