The American Thrift Movement in the 1920s

June 9, 2016 10:00 pm Published by

By Ann Koppy, BHSoc Historiannatl-thrift-week-orange-TN.jpg

The Roaring 20’s were good times, an era of prosperity, strong economic growth, and consumer confidence. Social and political changes were everywhere in a time of an emerging culture of the consumption of goods. Employment was high as women transitioned into full-time jobs in retail, clerical, and teaching. Although some work was seasonal for men—agriculture and fisheries among them—many toiled in factories as others found careers in middle management. Demographics had changed, as well: the populace was now divided about equally into ½ rural and ½ urban.

The standard of living for most Americans was high, the exception being timber industry workers, miners, and farmers who continued to endure a downturn brought on by overproduction, heavy debt, and falling prices. Many financial experts classify the 18-month recession and its high unemployment in 1920-21 as an anomaly and the economy quickly rebounded. The average national net income per household reported to the Internal Revenue Service in 1920 was $3,269 ($38,917 in 2015). Oregon’s amounted to $2,863 ($34,083). Lower prices for nearly all goods and the birth of modern print advertising that employed movie stars and sports heroes to promote products helped advance national markets for merchandise. Uneasiness regarding overspending, waste of natural resources, and excesses in daily living had begun a few years earlier, however.

National Thrift Week, started by the Y.M.C.A. in January 1917 as a movement to influence behavior in matters of personal savings, home purchases, and over-the-top materialism, continued throughout the decade. Banks offered households free diaries to track expenses and encouraged building financial reserves for college, investments, and big-ticket purchases such as pianos. A broad coalition of financiers, religious and educational leaders, commercial and fraternal organizations, and civic activists came together to share resources while urging moderation and duty to others. They encouraged Americans to make a will, buy life insurance, have a budget, and live honorably.

The Bank of Beaverton participated in “Deposit Day”, one of the eight tiers of a national Thrift System. Another was paying current debts punctually through their free checking and savings accounts (4% interest compounded semi-annually) which could be opened by mail for anyone who couldn’t visit the bank in person. Children were encouraged to heed the advice, “A penny saved is a penny earned” and fill piggy banks. The National Association of Real Estate Board initiated “Buy a Home– First” campaign, supported by an assortment of business interests, ministerial groups, and community alliances.

Poet-philosopher Walt Mason (1862-1939) warned “everyone is burning money just as though it grew on trees” and “things won’t boom along forever as they’re booming now.” Despite these concerns, retailing, advertising, and dema
nd for convenience and amenities intensified. Factory efficiency made autos more affordable while advances in technology produced hair dryers, electric shavers and toasters, frozen foods, new and inexpensive cosmetics, and radios. The movie industry came of age and with it, and depictions of lavish lifestyles.
There was little indication the good life wouldn’t last. Cities throughout the country continued to observe National Thrift Week, declaring that it meant a more prosperous and happier America. And then, in October 1929, the stock market crashed, plunging the U.S. into the decade-long Great Depression.


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This post was written by Michael Wong