How To Raise A Family On $500 A Year


As was the case with the house’s furnishings, the clothing was exhibited in an educational manner. Outer garments were hung in closets and underclothing laid away in bureau drawers. Cards attached to all items provided the curious with cost information.

In the few months following the March approval of the project, Katharine Davis had done a prodigious amount of work. The workingman’s model house had been planned and built. Furnishings, most of them bought in Brooklyn, had been shipped to Chicago and installed. A family’s entire wardrobe had been carefully assembled and placed on exhibit. Yet Davis considered herself chiefly a nutritionist, and the nutritional experiment conducted as part of the Workingman’s Model Home exhibit would receive her greatest attention.

While still in Brooklyn assembling the actual exhibit, Davis had applied herself to the plan of feeding her theoretical family for 55 cents a day, 1/365 of $200. She gave careful consideration to supplying the necessary balance of “proteids,” fats, and carbohydrates, as well as sufficient calories. Nutritional needs were calculated for the family as an aggregate. Thus, the wife of a laboring man requiring 100 units of nutrition would require 90; their children 8 or 10 years old would need 75; and small children 6 or under would need 40 units.

The experimental family chosen to live in the model home was actually not a family at all. It consisted of a Columbian guard staying in nearby barracks who “was very glad to come to the house for his meals,” and an Irish widow and her three children. The first two were described by a physician as “Man, American—age 28 years; height, 6 ft., 1 in. in stockings; girth, 34 in.; weight, 180 lbs.; pulse, 80 (warm day, been walking fast); well nourished, florid; comes of family of good eaters; occupation, Columbian guard. Woman, Irish—age, 34 years; weight, 100 lbs.; girth, 25Ve in.; florid, but looks a little haggard and overworked; occupation, housework, cleaning, washing, etc. …” The three children, all “Irish parentage, American born,” not to mention “florid, robust,” were a boy of 8, a girl of 6, and a boy of 5. (The planned-for infant didn’t materialize.) The family’s nutritional needs equaled those of 3.45 men.

Davis’ goal was to supply food in sufficient quantity to meet at least two nutritional standards, the German “Voit” and the American “Atwater.” The Atwater standard (the higher of the two) called for 125 to 150 grams of proteids a day, 125 to 150 grams of fat, 450 to 500 grams of carbohydrates, and 3,520 to 4,060 calories. The differences between the two standards, Davis wrote, are explained by the fact that “the American laborer demands and habitually consumes more food than the European working man, the excess being largely fat. ”

Katharine Davis’ ability to supply her family’s nutritional needs within a budget of 55 cents per day depended, of course, on retail food prices. These she carefully assembled for both the Brooklyn and Chicago markets, and noted that there were only minor differences between the two cities, meat being a bit cheaper in Chicago as one would expect, but fresh fruit cheaper in Brooklyn. A portion of her list of market prices (see chart on opposite page) shows not only what items cost but also suggests the type of staple foods Davis expected the typical workingman’s family to consume:

During the nutritional experiment—which was conducted in July of 1893—Davis modified the “bills of fare,” or daily menus, which she had laid out in Brooklyn. It was not always possible to find the foods she had planned in the groceries around Jackson Park, and “it was found on trial” that members of the family had their likes and dislikes: “e.g., the woman disliked cheese and the man would not eat salt pork.” All had a greater appetite for butter than anticipated.


Davis imposed strict standards of conduct on her subjects. No food was to be wasted; bones and meat scraps went into a stockpot for bean or cabbage soup, and “if the children took a piece of bread and butter more than they could eat, it was set aside for the bite they sometimes insisted upon between meals.” As a result of her careful weighing, Davis could report that “out of 412.35 pounds of food purchased, only eleven pounds were wasted.” Family members eating outside the planned regimen was discouraged, generally successfully. “The children were given candy several times by benevolent visitors, who thought them abused because they were deprived of sweet things for a whole month.” Usually these violations were discovered in time for Davis to coax the candy away and prevent transgressions. She was less successful with the footloose Columbian guard, who confessed to several cookies and a glass of milk while making a social call and, on another occasion, a plate of ice cream. The following are examples of the meals served in the workingman’s home: