Thrift: A Cyclopedia
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The very word “thrift” tells its own tale, being derived
from the word “to thrive.”
—John Lubbock, The Use of Life, 1894
1. a. The fact or condition of thriving or prospering; (obsolete); b.
Means of thriving; c. Prosperous growth, physical thriving; d. Growing-pains;
2. a. Savings, earnings, gains, profit; b. That which is saved (of something);
(obsolete); 3. a. Economical management, economy; b. A U.S. savings and
—“Thrift,” Oxford English Dictionary
The word has no exact synonym.
—Definition of thrift, The World Book, 1918
… there are few words in the English language that have a more
interesting history, or convey a deeper moral than the word “Thrift.”
—Richardson Campbell, Provident and Industrial Institutions, about 1926
Thrift, that sovereign bourgeois virtue, is often misunderstood, simply
because the word can mean so many different things.
—Maria Ossowska, Bourgeois Morality, 1956
THIS BOOK IS AN EXTENDED REFLECTION, and a preliminary bringing together of knowledge, on the English word “thrift.”
In October of 2005, at the request of the John Templeton Foundation, I helped to convene a conference of nearly 40 leading scholars to discuss the history of thrift as an American value and practice. The main thing I learned at the conference is that most leading scholars are not very interested in thrift. Moreover, among those who are interested, thrift is usually viewed as either mildly amusing, worrisomely retrograde, or both.
A prominent professor of political philosophy from Harvard, who adamantly insisted that thrift is not a virtue, and whose commissioned paper did not contain even one mention of the word “thrift,” asked me pointedly: “Are you saying that the word ‘thrift’ has to be on every page?” I told him I’d think about that.
So I went home and thought about it. I eventually decided that the answer to his question is “Yes.” A serious paper on the topic of thrift ought to contain the word “thrift” on every page. Or nearly every page. Or at least on one or two pages!
This book contains the word “thrift” on nearly every page.
I’m grateful to that Harvard professor, because that conference, and in particular his question, greatly deepened my interest in the subject. What was this odd idea that they could barely be bothered to study and so clearly did not believe in? Moreover, the whole experience of that conference made me realize that leading scholars are not the only ones today who are actively disinterested in thrift. The word “thrift” has largely fallen out of our public conversation. As a result, the whole concept sounds quaintly old-fashioned, like something your great-grandparents might have talked about – but not you, and certainly not your children. I began to wonder, why is this the case? What’s the real story behind this funny little word that so many people can’t or don’t want to say?
Somewhere in all of my note-taking, I became a genuine thrift nut. I believe in it passionately. I’m a starry-eyed advocate. For so many of the problems now ailing us—from shameful wastefulness, to growing economic inequality, to independence-killing indebtedness, to runaway mindless consumerism—I believe that the philosophy of thrift is the closest thing we have to a miracle cure. As a result, I want to testify about it. I want to shout it from the roof tops. I want to convert people. And I hope that, after you read this book, you will want to do the same.
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