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How To Raise A Family On $500 A Year

July 2024
10min read


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:


Having decided in favor of a detached house rather than an apartment, Davis asked architects and faculty members of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to draw up plans for a two-story frame cottage, 20 feet wide by 28 feet deep. The design of the house itself, as she would learn, seemed to excite more interest on the part of exhibit visitors than any other element of the experiment. Planned to fit the 25-foot-wide lot common in American cities, the modest dwelling contained, on the ground floor, a living room about 13 feet square, a slightly smaller kitchen, and a bath complete with tub and water closet. The upstairs contained a front bedroom about 11 by 13 feet, two somewhat smaller children’s bedrooms, and no plumbing. The floor plan contained 1,120 square feet overall and about 900 square feet of living space. The size was extremely spartan by the standards of affluent people in the 1890’s (but ironically close to that of new townhouses sold to the well-to-do in the Chicago of 1981). The experimental house offered little innovation in materials or design, but Katharine Davis and the Pratt designers were chiefly concerned with not exceeding the $1,000 limit which Davis had determined to be the average cost of such rental buildings.

Their exceptionally practical house had, however, certain features that fascinated visitors. For instance, proper sanitation was, with good cause, a preoccupation of the era, and, within the budget, room was found for indoor plumbing and “traps … of the best sort.” The kitchen sink and bathroom fixtures stood on opposite sides of the same wall to reduce plumbing costs. This arrangement offered the added dividend of close proximity between the bathtub and the kitchen range boiler, which saved the mother many steps with hot pails. The house was provided with ample windows for good ventilation, and Davis saw the living room fireplace chimney, which some may have criticized as a luxury, as another ventilator. Generous closet space, one of the house’s small amenities, provoked at least “one careful builder” to remark that “it is entirely unnecessary and too expensive to give a laboring man so many closets. ”


Other carefully thought-out details included the finishing of floors (paint wore better than stain), the use of paint rather than wallpaper (paint was more expensive but could be kept sanitary), and even the finish of the balustrade (oil was better than varnish as it did not show “every knock and scratch”). The house was to be heated by the kitchen range, the fireplace, and stoves. The $30 allotted in the family budget for fuel was to cover the cost of coal, wood, kerosene, or gas, for heat and light. The allowance appears ample for a period when anthracite coal was less than $2 per ton.

So popular was the simple design of the model house that copies of the plans sold briskly at 25 cents a set. To furnish the house, Davis allotted $300. The figure was partly arbitrary, of course, but she imagined the case of a young couple engaged to be married. Both worked, the laboring man at $500 a year; the woman, a house servant, at $3 a week and board. In two years, Davis imagined, these two could save $400, of which $100 would be set aside for a rainy day. The other $300 would go to furnishings. “Certainly, most young working people begin with less. We are imagining the ideal thing,” she wrote.

Davis demonstrated an imposing attention to detail in this branch of “ecology.” She divided expenditures into eight broad categories: sitting room furniture, front bedroom, back bedroom, house linen, bedding, kitchen furniture, tableware, and kitchen utensils. Lists of what everything had cost were posted at appropriate places in the exhibit. Below are two brief samples:


The total came to $291.38, nearly nine dollars below budget. In choosing furniture, Davis emphasized durability, simplicity, and plainness. Two single iron bedsteads were better than a wooden double one, even though they cost more, because “they will last a lifetime and can easily be kept clean.” Besides, “single beds are much more healthful and are particularly desirable for hard-working people who need to sleep undisturbed, as the restlessness of one will not then trouble the other.”

The same attention to detail was spent on clothing. Here the problems included normal wear and tear and the budgetary limit of $100 per year. Since almost all outer garments except those purchased for the man and boy were to be made by the woman, Katharine Davis’ lists contained mostly bills for material. For example:


Similarly, Davis meticulously priced all needed clothing for man, woman, and—adding a fourth child—a girl of ten years, a boy of eight years, a girl of five years, and a baby, estimated the expected life-span of each garment, and figured an annual cost. The five-yearold was very inexpensive, most of her clothing being made over from the mother’s and sister’s castoffs. A yearly cost for the baby was not calculated, his outfit being treated as a one-year expense (one dozen new diapers @ $0.96, one dozen old diapers @ $0.00, six slips @ $1.34, etc.). The summary of clothing for the family was only slightly over budget: Cost for 1 year Man $ 29.21


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:

Breakfast —Oatmeal mush with milk and sugar; bread and butter Dinner —Corned beef; cabbage; boiled potatoes; bread and butter Supper —Corn meal mush and milk; corned beef hash; bread and butter Breakfast —Oatmeal with milk and sugar; bread and butter; coffee Dinner —Beef stew; raw onions cut up with vinegar; boiled potatoes; bread Supper —Milk toast; tea with milk and sugar

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.

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