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Edward Bok & The Simple Life
At the turn of the century, a crusading magazine editor exhorted women to seek peace of mind and body through simplicity. For a generation, they listened.
December 1984 | Volume 36, Issue 1
Yet, while assuring the well-to-do that they could simplify their lives without spartanizing them, Bok advised that to have “small means makes the problem of simple living really easier.” The key to simplicity was self-confident contentment. He reflected his reading of Thorstein Veblen when he stressed, “There must be no imitation of others, no reaching of fancied heights to outdo someone else: no thought of how our mode of living will be judged by others.” When Americans learned the difference between the accessories and the essentials of life, they would begin to experience better physical and mental health. “There are no nervous breakdowns in the simple life,” he counseled his readers. Contentment, discrimination, sincerity—that, Bok concluded, “is the genuine simple life—according to Charles Wagner, if you will, or according to those everlasting basic precepts and principles that were lovingly laid down for all mankind some nineteen hundred years ago.”
In this way Bok retrieved the traditional concept of Christian simplicity and made it relevant to his middle-class American audience. Some may see in his rather broad definition of simple living a rationalization for the status quo. He certainly was not calling into question the free enterprise system or the sanctity of private property. Like most Progressives, he was a moral reformer, not a social radical. But he clearly did intend his sermons to result in changed patterns of living and thinking. To this end he created a department entitled “How Much Can Be Done with Little,” devoted solely to providing practical tips for simpler living. Bok also pioneered the “how-to” journalistic technique. Articles such as “How We Can Lead a Simple Life, by an American Mother,” “How We Live on $1000 a Year or Less,” “How to Live Cheaply,” “A Lesson in Plain Sewing,” “Economical Use of Left-Overs,” “What Nervous People Should Eat,” and “A Spartan Mother” were intended to demonstrate that simpler living was a practical ideal accessible to all. In addition Bok solicited prominent Americans to express to his readers the virtues and joys of simplicity. His greatest coup in this respect was in getting President Roosevelt to participate in a series of interviews on the subject of better living habits.
To say that Theodore Roosevelt was himself a model of simple living would stretch the concept absurdly. Roosevelt, of course, defies any simple classification. A bundle of nervous energy, he could be a conspicuous dandy in spending his inherited money. He rode to hounds, played polo, loved big houses, fast horses, pearl-handled revolvers, gold-plated rifles, and fine clothes for indoors and out, despite boasting about getting by with his buckskin shirt. But Roosevelt was also a patrician who was determined not to be genteel. He repeatedly claimed to lead a life of “dignified simplicity.” In a letter to William Howard Taft in 1903, he described his way of life in the White House: “We have two maids and live as any family of gentlefolk of small means should live. When I leave the Presidency I shall not mind in the least going back to the utmost simplicity of life, and I wish to live simply as President.”
The popular Roosevelt undoubtedly exerted a strong influence on the readers of the Journal. But it was Edward Bok himself who was the magazine’s most rousing voice on behalf of simple living. In repeated editorials he expressed the virtues of enlightened restraint in a didactic, intimate, homely way that drew its effect from his intense sincerity. “It is a hard truth,” he wrote in a typical Christmas message, “for those who have little, to believe that the greatest happiness of life is with them: that it is not with those who have abundance. ” Nevertheless, he insisted, the “more we have the less we actually enjoy it. ” As Emerson had pointed out, there is a “law of compensation” at work in life. Those of great wealth must bear the constant burden of greater complexity and concern. “The woman of simplest means,” Bok contended, “is the happiest woman on earth, if she only knew it.”
To prove this assertion, Bok cited the example of a family he knew who enjoyed an affluent income but conscientiously organized their lives and their purchases around the principles of utility and simplicity. Their furniture was of high-quality wood but of plain design, an automobile was rented for specific trips rather than bought to sit outside, and toys for the children were “fewer and simpler” than those of the neighbors. It was a family, Bok stressed, where “pleasures were made to remain real: appetites were not clogged nor jaded.” The result was contentment with the joy of life itself.