Buried in the bottom of a box lot I recently bought at an auction was an advertising booklet from the 1950s, 1003 Household Hints and Work Savers to Help You Beat the High Cost of Living. The title caught my attention because it mentioned a “high cost of living” in an era many of us now view as a good time economically, the time when many modern conveniences became affordable for the average American household. I suppose we always see the cost of living as high.
The ad for a funeral home just inside the front cover provided another smile – the cost of living may have been high then, but the cost of dying was not (at least by today’s standards). The ad promised “a beautiful funeral service” done “with highest regard to dignity regardless of cost…whether you spend $100.00 or $1000.00.” The advertiser is no longer listed in the phone directory; I was tempted to call and ask if they still offer beautiful services for $1000 or less.
Most of the booklet focuses on household tips for housewives (and yes, the term “housewives” is used regularly). Some of the tips would save money, but some would not. Some of the advice is actually the opposite of money-saving advice common today: use an automatic dryer instead of a wash line (with the argument that it saves ironing time and wear on clothing); eat cereal because “few foods supply so much nourishment at such low cost.” (Of course, “cereal” probably did not mean the sugared, boxed-with-a-toy stuff we buy now.)
The most outdated tips, of course, were the most interesting. Tips #580-583 are devoted to filling and draining the washing machine and using the wringer. Tip #41 recommends boiling handkerchiefs with a muslin bag filled with Orris Root in order to perfume them. The title of one chapter, “‘Blue Monday’ through rose colored glasses,” would be lost on most of us, as we no longer spend our Mondays doing laundry. Perhaps the most bizarre advice was Tip #264, which explains exactly how easy it is to iron brassieres. (It did, however, give me a bit of insight into the reasons for the high housekeeping standards held by my mother, who was a housewife in the 1950s.)
Some of the tips sound outdated but would save us money today if we followed them. An entire chapter is devoted to using sewing machines to mend and refit clothes. I doubt any fashion magazines will give me the “know how” to turn my husband’s worn suit into a fitted suit for my children or me, as the booklet promises, but better mending skills could help me make our clothes last longer. The advice on saving on telephone bills, which included placing person-to-person calls instead of station-to-station calls to save the cost of not reaching the appropriate party, is no longer relevant, but it’s not too far off in viewing reformed telephone habits as a way of cutting costs.
Cell phones and other technology, of course, are absent from this booklet but abundant in saving tips compiled today. Even though I grew up without the Internet, I can hardly imagine how I would earn or save without it today. The 1950s booklet also has no mention of another of my saving mainstays – coupons. It’s likely that the editors viewed them as my father once did – a faddish excuse for the companies to raise prices across the board.
Though much has changed since the 1950s, many of the savings tips still apply. The chapter on grocery savings, though devoid of mentions of coupons and convenience foods, focuses mainly on eliminating food waste and includes such savings basics as “make a list.” The advice in the chapter on buying houses is still pretty sound. Likewise, the booklet’s very first tip is often repeated today: buy classic styles of clothing so that they can last for several seasons.
Basic human concerns – food, love, work, shelter – remain fairly constant, even as fashions and technology change. Because the way we save is closely tied to the way we live, some personal finance advice remains constant while some changes. People fifty years from now might not worry about saving money on gas or cell phones, but they will want to know how to make the most of their time and money. It will be interesting to see, for those of us who live that long, how wise money managers earn, spend, and save in the year 2058.
Image courtesy of Todd Ehlers