A little while ago, I mentioned on Econlog that I have a history of fascination with economic thinking as expressed in non economic works–and particularly with the economic thinking of people who are in the daily grit of working blue collar jobs and doing household work. I think their diaries and letters and interviews and books of advice tell us at least as much about the economic circumstances under which they were written as do articles by economists–probably more.
If you’re looking for this kind of material, you can’t go wrong by haunting used bookstores and poking through their collections of advice books, home economics texts, and collections of tattered old magazines. Economics is everywhere, and while an increasing amount of attention has been paid to texts like these by historians and scholars of literature, I don’t think that economic historians have given them as much attention as they merit.
Here’s a reading list of texts I really like (in no particular order) to get you started:
‘Round About a Pound a Week, by Maud Pember Reeves (1913)
This is the book that began my fascination. Maud Pember Reeves, a Fabian Socialist, undertook her groundbreaking demographic study in the early years of the 20th century to try to understand why poor families are poor. To answer the question, Pember Reeves and her colleagues asked mothers in a working poor neighborhood of London (where the average income was “‘round about a pound a week) to record their expenses. Their findings are fascinating as an early example of this kind of social science and as historic economic data, but they are perhaps most valuable for their continuing importance to our discussions about poverty today.
All Our Kin, by Carol Stack (1974)
After I made Steve Horwitz read ‘Round About a Pound a Week, he pointed me to Carol Stack’s similar study of networks of exchange and support among Black families in the late 1960’s. Her analysis of swapping will be fascinating for economists, but her larger observation that families find ways to function even in the worst of circumstances is a vital contribution and, again, one that is still relevant to discussions today.
Working, by Studs Terkel (1974)
This collection of interviews with working people of every age and in every profession is a great read and a gripping way to understand the meaning of work to the people who do it. From grocery store checkout clerks, to gravediggers, to lawyers and doctors, Studs Terkel spoke to everyone, and the conversations he recorded provide us with a remarkable way to humanize the work that makes the market possible.
How to Run Your Home Without Help, Kay Smallshaw (1949)
After WWII, the job market in England changed, and it suddenly became all but impossible for anyone but the very wealthy to have daily in-home help. Smallshaw’s book of advice to English housewives who are suddenly having to make do without a “daily” captures this moment of transition, and provides readers with a fascinating picture of household production from a time that’s not that long ago historically, but is almost unimaginably far-removed technologically. The chapter on laundry alone is worth the price of the book.
The Bachelor Girl’s Guide to Everything, by Agnes M. Miall (1916)
Live Alone and Like It, Marjorie Hillis (1936)
These advice books about managing money and maintaining homes were written specifically for single working women living away from their families–a relatively new population in 1916, and a rapidly growing one in 1936. Aside from the data the books contain about salaries for a variety of jobs and prices for household and personal goods from corsets to carpeting, they capture the best and most up to date financial advice being given to women in the first half of the 20th century.
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