The American Apostle of Thrift

How we used to honor Benjamin Franklin.
by David Blankenhorn
01/17/2006 12:00:00 AM

HOW SHOULD WE CELEBRATE the 300th birthday of Benjamin Franklin, who was born in Boston on January 17, 1706? Today, we as a society may be unsure of the answer. But as recently as the 1920s, millions of Americans were quite sure. They honored Franklin by publicly extolling the virtue of thrift, a character trait that Franklin tirelessly championed. Yes, thrift.

Thrift is a complex idea. It includes, but has never been merely, the habit of saving money. Thrift is much more than sound approaches to managing one’s finances, and the main goal of thrift has never been the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself.

The word “thrift” comes from “thrive.” Understood in this way, thrift is the ethic and practice of best use. Being thrifty means making the wisest use of all that we have–time, money, our possessions, our health, and our society’s natural resources–to promote both our own flourishing and the social good. To use Franklin’s favorite terms, thrift’s core ideas are “industry” (that is, diligence) and “frugality” (that is, conservation). The ideas most contrary to thrift are idleness and waste.

Despite what you may have heard, thrift embraces the pleasure principle. When Franklin, in Poor Richard’s Almanac, says “Fly pleasures, and they’ll follow you,” he is offering a strategy for pleasure. When he advises that “Industry need not wish,” he is offering a strategy for getting one’s wishes. That strategy, he tells us, “consists very much in Thrift.” Franklin openly proclaimed that “Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it.” In the 1920s, the slogan of Thrift Week–which always began on January 17, Franklin’s birthday–was “For Success and Happiness.”

Thrift is therefore flatly inconsistent with miserliness, or hoarding, or seeking wealth for wealth’s sake. Franklin refused to accept money for any of his many inventions, and spent much of his life performing public services for which he was not paid. One of the ten planks of National Thrift Week was “Share with Others.” The idea is that being thrifty enables us to be generous.

More broadly, thrift is a pathway to, not a rejection of, social awareness and humane moral values. As Franklin earnestly put it, “The noblest question in the world is, What good may I do in it?” Franklin was an unabashed moral and civic reformer who viewed the thrift ethic as essential to improving the national character and insuring American progress. In almost identical ways, the leaders of the National Thrift Movement of the 1920s believed that their movement was vital to the broad goals of moral reform, character education, and civic progress.

Their energy was impressive. In addition to sponsoring National Thrift Week, they worked with the U.S. Post Office to get January designated as National Thrift Month. They wrote numerous popular books (such as Thrift Talks and Adventures in Thrift) and magazine articles. They ran a regular publication, National Thrift News. They gave countless public talks to civic and youth groups on the subject of thrift and organized numerous public service ad campaigns. To aid this work, they formed local Thrift Committees across the country.

They formed a national Thrift Education Committee to promote the teaching of thrift in the public schools. A number of states eventually adopted thrift curricula and many individual schools and school districts joined in as well. In at least 500 cities and towns across the country, thrift leaders worked with educators and local banks to sponsor more than 7,000 school-based savings banks, complete with student tellers and cashiers. They organized hundreds of annual Thrift Parades and thrift essay contests for elementary and high school students.

They conceived of thrift in broad, progressive terms. They wanted parents to teach thrift to children as a part of character education. They were pioneers in the science of home economics. They wanted Americans to take better care of their health. They wanted farmers and businesses to become more efficient. They were consistently critical of American materialism and consumerism. They were also early environmentalists, strongly supporting the protection of our natural resources.

They built a remarkably broad coalition, drawing leaders and supporters from the ranks of educators, conservationists, politicians from both parties, fraternal societies, women’s clubs, banking and business associations, and youth organizations such as the YMCA and the Girl Scouts. In all of their efforts, they regularly invoked the legacy of Ben Franklin, whom they called in their literature “the American Apostle of Thrift.”

Today, of course, this movement is hardly remembered. What a pity. These men and women did good work. In so many ways, we are in their debt–sometimes debt is good!–just as they were in Franklin’s and others’ debt. Much of what they fought for is still quite relevant to our lives. Yes, the word “thrift” today has a quaint, old-fashioned sound. Again, what a pity. Our government budget deficits are ballooning out of control. We Americans don’t save much at all, even though most economists agree that more savings and investment relative to consumer spending would be good for us, both as individuals and as a society. We waste a lot. We sometimes seem to think that buying more stuff will make us happy. We sometimes seem confused about the relationship of private gain to the public good. What to do? Instead of inventing a new philosophy to help us wrestle with these important issues, we might consider dusting off an old one for recycling. That would be the thrifty thing to do. And for what it’s worth, Ben Franklin would certainly approve.

David Blankenhorn, president of the New York-based Institute for American Values, co-directs a research project on thrift.

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