‘Thrift Week’ articles offer glimpse into post-WWI Sedalia

By Rhonda Chalfant Contributing Columnist

January 7, 2014

The years after World War I, according to many social critics, were marked by rampant inflation, a high cost of living, runaway spending, easy access to credit, and changing attitudes toward the use of credit. The Sedalia Democrat agreed with those critics, commenting, “In settling back to a peace basis it is necessary to divorce from the profligate extravagance that has been evident since the signing of the armistice.”

The Democrat’s comments came in an article announcing Sedalia’s participation in National Thrift Week, an observance sponsored locally by the Sedalia YMCA, the Sedalia Chamber of Commerce and the Sedalia Clearing House. The week was designed to encourage Sedalians to save money with which to purchase their own homes, to save money for emergencies, and to make wills.

The sponsors promised speeches made by prominent speakers, slides shown before movies at local theaters, newspaper advertisements, large posters and attractive pamphlets.

The admirable goals of thrift week — home ownership, a healthy savings account, and a clear sense of the disposition of one’s estate — were somewhat lost in the two articles advocating Thrift Week. The articles, one appearing a week before and the other two days before Thrift Weeks, provide an interesting mix of war-related imagery, historical inaccuracies, fear mongering, and irony.

The article identifies “extravagance” as a quality that leads people “in the battle against thrift,” and as a quality that was becoming especially dangerous to Americans.

War-related imagery appears again when the article equates home ownership with patriotism by claiming that France was able to defeat the Germans in WWI because most French soldiers owned their own homes. No verification of French home ownership is provided. The fact that British and American forces aided the French in their victory is not mentioned at all, nor is the obvious idea that love of country is not dependent on home ownership.

Thrift Week began on Jan. 17, Benjamin Franklin’s birthday. Poor Richard’s Almanac, Franklin’s collection of social commentary and adages, emphasized the virtues of saving money, spending wisely and being a responsible citizen.

The Democrat mentioned Franklin’s being “an advocate of the mighty word thrift,” but follows that statement with the statement that in Franklin’s time, “those good old days everyone lived an easy life, casting all the worries of life aside.” The notion that life in colonial times was easy and worry free for everyone, especially the working class, is both ludicrous and inaccurate.

Some of the fears raised in the articles were legitimate. Money set aside in a savings account was necessary in the time before Social Security benefits to widows, orphans and the aged, Workers’ Compensation for those injured on the job, and disability payments to those physically or mentally unable to work. While some unions and fraternal orders promised care to their members, most workers and their families were left destitute if a sudden illness or accident disabled or killed the breadwinner.

The article moves beyond raising legitimate concerns into fear-mongering when it points out that “extraordinary numbers of relatives [will] spring up” to claim a share of one’s estate rightly belonging to one’s “widow or near kin-folk” in the absence of a will.

The irony is that the longer of the articles is placed between rows of advertisements for new and extravagant goods and services. Hoffman Hardware touted the benefits of the convenience and comfort that could be had by replacing a coal-fired cook stove with a New Perfection Oil Cook Stove. A clothing store advertised reduced prices of $5 to $10 ($43.70 to $87.40 in today’s purchasing power) on blouses geared to “the woman who admires beauty.” A drug company offered patent medicines designed to “keep the system free of all impurities”; another promised to strengthen the blood and remove the uncertainty of middle age. Mrs. C. B. Tucker’s Chiropody and Beauty Parlors advertised the best in hair care products and masquerade costumes.

Whether Thrift Week prompted many Sedalians to save is unknown. What is known is that spending was high during the ’20s, even as local banks began to fail when bankers could not collect the mortgage payments they were due.