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Feeding The Family For $1.37 Per Day

July 2024
1min read

Dr. Barnes’s article “How to Raise a Family on $500 a year” in the December issue directed my attention to a book in my library with quite the same subject. Copyrighted 1887 (some six years before the Chicago World’s Fair and the work done on the model home by Katharine Davis), Family Living on $500 a Year by a Juliet Corson and published by Harper and Brothers, Franklin Square. New York, is a Daily Reference-Book for Young and Inexperienced Housewives.”

The preface’reveals that the book is based on a series of articles in Harper’s Bazar and certainly reveals a much less austere diet for the middle-class family of that time. A few figures and comments, liberally taken from this text, show that these families were not quite at the “boiled cabbage, bare existence status revealed in your article. Excerpts follow:

“1. The average income of the prosperous American household of the medium range of intelligence and culture will be from $1,500 to $2,000 a year.

“2. Figuring the lower value of $1,500 per year, average rent to be $25 per month, and the table should not consume more than 1/3 the total income, or some $500 per year. Fuel would cost about $8 per month, a single servant’s wage at $12 per month. Household wear and tear and medical attendance would be covered by $100 per year. Church dues, literature and amusement would require at least $60 a year, leaving $300 a year for clothing.”

The balance of the book—some four hundred pages—then focuses on the $1.37 per day (or $500 a year) for food. For this amount a typical menu is given: “We shall prepare for the daily dinner some such variety as … Soup, or a fish with Potatoes. Two vegetables with a sauce, or one entrée and one vegetable. Roast, baked, or broiled meat, poultry, or game, or boiled or braised meat, with a sauce. Salad with cheese. One large sweet dish or two small ones. Fruit, nuts, coffee.”

Many of the menus and recipes sound quite delicious and would be quite acceptable at today’s table.

One must realize that this 1887 work described that level of population earning three to four times that of the industrial worker described by Dr. Barnes; said worker probably could not have afforded to read Harper’s Bazar let alone keep a servant.

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