Household Accounts

Household Accounts: Working-Class Family Economies in the Interwar United States

Susan Porter Benson
Afterword by David Montgomery
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Household Accounts
    Book Description:

    With unprecedented subtlety, compassion and richness of detail, Susan Porter Benson takes readers into the budgets and the lives of working-class families in the United States between the two world wars. Focusing on families from regions across America and of differing races and ethnicities, she argues that working-class families of the time were not on the verge of entering the middle class and embracing mass culture. Rather, she contends that during the interwar period such families lived in a context of scarcity and limited resources, not plenty. Their consumption, Benson argues, revolved around hard choices about basic needs and provided therapeutic satisfactions only secondarily, if at all.

    Household Accountsis rich with details Benson gathered from previously untapped sources, particularly interviews with women wage earners conducted by field agents of the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor. She provides a vivid picture of a working-class culture of family consumption: how working-class families negotiated funds; how they made qualitative decisions about what they wanted; how they determined financial strategies and individual goals; and how, in short, families made ends meet during this period. Topics usually central to the histories of consumption-he development of mass consumer culture, the hegemony of middle-class versions of consumption, and the expanded offerings of the marketplace-contributed to but did not control the lives of working-class people. Ultimately,Household Accountsseriously calls into question the usual narrative of a rising and inclusive tide of twentieth-century consumption.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5427-1
    Subjects: History, Economics, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. A Note on Household Accounts and Its Preparation
    (pp. ix-x)
    Jean Allman and David Roediger
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    This book surprises me. It surprises me that I chose to write it to begin with, and it surprises me the way it has turned out. Because it almost seemed to sneak up on me, its shortcomings have not evoked despair, and its small pleasures have become real delights. I suspect its surprises will ultimately turn out to be logical developments from my life and work. This introduction represents my attempt to account for the surprises, and to work my way through to the logic of which I did not originally suspect the existence.

    I am surprised by this book...

  6. 1 “Living on the Margin”: Working-Class Marriages and Family Survival Strategies
    (pp. 16-57)

    “Walter Benda gave every cent he earned to his wife,” a settlement worker observed approvingly, “and she planned carefully.”¹ Scholars such as Susan Levine, Kathy Peiss, Elizabeth Ewen, and Judith Smith have called our attention to the diligence and creativity of working-class women who, like Mrs. Benda, acted as managers of the family fund; they have also acknowledged the limitations of that role, especially when errant husbands proved less cooperative than Walter Benda.² In fact, I would go even farther than these historians in revising the essentialized picture of the working-class woman as consumer. The power of this trope depends...

  7. 2 “Cooperative Conflict”: Gender, Generation, and Consumption in Working-Class Families
    (pp. 58-76)

    Relations between generations in working-class families provide a revealing window on the ways in which consumption was affecting the family economy, tempting individuals with expenditures that might not serve the family interest but still not entirely dissolving ties of mutual obligation and shared goals. During the 1920s and 1930s, the family wage remained an elusive ideal for most working-class families, and the husband/father’s wages required supplements by other family members. In chapter 1 I have addressed some of the implications of wives’/mothers’ wage-earning for consumption and the family economy, and here I shall concentrate on children’s impact in these areas....

  8. 3 The Mutuality of Shared Spaces
    (pp. 77-103)

    No longer completely bound by a family-based peasant economy, yet still incompletely subsumed into the cash market, the economy of makeshifts in the interwar United States partook of both modes. In this transitional situation, relationships between spouses and between parents and children formed the core of the working-class family economy, though they were embellished by connections with myriad others. This chapter and the next explore these broader webs of mutuality and reciprocity. Working-class people constructed such networks to deal with the demands of their daily lives: the need to compensate for the irregularity and insecurity of wages; the desire for...

  9. 4 What Goes ’Round, Comes ’Round: Working-Class Reciprocity
    (pp. 104-139)

    The contours of reciprocity, like mutuality, were shaped not just by tradition but by the personalities of those involved and the range of resources at their command; navigating among circumstances not of their own choosing, people met their own emergencies and those of kin and friends in ways ranging from grudging and humiliating to generous and self-sacrificing. Here, too, the possibilities for missteps and misunderstandings were infinite and the rules for appropriate behavior unclear and shifting. And as in the mutuality of shared housing, women played critical roles in the exchange of goods, services, and labor.

    In its broad outlines,...

  10. 5 The Family Economy in the Marketplace
    (pp. 140-170)

    Studies of working class family budgets and standards of living often neglected the collection of information on the central subjects of this final chapter, failing in particular to enumerate household appliances and to investigate the purchases of household services. In completing her useful 1927 studyThe Income and Standard of Living of Unskilled Laborers in Chicago, for example, Leila Houghteling included in her interview schedule a question about “indications of comfort,” specifying automobiles, piano, victrolas, radios, and telephones. But she omitted those items which would contribute to the convenience if not comfort of the women in the household: sewing machines,...

  11. Class, Gender, and Reciprocity: An Afterword
    (pp. 171-176)
    David Montgomery

    Susan Porter Benson has left a distinctive imprint on the writing of American social history primarily because of her independence of mind. Although she was very much aware of and made use of the newest styles of historical interpretation, she consistently refused to adhere uncritically to intellectual fashions. She contributed significantly to the history of twentieth-century consumerism, but she never enthroned consumption as the driving force of modern society. Note, for example, that her influential first book,Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890–1940, subjected human interaction in the urban “palace of consumption” to thorough...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 177-228)
  13. Index
    (pp. 229-233)