Eric Sloane

Dateline: 9 January 2014

Painting by Eric Sloane
(click for larger view)

Once upon a time, believe it or not, America was frugal. While most nations of the world were setting sail in search of treasure and plundering foreign lands for gold, the New World countryside was developing a philosophical religion of not wasting and being satisfied with what God affords those who work for it. Being content with no more than was needed became an early American trait, almost a national creed. One ancient farm almanac said it in rhyme: “The devil damns the man who lives by greed, Jehovah loves the man who only fills his need.”

Without greed, the early American and his farmstead were a noble monument to thrift. It might not have appeared so to the average European because there was such evidence of wealth here; there were enormous well-stocked barns, some even larger than the European tithe-barns owned by the church and the lords who collected taxes in hay or grain. Simple outbuildings were built with massive beams to last for centuries and farm dwellings were overflowing with all the necessities of life. But there was nothing unnecessary, nothing not worth saving and not a thing was wasted. Every chair, each table and rug, every dish and each tiny household item was carefully chosen, well designed and made by hand to be saved for future generations. How unlike our life today!

Waste, which was once-upon-a-time deplorable, has now become almost fashionable as a national habit. We often waste more in one month than the average old-timer saved during his lifetime. Waste was once considered bad manners, the mark of a fool and something quite un-American. Some of us have been fooled into the theory that the more we waste, the more we need to buy and so waste therefore aids the national economy—a sort of economic pursuit.” 

Would you believe it, once-upon-a-time there was no such thing as garbage as we now know it: old dictionaries listed the word garbage as “the entrails of animals.” At the same time there was no such thing as junk as we now know it for old dictionaries listed the word junk as “adds and ends of rope.” George Washington would find it hard to believe that “the entrails of animals” would some day become varied waste matter costing the nation two thousand times more annually than what it cost him to run the whole country.”

—Eric Sloane
From the book, Once Upon a Time: The Way America Was (1982)

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