In 1916, with the First World War looming imminently on the horizon, the leaders of America’s major civic organizations launched an ambitious education campaign designed to ready the American public for a wartime economy. Dubbed “National Thrift Week” and sponsored primarily by the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.), the campaign became a recurring celebration, beginning each year on January 17, in honor of the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, the “American apostle of thrift.”
The activities of National Thrift Week were guided by several specific principles and behaviors and each was given its own day. Hence, Americans joined together every January in celebrating Have a Bank Account Day, Invest Safely Day, Carry Life Insurance Day, Keep a Budget Day, Pay Bills Promptly Day, Own Your Home Day, and Share with Others Day. Then, as today, critics often maligned thrift as simple hoarding, but these principles demonstrate how the founders envisioned Thrift Week as so much more—they saw it not as a way to encourage miserly behavior, but instead to cultivate responsible consumerism and civic progress. Rather than self-denial, the goal was self-control. The word, “thrift,” after all, finds its root in the phrase “to thrive,” so it should come as no surprise that the slogan for Thrift Week was “For Success and Happiness.”
Even after the war had ended, the relatively prosperous decade of the 1920s witnessed the peak celebrations of National Thrift Week. By that time, the Y.M.C.A. had lined up a broad array of cosponsors, ranging from the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to the American Red Cross and the U.S. Postal Service, totaling some fifty partnering organizations. Thrift Week celebrations were held in cities and towns across the nation. In a testament to their popularity, President Calvin Coolidge’s secretary, C. Bascom Slemp, rather wearily wrote in response to yet another request from some local thrift leaders, “Among the most frequent [requests for a comment from President Coolidge] are requests for statements to be used in thrift campaigns.” Coolidge, himself, was seen by his countrymen as a paragon of thrift at the time, due in some measure to his political agenda (which included paying down the national debt and lowering taxes), but also in large part to the public perception of him as a frugal New England farmer.
At the community level, banks were usually more than happy to work with their local Y.M.C.A. to promote Thrift Week—especially Have a Bank Account Day—and merchants often ran special Thrift Week sales (wise spending, indeed). On the national level, the American Bankers’ Association, the Associated Advertising Clubs of the World, the Association of Life Insurance Presidents, the Farm Mortgage Bankers’ Association of America, and the Retail Credit Men’s National Association all did their part to encourage responsible spending and investing. The enthusiasm for National Thrift Week carried over from the public sphere into areas of national government as well, drawing sponsorship from the U.S. Bureau of the Budget, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
True to the nature of their campaign, Thrift Week organizers were prodigious in their output of programs, speeches, publications, and educational initiatives such as institutionalized thrift curricula in public schools and wide-reaching essay contests. There were even public spectacles like thrift parades. By some estimates, the efforts of some town thrift committees cost less than $100, but they reportedly inspired behaviors that would grow many hundreds of dollars in wealth for participants.
So what happened to National Thrift Week? Where did it go? Who wouldn’t want to partake in activities that would grow their wealth by several hundred dollars? Especially when one considers that several hundred dollars in the 1920s would have been the rough equivalent of several thousand dollars today!
National Thrift Week fizzled out in 1966, after being passed from one sponsor to another. Around that same time, thrift as a national virtue seems to have faded from the collective public consciousness as well. As the ensuing decades passed, our nation entered more wars, endured periods of economic downturn, and watched complacently as both personal and national debt ballooned exponentially, seemingly without ever feeling any urgency to revive thrift as a cherished value.
Now more than ever, as we face harsh economic times once again, we should turn to back to our old friend, thrift. It may be just the thing to drag us out of this recession, and once the economy rebounds and enters the next cycle of growth our newfound appreciation of thrift will be crucial in keeping us on the right track. We will need to teach our children once more how to spend prudently, save abundantly, invest wisely, and give generously. These lessons need to be instilled in them not just in the classroom, but also by example from the supermarket to the stock market floors to the halls of power in our nation’s capital. We’ve already lost a few decades, so the sooner we start, the better. Let’s do it. Let’s commit ourselves to the task in front of us the way earlier generations did. Let’s bring back Thrift Week!
Used with permission from the new site BringBackThriftWeek.org for the Bring Back Thrift Week campaign.