Chapter 2, Bill Sharp © April 1, 2020
The end of World War I was a turning point for Borsodi. There was a considerable economic downturn after the war. There was a housing shortage in New York City, rents skyrocketed, and evictions were common. Borsodi had a small salary ($50 per week), little capital and two children. He set out to find:
“… [a] location near the railroad station because we had no automobile; five to ten acres of land with fruit trees, garden space, pasturage, a woodlot and if possible, a brook; a location where electricity was available, and last but not least, a low purchase price.
There is little doubt that Borsodi was influenced by Bolton Hall’s two books, Three Acres and Liberty (1907) and A Little Land and Living (1908). Those books were widely read, and new editions were published after World War I. While those books were influential, as we will see, Borsodi also had his own ideas.
Bolton Hall (1854 – 1938) was an attorney who worked with the poor and labor organizations and was active in the Progressive and Georgist movements. He was a founder of the Longshoreman Union. Hall was born and spent his early years in Ireland and always had a strong accent. His father was a prominent Presbyterian minister in New York City. He attended Princeton and Colombia Law School.
George was an anti-statist in terms of the ideals of Americans Jefferson, Paine, Emerson and Thoreau, the English arts and crafts leader William Morris and the Russian Leo Tolstoy. He believed in small, collaborative communities. He wrote 20 books and is credited with coining the “back-to-the-land” slogan.
Hall started an urban agriculture program prior to 1908, the Vacant Lot Gardening Association in New York City, that had about 200 members. He obtained permission for a 30-acre property from the Astor estate for a short while.
In 1909 he made a trip to Europe to study vacant land gardening and found local political authorities supportive. In Germany he found municipalities acquiring land and renting small parcels for gardening. As a successor to the Astor property, Hall sought a training farm “within 90 minutes of NYC” as a school of small farming. He had a number of well-known backers including J. P. Morgan.
Hall established the Little Land League to acquire property. In 1910 he deeded 68 acres of land he owned to establish Free Acres at Berkeley Heights, New Jersey (33 miles west of New York City). Free Acres, it should be noted, was one a number of experimental communities in the US at the time. It was initially a summer retreat for about 30 residents before World War I, but the number grew to about 50 after the war. Most were New York liberals (and radicals). It was a camping ground with amenities-- a pool, tennis court, baseball field and an open-air theater.
Hall followed George’s principle of putting land into trust. Originally, residents could lease one-quarter to one-acre plots on an annual basis. Starting in the 1930s, as more permanent houses were built, residents leased land for 99 years, and leases were renewable starting in the 1960s. Residents owned their own homes and paid a single fee (tax) on the land but not on improvements such as buildings. However, local municipalities did tax improvements and the community established its own local taxing system in 1936, which disappointed Hall. Today, there are now 85 homes on 75 acres. As the surrounding area became more urban, taxes went up, sewer, garbage and other municipal services were established. It is an upper middle-class professional community today, but the land is still held in trust by the Hall estate.
Three Acres and Liberty
In Three Acres and Liberty, Hall proposed a local food economy based on urban gardens and small farms located around cities. Hall was first and foremost a Georgist. George’s thesis, as noted, was that land should be put into public trust and made available for small farms. He saw return to the land a cure for urban poverty. At the beginning of the century still about half the population of the US lived on farms or in small towns but industrialization had been drawing them into the cites for work. The cities also drew masses of immigrants. Many city dwellers lived in poverty if not in squalor. The serious economic panic of 1873 established a recurrent pattern to industrialization: There were recessions every few years lasting an average of over a year in duration that produced sporadic unemployment and increased poverty in the cities.
The Panic of 1893 set a number of reform efforts in motion, including Vacant Lot Cultivation. That program started in Detroit and spread to 20 cities across the country. The lots were 1/5 to 1/4 acre (quite large for gardens). Hall also wrote about the Philadelphia program, started in 1897 and he considered it a model. It started with one hundred families on 27 acres. Given the unskilled labor, hardly any capital, and small plots of poor soil, the results were impressive. He reported a 1/5 acre garden yielded 30 bushels of potatoes, four of turnips, one of carrots, 30 gallons of sauerkraut, 15 gallons catsup, five gallons pickled beans, 100 quarters canned tomatoes, 50 of corn, 20 of beans, 1,000 or more fine celery stalks, etc. By 1903 there were 800 families tilling 200 acres in Philadelphia. Hall believed urban gardens could produce a fair income in local markets.
Hall also encouraged city dwellers to start small farms near the city to supply local markets – truck farms. These farms should be located no more than 15–20 miles from the nearest city and on good roads. He recommended three to five-acre mini-farms. If well tilled, the small farm could produce enough food for a family of five on about 2/5 acre. Actually, he wrote, not much time was required to do this. He had a lot of advice about what and how to plant these truck and kitchen gardens.
For the market, he said an acre could produce 250–400 bushels of potatoes. He wrote that such a lot could be turned by horse (140 hours of work) or by hand (250 hours). His advice included hotbeds and greenhouses, fruit trees, livestock, bees, mushrooms, flowers, drug plants, novel livestock, canning and drying – a complete workbook. He made the case that farmers could make a living income from these small farms.
A Little Land and Living
Ralph Borsodi’s father William became friends with Bolton Hall. He encouraged Hall to write a sequel to Three Acres. It came out the following year as A Little Land and Living. William wrote a long letter that was included as the first chapter of the book. In it, he said he had been following Henry George for 35 years. (He had been in American only about a decade so he must have started this interest in Hungary; but then, George’s Progress and Poverty had been widely published internationally.)
William made a case against the slums and lower quality of life of city living and argued for a return to the healthy and productive life on the land. He cited several railroad executives and Henry Ford who supported his cause. The argument was that a small farm is a refuge from business stagnation, offers a healthy outdoor life, and provides a productive and comfortable home. It should be noted that William had sent a long open letter with similar arguments to the US Secretary of Agriculture in 1906 that was cited in over 500 newspapers. There was, however, a lot of resistance to going back to the farm, so William asked Hall to make another statement in support of taking up life on a small plot of land.
Hall opened his book once again with gardening as a start towards the farm life. He stressed economic production and noted that the 200 acres of vacant lot gardening in Philadelphia had produced $40,000 in crops. Even a small garden of 100x150 feet could feed a family of five. He also noted that the cost of food was steadily rising. He provided long lists of facts about production on small farms. He encouraged a higher density of cultivation that could feed several families per acre. He further emphasized much of the practical advice from Three Acres.
One spinoff of this book was a Little Landers, small-scale cooperative farm, in San Ysidro (near San Diego), California. It was started by William E. Smythe in 1908. By 1912 the colony had about 100 families. A second colony was started in 1913. Alas, however, the climate and soil proved too harsh and the experiment failed. A Bolton Hall Museum was left there as a legacy.
Ralph Borsodi decided to take Hall’s advice at least in part. His objective was a self-reliant family homestead, not a market farm, but he kept his job in the city. The Borsodi family moved into Sevenacres (“We landed in the country on April 1st”), the name they gave to the small farm near Suffern, New York, in 1920. It was a short walk to a train station. The place had a rundown but livable old house (no plumbing, no gas, no electricity, no steam heat), a solid barn and a chicken house in collapse. There was a fruit orchard with apples, cherries and plums. They had no knowledge, few skills and limited resources to start with.
They planted a garden, rebuilt the chicken house and began to fix up the farmhouse--on-the-job training in carpentry. The family set about to teach themselves to be “jacks-of-all-trades”. They poured over USDA bulletins on raising poultry (a list of which is provided in Borsodi’s 1933 homesteading handbook, Flight From the City). They incubated their own eggs for a flock of about 100 chickens. They learned to caponize cockerels. Eventually they added Peking ducks, guineas and turkeys to their flock. They bought a cow but found it produced too much milk. While there was a demand for their surplus, they found it not worth the trouble to bottle and sell milk. They sold the cow and bought two off-breed goats that provided ample good milk. They learned to make butter and homemade ice cream.
They brought in electricity for lights and replaced an antiquated oil stove with an electric range. They put in a good well with an electric pump. Borsodi was delighted with the economy of their water system and their off-peak hot water heater. After careful study they installed an efficient septic system. They bought more tools and appliances for the purpose of eliminating drudgery and saving time.
In 1920 a series of severe and long-lasting economic recessions began. The Borsodis, by 1921, were feeling far more secure than when they lived in the city. Borsodi knew that if he should lose his job in city the family farm could readily provide their basic needs.
An Experimental Homestead
There was, however, much more to Borsodi’s agenda. Borsodi clearly had a mission. We don’t really know exactly how it all came about but we can piece it together. First of all, Borsodi’s father was a passionate Georgist. From at least age 15, Ralph was also a leader in the Georgist movement. He knew Hall well. And he was developing a personal philosophy of life founded on American agrarian and democratic traditions. He was highly innovated and had an experimental mind.
After four years at Sevenacres and learning the ropes of homesteading, Borsodi decided to expand the enterprise. He bought a larger property nearby. They needed a house, so Ralph decided to build one from scratch. Rockland County was named, or so the locals said, from the abundant rocks in the fields. They used a then-popular technique for building with stone developed by Ernest Flagg. Frames were made and the local, glacial rounded, stones were set in mortar. The house was built entirely with amateur labor--skills acquired on the job. They called it Dogwoods for the surrounding trees. The Dogwoods house still stands, in excellent repair and as sturdy as the day it was built.
Dogwoods became a working laboratory where Borsodi strived to improve the attraction of homesteading by reducing the drudgery of labor, escaping dependence on markets, and establishing a more self-sufficient and satisfying life for families. He summarized the experience in these words:
“ … [W]e built three houses and a barn from stones picked up on our place; we weave suitings, blankets, carpets and draperies; we make some of our own clothing; we do all of our own laundry work; we grind flour, corn meal, and breakfast cereals; we have our own workshops, including a printing plant; and we have a swimming-pool, tennis-court, and even a billiard room.”
The Borsodis invited friends from the city to spend weekends to learn gardening and building and to prepare them to start their own homesteads. In short, Borsodi started a school. He taught skills but obviously had a broader agenda: a philosophy of life lived well on the land. He was troubled by the economic, social and psychological effects of massive industrialization not only on the economy but the conduct of life.
Borsodi as Advocate
While at Dogwoods, during the 1920s, Borsodi wrote four books. The first was related to his business, a handbook on accounting to aid small businesses. He then wrote to express his distaste for inefficiency, injustice, environmental degradation and the aesthetic destruction of the industrial economy. Two of these books were about consumer advocacy: National Advertising Versus Prosperity (1923) and The Distribution Age (1927). Both of these books were for popular audiences. They are readable and mild-mannered. They describe how the American consumer market works. Both of them are still more or less relevant to this day. Saying that, over the last century we have witnessed important changes in the way the market works. These two books will be reviewed in the next chapter, and the following chapter will provide some social and economic context for the ‘20s that puts this into perspective.
The fourth book, This Ugly Civilization (1929, republished 2019 with a new introduction by me) has a very different message. It is radical and revolutionary. In two short years, between 1927 (The Distribution Age) and 1929 Borsodi’s mission in life took a dramatic change. This Ugly Civilization is Borsodi’s manifesto for cultural change. It is not about reforming the economy, it is about transforming it. It promotes a major back-to-the-land message.
Borsodi saw American capitalism moving towards collapse and he found urban, industrial civilization, a product of a so-called “century of progress” “appalling, dehumanizing, and ugly.” For Borsodi, mass production industry served its own ends, not human needs. Industry wasted valuable resources. Advertising sought to create an artificial demand for products, and is deceptive and misleading. Distribution chains added cost to products. Labor became degraded, the factory a “repetitive treadmill.” He found it inexcusable that the factory system had become the dominant American culture.
Borsodi also proposes a systematic educational program to prepare people for evolutionary cultural change. In This Ugly Civilization, he introduced an educational framework for developing what he might call the spiritual, the intellectual and the emotional side of life. He called it quality mindedness. It is an integral part of his overall philosophy. This Ugly Civilization will get its own chapter, but first let’s talk about being on the land.
The Land in our Soul
There is something special about the ownership of a little land that appeals to something deep in our nature as human beings. Jefferson and Emerson saw living on the land as fundamental to a transcendent way of life and the foundation of a truly democratic society.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the champion of self-reliance, made his own flight from the city (from Boston to Concord – a place settled by his ancestors two centuries before) after seeing the appalling social consequences of the emerging industrial revolution during a visit to England in 1933. But the rural sentiment was already there. In his journal, an entry made in his youth, in 1822, Emerson perhaps said it best:
“Agriculture is the venerable mother of all the arts and the foundation, among them, of civilized society. For this first banded men together, to make conventions for the security of property, and this also will last the longest, because when the world is too full for pasture or hunting, men must still derive their whole subsistence from the ground. ... A reputation for solid qualities of mind has been conceded to the husbandman by universal consent. He is deemed trustworthy, reflective, substantial, and pious headstrong perchance in his bigotries, but for like reason firm [and] constant in his affections and principles.”
Towards the end of his life, in his book Society and Solitude, Emerson added:
“The glory of the farmer is that, in the division of labors, it is his part to create. All trade rests at last on his primitive activity. He stands close to Nature; he obtains from the earth the bread and the meat. The food which was not, he causes to be. The first farmer was the first man, and all historic nobility rests on possession and use of land. Men do not like hard work, but every man has an exceptional respect for tillage, and a feeling that this is the original calling of his race, that he himself is only excused from it by some circumstance which made him delegate it for a time to other hands. If he has not some skill which recommends him to the farmer, some product for which the farmer will give him corn, he must himself return into his due place among the planters. And the profession has in all eyes its ancient charm, as standing nearest to God, the first cause.
“Then the beauty of Nature, the tranquility and innocence of the countryman, his independence and his pleasing arts—the care of bees, of poultry, of sheep, of cows, the dairy, the care of hay, of fruits, of orchards and forests, and the reaction of these on the workman, in giving him a strength and plain dignity like the face and manners of Nature—all men acknowledge.
There had also been an extended economic downturn in the US at the time Emerson left Boston for the countryside; much the same as at the time Borsodi left New York City.
Thoreau’s Walden gives as a virtual scriptural reverence for living on one’s own, on a little patch of land in the woods. It is also a serious critique of the country’s move towards industrialization.
Ray Stannard Baker, a renowned populist journalist and contemporary of Borsodi, under the pen name of David Grayson, wrote a bestselling series of fictionalized accounts, during the early 1900s, of his own flight from New York City to a small farm in Michigan. In the introduction of his Adventures in Contentment he wrote:
“I have been engaged in three different kinds of farming, the first being the simple cultivation of the soil and the production of enough corn, buckwheat and lesser crops to satisfy the small demands of my household, the second being a more or less sedulous farming of myself.
“And finally, with some instruction and not a little amusement of a quiet sort, I have farmed with the plow of a perennial admiration, and inquisitiveness, all that world, both of men and of nature, which lies so pleasantly around me. By using my farm not as an end, but as a tool, I have cultivated with diligence all the greater fields of life which I have been able to reach.
Clifford D. Simak, who created a genre called “pastoral science fiction”, in his own way imaginatively fleeing life in the city and returning to the small farm on which he grew up, wrote often of the quiet and simple life of the land. In his award-winning series of short stories about the end of the city era in a then not too distant future, he perhaps captured the inner meaning:
“And here was the end result. A quiet living. A peace that could only come with good things. The sort of life that men had yearned for years to have. A manorial existence, based on old family homes and leisurely acres … .”
Simak’s stories follow a family, the Websters, on their country estate through a number of generations. He added, from the perspective of this long tenure on a piece of land:
“Maybe the rest of it had grown, grown gradually through the years, through years of family association until the very soil was soaked with something that approached, but wasn’t quite, tradition. Something that made each tree, each rock, each foot of soil a Webster tree or rock or clod of soil. It all belonged.”
Simak time and again took his stories to a little farm on a ridge overlooking a river, as did his family’s farm, to enchanted forests and to villages peopled by very ordinary folk.
Renowned America architect Frank Lloyd Wright created his fabulous Taliesin on a hilltop just a short distance up the Wisconsin River from the farm where Simak grew up. Like Simak, Wright spent his youth on the family farm there and developed a quality of character that he said defined his life. During the Great Depression Wright set up his architectural school at Taliesin and with his students produced their food from the rich surrounding land. That practice continues to this day.
Inspired by Borsodi, Scott and Helen Nearing, well known to many, took their own flight to a small homestead in Vermont where they gave chapter and verse to “the good life.” (The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing's Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living)
Under English common law, upon which our American tradition is founded, we have the notion that a “man’s home is his castle”, embodying the ideal that our little bit of this Good Earth is an inviolable refuge. The doctrine applied not just to the landed gentry but also to every smallholder of the land. One English writer in the late sixteenth century, put it this way: "He [the householder] is the appointer of his owne circumstance, and his house is his castle."
A delightful book of insights about country living is Stephanie Kraft’s No Castle on Main Street: American Authors and Their Homes. She wrote about not only where they lived and wrote but also about how they grew up, most of them in small towns and on farms. They lived close to the land, to the cycles of nature, and with neighbors. Those early experiences shaped American literature. Many of the authors wrote affectionately about their experience in an earlier time. A few were less charitable.
Hal Borland, a popular twentieth century naturalist, wrote often about his garden and farm between a river and a rural road in western Connecticut. He grew up on a homestead in Colorado, worked as a journalist and settled back into an idyllic life on the land.
Eric Sloane, an artist, published a number a beautifully illustrated books of Americana. The Eric Sloane museum, also located in western Connecticut not far from where Borland lived, contains Sloane’s studio and a collection of early American tools and artifacts.
The literature about living well on the land is large and timeless. It appeals to something in our soul and in our DNA.
As stated in This Ugly Civilization and earlier works Borsodi wanted to transform the economy. He sought to transfer production from factories to the home – not all factories but rather the two-thirds of them he considered not essential. He believed family production would virtually eliminate farming for cash crops and the packing houses, mills and canneries that went with that market, not to mention railroads and other transportation, wholesalers and retailers.
In This Ugly Civilization he gave a report on his homesteading experiment. With the Great Depression his work on homesteading brought him a degree of celebrity. It was probably the most popular part of the book and was serialized in a popular national magazine. As a result, Borsodi’s publisher asked him to produce a manual on homesteading, which he did in 1933 with the publication of Flight From the City. In it, Borsodi gave a good account of jumping into the unknown world of small farming, writing how they made an adventure of it and how enthusiastic his wife, Myrtle Mae, was.
In Flight From The City, Borsodi devoted five chapters to domestic production in which he detailed how they learned to provide for themselves and gave a careful account of the cost benefit. His expertise in cost accounting and financial management enabled him to methodically investigate the efficiency of everything they did on the homestead. The insights he gained over the course of twelve years of experience helped him systematize the practice of homesteading. Following the introductory chapter, “Domestic Production” are:
· Food, Pure Food, and Fresh Food
· The Loom and the Sewing-machine
· Water, Hot Water, and Waste Water
I will focus on the first three of these. I will also outline key points to his chapters on “Capital,” “Security vs. Insecurity,” and “Independence vs. Dependence.”
Domestic food production began for the Borsodis with canning fruits and vegetables. They had an ample garden for producing fresh food in season and for canning. Myrtle Mae bought a rather expensive pressure canner and set about to produce 400 quarts annually of canned fruits, vegetables and meats, enough to easily carry the family through the winter.
When Borsodi attached a used electric motor to a small grist mill to grind flour and animal feed he found that the cost per pound of home-milled flour was one-quarter of that purchased in a store. They also ground their own cornmeal for less than one-fifth the market cost. Whole grain breadstuffs became the centerpiece of the homestead table.
Borsodi kept exacting records of the time and costs of canning and preserving their food. This included time spent raising the food (or purchasing it in bulk) and all the details that went into the process such as initial cost for the purchase of canning jars and maintenance. He concluded that the cost of producing food at home was 20 – 30% lower than the price of factory-made products. In short, it took less time to produce food at home than it would to earn the wages to buy it. As noted, Borsodi had carefully analyzed factory production, advertising, and distribution in two of his books. Their homestead experiment put his theories to the test, and they were found to be sound.
Borsodi made a case not only for the lower cost of food produced at home but also for its better quality. He was an early health food advocate. Before leaving the city, he had attributed a wide range of health issues to processed foods, so the family stopped eating processed foods. The health benefits of consuming fresh food over factory-processed, “pre-digested” stuff was even then obvious. The Borsodis were pioneers in organic gardening, and this work became a foundation of the organic/health food movement of today.. They were also getting ample exercise in the clean open air of the countryside, living closer to nature, and became noticeably more relaxed and content.
A loom being central to their home production, Borsodi created a special room for it in his home architectural plans. Borsodi’s father may have been the inspiration for home weaving; he had told Ralph of a tradition in Hungary of making their own sheets and linens, which lasted for decades, as opposed to factory linens which Borsodi noted had to be bought every other year or so.
They bought a loom that wove 44-inch wide cloth, a four-harness loom that provided a greater range of design. With the added flying shuttle, they could produce a yard of cloth per hour. It took only seven yards of cloth to make a three-piece suit which Borsodi was proud of. For a suit or overcoat, the cost including yarn, weaving time and home tailoring, came to much less than what you would pay in Manhattan for a store-bought item of lesser quality and durability, let alone a comparable professionally tailored item. They wove blankets, wall hangings and draperies. They bought a good sewing machine, and Myrtle Mae wrote an article about making her own suit with fabric she had woven using a Vogue pattern modified to her taste. There is a picture of Myrtle Mae in a very nice wool coat made of the cloth she wove. Years later, after the School of Living was formed, a division was set up to manufacture looms with the School of Living label.
The house the Borsodis acquired at Sevenacres was very old. It had hand-hewn timbers assembled with wooden pins. It had no modern amenities. Borsodi devoted a year, full-time, to remodeling the house, learning to use his tools as we went. Borsodi then started building furniture with lumber made from chestnut trees that had been killed by blight.
Remodeling the new building included implementing innovations in the water system. Borsodi used an electric pump for the well to supply fresh water and installed an electric hot water heater. He also, as noted, constructed an up-to-date septic system. And he gave an accounting of the ample savings compared to using public utilities. At the time, much of rural America lacked electricity. It should also be noted that today when houses are built on agricultural zoning, water wells and septic systems, much as he developed, are still common.
As described previously, Borsodi then took on a major homebuilding project at Dogwoods. Dogwoods is no mere farmhouse; it is an elegant structure – more like a manor house – built on a hilltop. It was not only a dwelling but a living place with library, pool room, shops, loom room, pantries – everything you need to pursue the self-sufficient homestead life.
While E. F. Schumacher, 35 years later, got the credit for “appropriate technology,” Borsodi pioneered the idea. I’ve outlined some of what he did in the 1920s about which he wrote:
“Machinery enabled us to eliminate drudgery; it furnished us skills which we did not possess, and it reduced the costs of production both in terms of money and in terms of labor. Not only do we use machines to pump our water, to do our laundry, to run our refrigerator – we use them to produce food, to produce clothing, to produce shelter.”
After providing a working description of homesteading, Borsodi made the case for getting started, for acquiring land. It only takes a down payment. Sevenacres cost $4,000, for which Borsodi paid down $400 and paid off at $50 per month. He had been paying $65 per month in rent. In today’s dollars, these values would be: $55,000, $635 and $825 respectively.
Their investments in an electric range and a pressure cooker was the equivalent of roughly $1,000 in current dollars. They also invested in their poultry, the garden, bought tools, an electric water pump, hardware and building supplies. Borsodi gave a detailed account of all of these expenses which came to $1,000 1920 value, $13,000 in current dollars.
In short it does take capital to start a homestead. It requires some outside income for at least a year. He did not give up his city job and he advocated home business and industry to supplement the family budget. But the most important ingredient in the equation is what Borsodi called “the degree to which the family is willing to endure pioneering.”
Security Versus Insecurity
Borsodi’s case rests on personal and family economic security. As noted, they started their homestead during post World War I economic insecurity. They developed it during the Roaring Twenties boom. With the Great Depression of 1929, they had a model homestead and security.
At the nadir of the Great Depression, nearly a third of those normally employed were out of work. They and their families represented over 37 million people affected by unemployment. Those with access to farmland when the Great Depression started had some security. Many left the city to return to family farms but that was an option for relatively few. This supported Borsodi’s case for personal security on a small piece of land.
Independence Versus Dependence
The Hoover administration did little to provide relief during the Great Depression, which started at the beginning of his presidency; instead encouraging local initiatives. Franklin Roosevelt made relief his mission. However, for Borsodi, relief was not the answer; for him, relief was dependence, and his personal philosophy was independence. Relief was intended to just wait out the economic downturn. But it had been going on for years and appeared to be deepening. Dependence and despair went hand in glove.
In the second edition of Flight From the City Borsodi described his work to establish homesteading communities around Dayton, Ohio It was clear to him that a plan was needed to get people back to the land, to provide them with the means to achieve economic independence, restore their pride and dignity, and bring the country back to life. It would prove to be a turning point in his life’s work as we will see in the following chapters.
Over the years both of the Borsodis produced a number of articles, pamphlets and booklets about homesteading. Myrtle Mae was the driving force behind domestic production. She grew up on a farm and understood self-sufficient living. She had the requisite skills in the garden and kitchen. She became a champion of domestic production and received numerous invitations to speak. The University of New Hampshire holds the following articles by Myrtle Mae Borsodi:
· "A Full-Time Job At Home," New York Herald Tribune Home Institute, Nov 24, 1929
· "Home And Children," New York Herald Tribune Home Institute, Jan 5, 1930
· "Women and Machines," Advertising & Selling, Nov 26 and Dec 10, 1930
· "The Home Laundry Earns Money," Electrical Merchandising, Feb 1931
· "Earning An Electrical Kitchen," Electrical Merchandising, Apr 1931
· "Our Electrical Household Equipment Paid For Itself," An address delivered before the Women's Committee Session of the Fifty-fourth Convention of the National Electric Light Association, Atlantic City, New Jersey, Jun 9, 1931
· "Cleaning...An Unavoidable Task," Electrical Merchandising, Jul 1931
· "The Ironer Is Hot," Electrical Merchandising, Sep 1931
· "Cheaper and Cleaner," Electrical Merchandising, Nov 1931
· "Weaving One's Own Clothing," The Handicrafter, Mar - Apr 1932
· "Two Dollars Grow Where One Grew Before," The Silent Hostess, Vol. 4, No. 5, 1932,
· "My Home Is My Career," The Silent Hostess, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1932
· "The Argument Laundries Cannot Meet," Electrical Merchandising, Mar 1935
· "Food Costs and Range Sales," Electrical Merchandising, Apr 1935
· "The Cost of Feeding A Family," Electrical Merchandising, May 1935
· "Dough in the Range," Electrical Merchandising, Apr 1936
· "Shall We Build Homes Or Apartments?" Advertising & Selling, May 7, 1936
· "What Should the Home Contribute?" Journal of Home Economics, Vol. 28, No. 6, Jun 1936
· "For Budgeteers," Electrical Merchandising, Jun 1936
· "Cutting Laundry Costs," New York Herald Tribune Home Institute, Oct 4, 1936
· "The Modernized Old Homestead...And What It Can Do For The Electrical Industry," Electrical Merchandising, Feb 1937
· "The New Woman Goes Home," Scribner's Magazine, Vol. CI No.2, Feb 1937
· "The Kitchen That Pays For Itself", Electrical Merchandising, May 1937
· "Discovering Self-Sufficient Farming," Electrical Ruralist, Vol. 1, No. 1, May 1937
· "Home Laundry Earns Money," Electrical Merchandising, May 1937
· "Bread Baking Electrically and Making Money," Electrical Ruralist, Jun 1937
· "Oven Cooking," Electrical Ruralist, Jul 1937
· "Home Canning Made Easy," Electrical Merchandising, Aug 1937
· "Sweet Dough Baking Profits," Electrical Ruralist, Oct 1937
· "Cutting The Cost of Thanksgiving Dinners," Electrical Ruralist, Nov 1937
· "The Cost of Running Water," Electrical Merchandising, Mar 1938
· "Home Laundry Costs vs Commercial Laundry," Electrical Merchandising, Apr 1938
· "Are Housewives Slaves: A Debate - I. The Sisyphean Struggle (by Sara S. Moser); II. Creative Freedom (by Mrs. Ralph Borsodi)," The Forum, Sept 1938
· "The Facts On Home Laundry Savings..." Electrical Merchandising, Nov 1938
"Making Household Equipment Pays Its Way," Seventh International Management Congress, 1938, pp.40-43 (offprint). Undated manuscript of an article on the comparative cost of using a commercial laundry vs. doing the laundry at home, 6pp
She contributed to a series of Homesteading Bulletins, each about a domestic art, of which we have the following list (Ralph wrote the first three):
How to Economize …
1. In Building Your Home
2. In Financing and Construction of Your Homes
3. In Buying Land for Your Home
4. On Laundry
5. On Bread, Cake and pastry: A Manual on Baking at Home
6. On Four and Breakfast Foods: A Manual on Milling at home
7. In Buying Food: A Manual on Storage and Refrigeration
8. On Fruit: A Manual on Fruit Growing
9. On Vegetables: A Manual on Gardening
10. On Canned, Bottled and Preserved Foods: A manual on Canning and preserving
11. On Milk and Cream: A Manual on the Home Dairy
12. On Butter: A Manual on Butter making
13. By Sewing at Home
14. By Weaving at Home
15. By Knitting at Home
Each of these “How to Economize” publications is a finely printed pamphlet of 9x12” with ample illustrations. They sold for a quarter each and many were sold.
With the feminist movement of the 1960s, both Ralph and Myrtle Mae came under considerable criticism; Ralph simply for being a white male, Myrtle Mae (by then deceased) for being unapologetic about the domestic arts. The debate started in the 1930s. During the mid-‘30s Myrtle Mae wrote two articles about the role of women in the home. The first of these was "The New Woman Goes Home," in Scribner's Magazine, February 1937.
Women had only received the vote in 1920 in the US. During the ‘20s many women sought work outside of the home, looking for personal independence through careers. Myrtle Mae demonstrated that it takes less work to produce the necessities of life at home than by earning a wage, particularly for a woman. With the Great Depression, women’s earning potential dropped significantly. With Borsodi’s detailed calculations, Myrtle Mae showed that she “earned” twice as much from her time preserving food at home as compared to buying it commercially.
Country life was also wholesome. She was at home with her family (the Borsodis homeschooled their two sons).
In "Are Housewives Slaves: A Debate - I. The Sisyphean Struggle” (by Sara S. Moser); and II., “Creative Freedom” (by Mrs. Ralph Borsodi)," in The Forum, September 1938, we find a dialog between the two women. Moser considered women who were confined to homemaking to be captive in a primitive form of slavery, that not only men but women, too, and women’s media exhorted women to stay at home. There was a prevalent attitude that women were culturally and intellectually inferior.
Myrtle Mae responded with three challenges to Moser. First, that homemaking was not just instinct but choice, citing feminist Ellen Key, “’the problem of women was not that of enlarging her sphere, but that of ennobling it.” She considered homemaking to be a noble career. Second, what may be true of some women, such as Moser, Myrtle Mae believed not true of women in general: “Women are feminine, maternal, and domestic to varying degrees.” Third, regarding homework as a “Sisyphean struggle,” that is, endless slavery, Myrtle Mae asked, “Is work in a laboratory any different, let alone an office, store or factory?” “How few, men or women find careers that are creative, fulfilling?” Along this line, Myrtle Mae noted that childbearing does not constrain as much as open a woman’s life. Children are part of the family and of the family economy.
Myrtle Mae continued rhetorical questions such as: “What do women do with more leisure time? Do they use it creatively or just find ways to fill it?” She pointed out that to save four hours a week on laundry means 250,000 women working long grueling days in steam laundries. She argued that although domestic work does not draw a wage, it produces more wealth than time spent working outside the home. Work at home is productive and it can be creative.
“If the women of America would take back into their homes the creative and productive crafts which they should never have abandoned, and if they would use modern appliances and efficient methods in working these crafts, not only would they add enormously to the comfort, happiness, and prosperity of their families, not only would they find new arts and crafts in which to express themselves, but their addition to the productive forces of the nation would help more to ensure prosperity and to stabilize industry than anything else to which they might devote themselves.”
Myrtle Mae was not alone in her arguments for domestic economy. Indeed, appliance manufacturers were making the case for reducing drudgery at home to make homemaking attractive. A much larger share of people then lived a more traditional life in rural areas, many on farms. And this was the depth of the Great Depression. Homemaking became a mass market fad following World War II. On the balance, however, Sara Moser got it right. Dual income families became the norm in the US, new industries sprung up to provide care for preschool children, dry cleaners and laundries, day working housekeepers, and meals that were procured away from home became increasingly common. It has become a busy life for families. Self-sufficient, homesteading families seem to be very rare today. Have we really evaluated what has been gained and lost in the process?