“One of the most fascinating questions raised by the economic downturn is whether it will permanently change our economic and personal behaviour. And it is a question with plenty of historical echoes. An old fashioned word – thrift – has been heard once again as the binge spending of recent years is followed by a painful consumer hangover. And thrift is often associated, as it always was, not only with saving money but also with leading a morally improved life.
“Take a TV show like Economy Gastronomy, which focused on families and their food consumption, urging them to shop more wisely, use up leftovers, grow their own where possible. This was linked not only to personal benefit but also to environmental improvement for society as a whole. It is a message familiar to older generations who remember the Second World War and its aftermath, when families were urged to ‘dig for victory’ and ‘make do and mend’ in the years of rationing and austerity.
“That period was dominated, however, by the exceptional circumstances of war. Perhaps a more revealing comparison is with the 19th and early 20th centuries, when middle-class evangelists were keen on attempting, as they saw it, to persuade the feckless lower orders to lead thriftier lives. But were ideas of good financial management and appropriate food consumption among the working classes really so influenced by outsiders?
“Historian Katy Pettit has been researching the consumption habits of better-off working-class families in the East End of London from 1880 to 1914. She has discovered ideals that emerged from those communities themselves. They were a matter of pragmatic response to changing circumstances and personal preferences about consumption, rather than a moral or religious ideal of thrift. Women’s skill in managing family budgets was at the centre of this. ‘Such a highly valued skill was a crucial component of working-class respectability,’ she argues.
“Pettit notes the example of one woman from Wapping who ‘was highly proficient at keeping the family accounts and would have liked to have been an accountant if born a man’. Such skills were not just about the routine, but also involved ‘learning to adapt quickly to uncontrollable situations’ – caused not only by unemployment but also by, for instance, a bereavement.
“Much has been made in today’s economic crisis about how far people are changing their shopping habits, perhaps trading down from more expensive food stores. Katy Pettit’s research shows how shrewd shopping was not an exceptional response but a way of life for many East Enders.
“This involved cultivating good relationships with shopkeepers, and knowing when to find bargains – for example, at the end of the day. Children were also a well-informed part of the family economy, running errands in return for edible rewards. ‘Although today child labour is sometimes considered to be exploitative’, she argues, ‘the late-Victorian and Edwardian version in east London was complex, and the work was not necessarily harmful’.
“Just as today has also seen a revival in allotment gardening, so ‘grow your own’ was then a way of life for many, as was keeping animals such as ducks, rabbits and chickens for the table, even in dense urban areas like London.
“What emerges from Pettit’s research is a sophisticated sense of consumer choice extending well below those with middle-class incomes. Individuals or families would trade economising in one area against the enjoyment of a particular luxury. The local press contained sophisticated recipes, and shops in poorer areas would stock foods such as pâté de foie gras.
“Middle-class outsiders who aspired to guide such communities often failed to understand the local culture. While social investigators might come from outside – just like today’s TV investigators – to highlight what they saw as the insufficiencies of East End food, Katy Pettit has found a ‘food culture that bears little relation to ideas of culinary ignorance or subsistence diets’.
“So ‘thrift’ in such communities was not so much the self-denial with which the well-to-do sought to advertise their virtue. It was about families constantly managing resources in the hope of maintaining a lifestyle – including some more expensive consumption – whatever the circumstances. Today’s hard-pressed consumers will know the feeling.”
Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history. This feature was first published in the February 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine.