Economy in Buying

This is the third article in October of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on October 17, 1909, and is a continuation of Marion’s series on economy.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

Economy in Buying

This is the second of a series of articles by Marion Harland which have been written with a view to helping the housewife at a time when economy may mean just that little that puts the balance on the right side of the household ledger.

The first of these articles, published last Sunday, was entitled “A Stubborn Fact,” and dealt with the necessities for the practice of economy today. The third article, to be published next Sunday, will be entitled “Economy in Cookery,” and the fourth, which will follow, bears the caption, “Economy in Hired Labor.”

Resolve firmly at the outset never to buy what you do not need just because it is cheap.

This is the rock upon which the born bargain-maker wrecks purse and peace of mind. If put into the confessional, how many of us could plead “not guilty” if asked to search the records of memory for instances of this form of extravagance? Who of us has not excused the folly by “It is true, I did not really want it at the moment; but the time might come when it would be useful, and it was so ridiculously cheap it seemed a shame to let it slip through my fingers?”—the unvarnished fact being that the shame lay in spending money for a useless thing.

We talked together last week of the stubborn fact that each of us whose income does not mount well into the tens of thousands must face the absolute necessity of curtailing expenses that were comfortably covered ten yeas back by salary or dividends or rents that did not equal two-thirds of what we are today receiving. I pause at this point to modify a statement made in that paper. I said that family expenses are now 35 per cent more than they were three years ago. After my manuscript went to press I had an opportunity of looking more narrowly into statistics involving the rates of living in all sections of the United Sates, as compared with the outgo and income, five years earlier in the century. Figures that cannot equivocate show that, as a body domestic and politic, we pay out 52 per cent more for the necessaries and comforts of living than we expended for the same in the year of our Lord 1900.

Set alongside of this starting truth the fact that salaries and wages have not advanced, on an average, 10 per cent in the most prosperous region of our common country, and there gapes before us a pretty big hole to be filled up by economies, great and small.

To return to the practice of these, “blue pencil” the memorandum of today. I illustrate by an individual case: a dear young friend, to whom I speak as plainly as to my daughters, called upon me on her morning round of marketing, and in the course of the conversation lamented the difficulty of bringing her household expenses within the limits of the allowance made for the purpose by her generous husband.

“I cannot bear to ask for more,” she said. “His business suffered sadly in the general depression of last year and has not recovered from the pressure. Yet out family is no larger than it was five years ago. And I do try to be economical. My heart sank like lead when I saw the length of the memorandum my cook and I made out this morning.”

She drew it from her pocket and opened it.

It was formidable in my more experienced eyes.

“Do you mind letting me read it?” I asked.

“Not a bit. I wish you would run it over and show me how to abridge it without starving John and the babies—not to mention the maids”—this last with a conscious laugh.

“Six pounds of butter,” I read aloud. “Fourteen pounds of granulated sugar, ditto of powdered, cake of chocolate, bottle of vanilla, 12 oranges, 12 lemons, four packages of oatmeal, ditto crackers, bottle of olives, ditto of mixed pickles, four cakes of sandsoap, one-half gallon of salad oil, barrel of flour.”

“That last item was a blow!” she interposed, pointing to it, actual tragedy in voice and gesture. “But the bottom of the last barrel was craped this morning for the semi-weekly baking. I heard once of a good old saint who said that ‘the angels must hear when she scraped the bottom of the meal barrel, for she always had something valuable sent to her that very day!’ I thought of it when I found that I must overrun this month’s allowance by exactly the amount it will cost to get this barrel of best family flour. I wish I had the old lady’s guardian angel—or a bigger allowance!”

Then I fired a direct question at her:

“Why do you buy flour by the barrel?”

Her answer was as direct:

“It is cheaper in the long run.”

“I know!” I interrupted. “When you came in I was reading a magazine article of a practical housewife who knows whereof she speaks, on ‘The Struggles of the Half-Way Poor.’ By the way, there are more of that class in our favored land at the present speaking than ever before since the ladings at Jamestown and Plymouth. Hear Mrs. Well-to-Do’s advice to the half-way poor woman:

“‘My dear child, I wish you would understand how much more expensive it is to get things in small quantities! I save literally hundreds of dollars yearly buying flour, potatoes and apples by the barrel. * * * If you can buy a tub of butter now at 25 cents a pound, when you are paying 35 at retail prices, see what you save! If you do not learn these household economies, you will never be rich.’

“‘No,’ laments the other inwardly, ‘and as I shall never be rich I shall never have the money to spend on a quantity of staples at once.’”

I closed the magazine and proceeded with the “improvement” of my text.

“In my salad days, when I was green in judgment, I, too, was a warm advocate for buying at wholesale. It was not until I had lived abroad for a term of years and studied the ways and means of those incomparable household economies, the French cooks and German housefrauen, that I came to a just sense of proportion on this subject. Here lies the point: If you mean to sell at retail what you buy at wholesale, it is all right to buy by the large quantity. If the barrel of flour is to be used in your family, subject to the measurement and pleasure of the average maid—let her nationality be hat is will—it is wiser management of your allowance to make small purchases. Bridget, Thekla, Dina, gauges the depth of a []-pound bag of flour more truly than that of barrelful. Generally this last is an unknown quantity to her. She will make biscuits, bread and cake with a more lavish hand when she may dip at her discretion (which is likewise an unknown quantity), into the barrel. Did I ever tell you of the answer Mrs. B.S. cook made to her mistress when she (Katy) was about to throw six fine, large potatoes with the kitchen refuse into a garbage pail? ‘Sure, mem, there’s a whole barreful in the cellar’

“Katy struck the keynote of an ‘opus’ that may be said to be a ‘continuous performance’ is nine out of ten households where wholesale buying is practiced.”

My guest scratched out “barrel” and substituted “bag.”

“Fourteen pounds of each kind of sugar!” she read, thoughtfully. “That ought to last our family three weeks, unless Jane indulges her fancy for extras in cakes and puddings too freely. Would you get half the quantity?”

Without waiting for an answer she ran on:

“And we wouldn’t eat a dozen oranges in one week. Nor a dozen lemons. I suppose you would say the same of four boxes of crackers and of oatmeal?”

I laid my hand on the busy pencil:

“I dictate nothing, dear! You are the proper judge of what you have a right to spend and to save.”

I meant what I said. I knew, however, that I had dropped good seed into good soil. I would fain believe the same with regard to the larger audience I place before my imagination in turning back to my desk.

Had I elected to take that memorandum in detail, as I am reading, with my mind’s eye, scores of expense books conned ruefully by fellow-housemothers, I could have cut down the sum total in other ways than by advising retail in place of wholesale purchases. Jane evidently meditated chocolate cake. A plainer compound would have tasted as well to John, if properly concocted. Olives need not appear upon the table at the same time with mixed pickles, and, unless mayonnaise dressing be a triweekly treat, it would be prudent to get a quart and not a half gallon of oil.

If your list of “must haves” for the day was pruned judiciously, my sister student in this hard, new school, the curtailed result would amaze you and gratify the financier of the household. Separate “may gets” from “must haves.” And buy nothing today because there is a bare probability that it may be wanted tomorrow.

I am painfully aware that the principle of purchasing by the day will meet with little favor with older readers brought up, as I was according to the tenets of an age that was lavish by reason of growing prosperity. We have been so long accustomed to the idea that it is sound economy “in the long run” to get staples at wholesale that we reluctantly learn the lesson appointed to us by changed conditions. A woman told me outright yesterday that she “could not reconcile herself to the thought of living from hand to mouth. One might as well be a pauper at once. The French are in the lead of all nations in the matter of cookery. It was from a Frenchwoman of means, who had a “corden bleu” in her kitchen, that I first heard of the advantages of buying just what one wants, and in precisely the quantities that are required for a specific purpose. It was she, likewise, who reprobated as extravagance the purchase of fruits and vegetables in advance of the season. I winced slightly when she alluded to it as “the trick of the vulgar rich.” Yet she was right. It is patent to the dullest of us that when berries and peaches are in their richest maturity they are at the cheapest, because ripe fruits will not bear transportation or keep so long as immature, that must bellow in cold storage.

Watch the markets if you would live well at reasonable rates. Don’t be ashamed to price without buying. It is only by vigilance and inquiry that you lean what you may afford to get without exceeding your lawful means.

When practicable, do your marketing and shopping in person. Again and again I have changed my menu for the day, and for the better as to quality and price, after entering a shop. I have found that the roast I had intended to se before my family was neither so cheap nor so good as the fresh beef’s tongue just brought in. Or I had thought of poultry. If I had ordered by telephone, I should have lost the opportunity of discovering that fowls of all ages were “up,” and reconciled myself to the disappointment by resolving as a brilliant thought, to try, that very day, the recipe Mrs. Blank gave me last week for hamburger steak, baked as a “cannelon” and overlaid with sliced and fried bananas.

In the next week’s talk I shall have more to say of the important art of making the best of what we have rated as indifferent materials. I say “art” instead of “knack,” and advisedly. The proficiency of the French cook in this respect falls little short of genius.

One word more of the telephone as a shopping medium. I honestly believe that enough is lost annually by the woman who gives all her orders over the wire to pay carfare to and from markets a dozen times over. The tidy little instrument, within reach of my hand as I write, is a terrible temptation when business presses, or the weather is inclement, or I am indolently glad to read the last new book that is worth reading, instead of scanning grocers’ shelves and butchers’ counters in hope of spying “just the thing” I want. Nevertheless, I am false to my consciousness of what is prudent and right when I confer with the obliging tradesman over the wire. He prefers it to seeing me in person, of course. One less discreet than the majority confessed to me that “the” telephone customer is far more profitable than she who must see before she purchases.

Neither the “half-way poor” nor the wise and tender mother who would make means that were ample a decade ago do as much for her household now can afford to employ agents at this juncture of national and individual history.

Marion Harland

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