The Thrift Ethic Gone Bad (and a Happy Ending)

Over at some other blog there is an interesting thread on thrift that got me thinking of my own family’s tortured relationship to the Mormon thrift ethic. My grandfather grew up on a cattle ranch in Eastern Utah. Think hardy, self-reliant, fix-it-up, western cowboys who envied the coal miners in Price, Utah for their wealth. That is my grandfather. The Depression hit the cattle industry in the west hard and the ranch went from marginally profitable to economically incoherent. Eventually, my grandfather went east to Washignton, DC for college and ended up selling insurance in Moses Lake, Washington outside of Spokane.

The rural, Depression-hardened thrift ethic, however, remained with him. My grandfather never threw anything away, no matter how broken down and useless. Over the years the accumulation of junk became truely awe inspiring. He literally purchased extra property that ultimately served little purpose beyond storing his accumulation of random stuff: things like old bicycles, piles of cast-iron pipe, large amounts of salvaged lumber, and the like. He is now too old to really do any additional collecting of discounted treasures, but he continues to tenaciously insist of keeping his stuff. You never know when an old coil of bailing wire is going to be useful in suburban Salt Lake City. The demon thrift ethic was passed on to his children. I have uncles who have accumulated their own fantastic collections of stuff that they will someday fix-up and use.

My own father is both horrified and attracted by this urge to collect, pack away, and save. Ultimately, however, he channeled the thrift-inspired need to hang on to old stuff away from the accumulation of unidentifiable bits of old truck motors (“Just in case”). He did what I am sure seems natural for anyone who becomes aware of powerful genetic tendencies toward becoming an uber-pack rat. He studied art history and became a museum curator. He now works for the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, where he diligently packs away Mormonism’s old stuff and presides over the collection of the accumulated treasures that the Church — blessedly — just could not bring itself to throw away.

22 comments for “The Thrift Ethic Gone Bad (and a Happy Ending)

  1. I don’t think so. He isn’t particularlly anal or otherwise OCD-ish. I just think that he is an exceptionally thrifty guy, which makes a lot of sense given his background, ie raised poor on a remote ranch.

  2. Nate’s comment and Scott’s brief response strike me as interesting.

    One makes observations about the impact of history and experience on character and discusses how character traits are passed on and modified through generations. The other uses clinical language to reduce those observations to something pathological that is suffered–and perhaps should be fixed through therapy and medication.

    I am certainly not opposed to advances in knowledge and techniques that help people and alleviate suffering. But I think we lose something important by employing clinical terminology and dismissing things as pathological too freely.

    I prefer to appreciate my ancestors’ ideosyncrasies and try to learn from them (in non-clinical terms) rather than attempt to diagnose any pyschological, emotional, personality or other problems they may have had.

    Likewise, great literature might lose much of its power if the foibles, flaws, and other traits of great characters are reduced in clinical language to mere pathological conditions that ought to be fixed.

    Perhaps my thoughts tie into the blandness that comes with overspecialization that Nate has discussed previously here.

  3. Hm. So, is the thrift ethic tied to pack-ratting stuff? Or does this include wearing out clothes til they have holes, buying from thrift stores even when you financial don’t ‘need’ to anymore, etc?

  4. We’re all so damned wealthy now that we have difficulty understanding those who lived poor. (And, no, that “damned” is not just an intensifier–it’s a warning to us all, including myself, of what all our worldly wealth is likely to get us. See, e.g., Kingdom, likelihood of rich man entering.)

    Consider owning two sets of clothing–one for Sunday going to meeting, the other for everything else.

    Consider making the decision that one son (of seven) would serve a mission, because there wasn’t money to send any others. Then decide which of the seven would be the one to go.

    Consider having your 12-year-old (a bright young man) drop out of school, because you need an extra hand to work to try to earn enough to keep food on the table.

    Consider planting crops for two or three years in a row when there was essentially no rain, and the water in the irrigation ditch ran out before it got up to your farm.

    Then you’ll save stuff–bits of string, for example, on the off chance that it’ll come in handy some day, because you certainly couldn’t afford to buy it.

    That habit would die hard even if the wolves are a good safe distance from the door, because of your memories about how close they had been.

    And it may even cause one to have unkind thoughts about some young whippersnapper who can spout a little popular psycology.

  5. Thanks to the Depression, Communist blacklisting in the 1950’s, and having relatives thrown out of or fleeing from various countries for various reasons (mostly religious) over the course of the last 150 years, my grandparents had to be forced into taking the risk of a mortgage payment. They both figured the chances of the house getting taken away from them were far in excess of whatever merits of not having to pay rent after 20 years might exist.

    Literally, my father and his brother browbeat them into it — and then helped pay for the house.

    On the other hand, I buy and keep spare things because I’m conditioned to bi-coastal living. I have at least two of everything, and when I’ve planned things right, one of them is in California and one is in Ohio (for a while, I was working towards three of everything — one in California, one in my mother’s house in Ohio, and one in my dorm room also in Ohio). The storage rental isn’t even all that much. You all have no idea how frustrating it is to show up to live in California for three years and realize you’ve left all the cables for your computer back in Ohio, and no one back there knows which box they’re in. As a result of that sort of thing as a small child, I have two Bibles, two hairbrushes, two TVs, to telephones, two desk lamps, two tents, two bathrobes, etc. (still, sadly, I end out paying excess baggage charges every time I move across country). I also have about fifteen pairs of toenail clippers, due to an unfortunate localized rip in the space-time continuum. That rip happens to be bi-coastal, too, actually. Heh.

    For what it’s worth, I live with a psychology major (well, she’s a psych major THIS month anyway) and the less often I see speculative diagnoses of psychiatric disorders, the happier I am. Though it’s entertaining enough at dinner, I suppose.

  6. The thrift ethic is a theme in my family:

    Andrea and I overheard an endearing argument between her grandparents in which Grandma insisted that Grandpa (who had driven a beat-up little truck for years and dreamed all his life of owning a new truck) had better go out and get a truck with the money he had so carefully saved—or he would soon be watching (from heaven) his sons (all successful professionals) buy new trucks with his money.

    In the same spirit, I have tried to encourage my grandmother to make herself a little more comfortable/ enjoy herself a little more. She will have none of that foolishness. She is the child of poor Wyoming ranchers/farmers. Even though the real estate tied to the family farm (accumulated primarily by the inspiring efforts of her husband, my late Grandpa Parker) has appreciated in value significantly, she seems to prefer to live like the Depression is in full swing.

  7. A post that brings back memories, Nate, especially where you mention your father:

    “He now works for the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, where he diligently packs away Mormonism’s old stuff and presides over the collection of the accumulated treasures that the Church – blessedly – just could not bring itself to throw away.”

    Reminds me how, some thirty years ago, I packed all kinds of old Mormon stuff of the Netherlands-Belgium mission (programs, pictures, first printing of old church books), found in the attic of a local church building, into a large box. I marked it with huge letters: “Historical material – Do not throw away” and gave it to a local priesthood leader. Years later I learned it was thrown away with the garbage… It seems to me that very little is done in the mission fields to preserve old Mormon material — which could be so precious later to study the early history of the church in some countries. Seems to me that “Church History and Art” is a pretty much Utah-centered concern and that we are losing every year precious Mormon history abroad. Preserving “local” Mormon history is a topic I never heard adressed in forty years of Church membership.

  8. Wilfried,

    You should come to New York.

    The NY Stake has a history committee, co-chaired by Richard and Claudia Bushman (not a bad start, eh?), and an effort is being made to write, to gather, to save, to preserve. So much seems prosaic, but 25 years from now it will be interesting, and, 100 years from now, priceless.

    I am still mad, however, about the carelessness/stupidity/venality of whoever it was that threw away a whole closet full of music from the old Brooklyn Ward chapel when it was renovated. Who knows what other treasures there were in that closet!

  9. I wonder is Scarsdale Smugness is in DSM-IV. If not, we could lobby for its inclusion in DSM-V.

  10. I remember as a little child watching my Great-grandmother hang out paper plates on the clothes line to dry. Puzzled I asked my mother what she was doing. She told me that Grandma never threw anything away, and it was true. My mom would sneak over and throw the plates away after Grandma had washed and hung them. Grandma never asked what happened to them. She suffered for dementia.
    The yard outside her house was a collection of all kinds of stuff. My favorite was the fake flowers she kept in all kind of containers mixed with real flowers that she faithfully watered every day. I is amazing what poverty will do to people.

  11. Yes, Mark B., I share your feelings! The catastrophe happens especially when chapels are renovated or closed (I’m thinking of regular houses the Church uses in many mission fields) that the most damage is done. Attics, closets, drawers are cleaned out and fascinating documents, old books etc. are thrown away. In my experience, the Department dealing with Church buildings has never cared about that aspect when they renovate or close a building. They should first sent in a couple of historians / collectors…

    Hi, Nate, can’t you ask your dad to send the message up the channels? I should add that a number of years ago the Church did some oral history in the mission field, interviewing older members about their memories, but I have never seen the results of that. Documents, however, were never gathered for preservation to my knowledge. It seems to me that in the 19th century the Church was much more into this preservation mood for what happened in the mission fieds — were not the missionaries instructed to bring back to Utah as much as possible all Mormon-related documents and publications? Perhaps also partially in the 20th century? But the past few decades, apparently no instructions to that effect.

  12. Yeah, Bryce, I know. Borrowing from another thread, I should have said

    “______ is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

  13. Nate,

    I’m not sure the Ranch would be accurately described as “economically incoherent”. There weren’t many options back then. The Ranch and the family farm provided enough for the family of 11 children to live on. Your Grandpa looked for work in several different locals (CA, Oregon, Seattle, D.C. the Yukon) but each time found himself back in Price where his parents had plenty to eat and still survive.

    Calling the thrift ethic “demon” puts a negative connotation on a hardiness that got our family through some pretty hard times. Your Grandpa was working three jobs (Seminary Teacher, U&I Sugar Tour Guide, and School Bus Driver) trying to put food on the table while he was building his insurance business from scratch. He didn’t receive a fat allowance to get his feet on the ground, but basically had to scrimp and save for everything we got. His scrimping and saving put 4 boys on missions, bought 10 homes, a 50 unit lake side trailer park, etc. It didn’t come from his meager salary, but through hard work and saving by using as Nate calls it the “demon thrift ethic” to build an estate. Given the level of his education, experience, and limited opportunities and support, I think he did exceptionally well and deserves our respect.

    In spite of the many summers I worked with your grandpa tearing down buildings and salvaging pipe and lumber, I estimate we used at least half of those supplies in building a 4,500 sq foot house on the lake. I can remember hating chipping the mortar off of bricks from the chimney of the Larson AFB Mess Hall, but we eventually used every one of those brick in the fireplace and brick facade of our house. I worked as the hod tender for brick masons doing that work.

    I think part of your Grandpa’s reluctance to throw away the used pipe is that he didn’t understand that it became out of code and could no longer be used in new construction. I can remember driving a truckload of metal pipe to the Monty Holmes scrap yard that only paid us a couple dollars for the whole load. In spite of the poor return on the pipe one thing we did learn was how to work. We built what we could from what we had.

    You will be hard pressed to meet a nicer and more genuine person than your Grandfather.
    There’s lots of memories in the things we touch and President Kimball has encouraged us to mend and fix things up rather than to throw them out and buy new. Part of this attitude is to develop a respect for the earth and the resources it provides to us. I think your Grandfather has a profound respect for the earth and the things it provides. One could describe a year’s supply as hoarding, but there are many examples of how that has benefited families when a father was injured or out of work.

    Paul Oman
    One of Nate’s Uncles who collects

  14. I’ve seen the thrift ethic go awry in my own life, especially with regards to old technology. Growing up I was fascinated with electronics and computers, but rarely could get my parents to spring for the latest and greatest (probably with some good reason, as it was pretty darn pricey). So I tended to scavenge to pick up what I could, buy old, used, and underpowered.

    My first few years out of BYU I wanted badly to buy my own computer. Instead of buying a new machine, I bought several, progressively: an old 8086 PC (made 1988), a NeXTStation (made 1992), a Mac SE/30 (made 1989). The SE/30 turned out to be a genuinely useful machine, but that was sortof a fluke. The rest ended up being tinkered with and eventually sold or discarded as it came to me that with the money I’d spent over time, I simply could have bought a single relatively modern machine.

    Now I just buy 1-2 year old machines every 3-4 years. It seems to work better.

  15. Thanks for posting Paul. I have a huge amount of respect for grandpa, and his thriftiness. He certainly made it through far tougher times than I pray that I will ever face. I just find it interesting to see how habits are passed down thriugh different generations and adapt (or not) to new circumstances.

  16. Paul brings new light to the discussion. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” has long been a theme in my mother’s home. It influenced our way of doing everything. It taught us the value of things we worked hard to purchase. “If I earned $1.10 an hour working at a photo shop to earn enough money to buy my first camera I would appreciate it more than if it was given to me as a gift.” was what was said to me as a young high schooler with a want/need. I still own that Olympus. It still takes great pictures.

    My generation the “wash and wear” generation of the fifties and sixties, enjoyed the fallout of the depression. OUr parents wanted us to learn the work ethic however, money came easier then and so did material possesions. We no longer fixed things when they broke. We just run down and buy a new one. We use that hourly wage to justify it would only take us 15 minutes to earn the cost of that toaster so why bother fixing it.

    Unfortunately we, as a generation, have had little success in seeing the value of non-material things, such as, firends, family, marriage etc. We co-mingle them with the material items and find little value in the constant effort it takes to succeed in raising good children, keeping love alive in a marriage or sustaining an enduring friendship over the years.

    The Gospel helps to define those most precious things to us however, many inside the church struggle with the same problems. So, as pack-ratty as some of our older relatives may be, there is value, in their lessons learned through the depression for us. No, we don’t have to save every jar or pipe, we need to understand the value in the work it took to obtain them in the first place.

  17. And in case you missed it, Bryce, the rest of the obsolete technology has gone to a friend of a ward member who has sort of an unofficial museum for that kind of thing.

    Which means that half of the counter space is no longer taken up by a ditto machine.

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