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Franklin's Thrift

The Lost History of an American Virtue

David Blankenhorn Barbara Dafoe Whitehead Sorcha Brophy-Warren

Americans today often think of thrift as a negative value—a miserly hoarding of resources and a denial of pleasure. Even more telling, many Americans don't even think of thrift at all anymore. Franklin’s Thrift challenges this state of mind by recovering the rich history of thrift as a quintessentially American virtue.

The contributors to this volume trace how, from the eighteenth century on, the idea and practice of thrift has been a robust part of the American vision of economic freedom and social abundance. For Benjamin Franklin, who personified and promoted the idea, thrift meant working productively, consuming wisely, saving proportionally, and giving generously. Franklin's thrift became the cornerstone of a new kind of secular faith in the ordinary person's capacity to shape his lot and fortune in life. Later chapters document how in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thrift moved into new domains. It became the animating idea behind social movements to promote children's school savings, create mutual savings banks and credit unions for working men and women, establish a federal savings bond program, and galvanize the nation to conserve resources during two world wars.

Historians, enthusiasts of Americana or traditional American virtues, and anyone interested in resolving our society's current financial woes will find much to treasure in this diverse collection, with topics ranging from the inspirational lessons we can learn from the film It’s a Wonderful Life to a history of the roles played by mutual savings banks, credit unions, and thrift stores in America’s national thrift movement. It also includes actual policy recommendations for our present situation.

Introduction / ix
David Blankenhorn, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, and Sorcha Brophy-Warren

Part One: Franklin’s Thrift: The Creation of an American Value

1. Franklin’s Way to Wealth / 3
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

Part Two: Thrift after Franklin: Institutions and Movements

2. U.S. Mutual Savings Banks and the “Savings Bank Idea”: The Virtue of Thrift as an Institutional Value / 29
Sorcha Brophy-Warren

3. Thrift for a New Century: Public Discussions about Thrift in the 1910s and 1920s / 57
Sara Butler Nardo

4. A Century of Thrift Shops / 97
Alison Humes

5. I n Savings We Trust: Credit Unions and Thrift / 127
Clifford N. Rosenthal

Part Three: For a New Thrift: Meeting the Twenty-First Century Challenge

6. Confronting the American Debt Culture / 145
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

7. Crafting Policies to Encourage Thrift in Contemporary America / 165

Alex Roberts

8. Private Enterprise’s Role in Increasing Savings / 187
Ronald T. Wilcox

Conclusion / 207
David Blankenhorn, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, and Sorcha Brophy-Warren

Notes / 211

Contributors / 243

Index / 247