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How To Raise A Family On $500 A Year
A REMARKABLE SOCIOLOGICAL EXPERIMENT SHOWED YOU COULD DO IT—IF YOU COULD STAND IT
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Each day’s bill of fare was carefully weighed, item by item, and Katharine Davis meticulously tabulated food values to the third decimal place. Family members were encouraged to eat all they wished at each mealtime, and they declared themselves satisfied with the food.
At the end of the twenty-eight-day food experiment Davis assembled her data and demonstrated that nutritional needs had been met within the budget allowance of 55 cents a day; in fact her daily expenditures averaged $0.539. In all, just over 400 pounds of food were consumed at a cost of $15.11. (Davis admitted to accepting gifts of some fly-specked apples—about five pounds—from the New York State horticultural exhibit.)
The practical results were only partially successful. The “family” members were re-examined by a physician and again declared in good health. The Columbian guard, who had not been entirely under supervision, had gained five pounds at the end of the month. The woman and children, who had been closely watched, showed mixed results. The mother lost three-quarters of a pound, and the children gained and lost weight within a similar margin. Katharine Davis was distressed that the children showed “no perceptible gain, since they were broken during the month of their bad habits of eating.” But she was pleased that the mother had showed only a small loss, “considering the circumstances under which she worked during the month. All the housework for a family of five persons, cooking, washing and ironing, et cetera, was necessarily carried on in the presence of from 500 to 2,000 persons daily.”
At first glance the methodical domestic science of Katharine Davis with its weigh-in and weigh-out of the workingman’s “family,” fine measurement of food elements, and specification of paints and finishes, seems inhuman. And Davis herself made no comprehensive claims for her approach. A classmate who visited her “in the blazing heat of Chicago” remembered her saying, “You could feed a workingman’s family on fiftyfour cents a day but it was a grave question whether you ought to do so.”
It was, as Katharine Davis put it, “obviously ridiculous” to look for the solution to all social questions in her model home. Returning home to Rochester, Davis was invited to address a meeting of the new Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. She stated that there were two ways to increase the value of a fraction: one could increase the numerator or decrease the denominator. For her own part, she believed in fair wages, labor organizations, and the like, but her line of work happened to lie in decreasing household expenses. This is all she had aimed at and this is what she had demonstrated so graphically in her Workingman’s Model Home.