How To Raise A Family On $500 A Year


In 1893 Chicago played host to a World’s Fair that rivaled the Paris Exposition of 1889 for splendor and exceeded all previous fairs in magnitude. The great Columbian Exposition not only demonstrated what had been accomplished in the four hundred years since Columbus’ first voyage to the New World but also offered a vision of what might be. Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted laid out an orderly arrangement of buildings, promenades, and lagoons as a vision of proper city planning. Electrified streetcars, an elevated railway, model water and sewage plants, and a self-contained oil-burning electrical plant that generated controversial alternating current were among the innovations that earned the fair the nickname of the “Magic City.”

The Columbian Exposition produced models of social planning as well. Day care for infants was provided as a service to fairgoers—and as a means to illustrate a well-ordered nursery—in a Children’s Building next to the Woman’s Building. A Bureau of Public Comfort maintained toilets and first-aid stations, supplied emergency aid to travelers, and supervised the Columbian Guard, a Prussian-clad unit which patrolled the grounds and was meant to represent the ideal urban police force.

But the most ambitious domestic exhibit of the entire fair was a life-size house complete with experimental family, officially designated the New York State Workingman’s Model Home. It was chiefly the work of Katharine Bernent Davis of Rochester, New York.

Katharine Davis had graduated from Vassar College the year before, charged with ideas of social reform that then preoccupied educated Americans. Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives had been published in 1890, fueling the reform movement that was already under way in America. Davis had been a science major at college and then had taken a course at Columbia University in the new field of nutrition. She was determined to use her knowledge of chemistry and biology to solve human problems and was convinced that the application of sound natural science could help solve social and economic woes. In 1894 she wrote that “a correct theory of living is now possible.” Both the “Women’s Century” and the “Housekeeper’s Century” had dawned. Physics, she said, will “inform” heating and ventilation; biology, sanitation; chemistry, food; sociology, the servant question. All these topics taken together Katharine Davis called ecology (literally, “science of the house or habitat”).


She had no doubt discussed her ideas on ecology with Lucy Salmon, a radical history professor at Vassar who proposed that a “model house” be constructed at the World’s Fair, designed to demonstrate the principles of “an ideal American home. ” The New York State Lady Managers—women’s groups who were in charge of extensive domestic exhibits for the fair—found the proposal impractical and refused to carry it out. But John B. Thacher, a former mayor of Albany, who was then serving on both the state and federal boards for the Fair, supported the idea for a model house, except that he advocated making it a workingman’s model home.

It was not until March 4, 1893, that Thacher secured funds to pay for the project and notified a grateful Katharine Davis that she had been selected to run it. Planning time was short, and the parameters for the experimental home were strict. One of the major educational goals of the exhibit would be to differentiate between the necessary and the unnecessary in terms of household expenditures. A number of rapid decisions had to be made.

First, it was decided that the model household would consist of a man, a woman, two children, and an infant. They were to live on an annual income of $500. This was meant to represent, as Katharine Davis said, “the income of an industrious laborer in times when steady work could be had.” (In fact, the average industrial worker in 1893, who labored nearly 60 hours a week, earned between $444 and $480.) Having made inquiries in various cities around New York State, Davis determined that a “suite of four rooms with decent conveniences or a small detached house could be rented for $10 a month. Deciding that the experimental family could buy “sufficient nutritious food” for 40 per cent of its income, or $200 a year, she drew up an annual budget: