John Chapman, Lydia Maria Child, and the Frugal Life
One of the many Johnny Appleseed stories preserved in central Ohio communities
was of the day a farm woman opened her front door to find John Chapman fishing scraps of stale bread out of a slop pail that she intended for her hogs. The woman was startled enough by the scene, but startled still more by John Chapman’s reaction to her discovery: he scolded her for wasting food perfectly suitable for human consumption on swine.
John Chapman’s radical commitment to the frugal life was the subject of many stories told about him. His primitive dress, constructed primarily of the castoffs of others, and his insistence on the meanest of diets suggest that he took Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 6:25, quite literally: “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body more than raiment?”
Historians often refer to the years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War as the era of the “market revolution.” During these years, advances in transportation technology—good roads, canals, steamboats, and eventually railroads—gave Americans greater access to material goods. The change in lifestyle was nowhere more dramatic than in the trans-Appalachian west, where communities moved rapidly from isolated frontier outposts to middle-class communities deeply integrated into a national economy. While most embraced this revolution, like all change it also fostered some ambivalent reactions. In particular, some saw the new material prosperity as a threat to personal piety, and the new rules of economic exchange as a threat to traditional notions of community.
It is worth considering whether John Chapman’s continued commitment to a life of austerity when material comfort was within reach was his personal reaction to the changes the market revolution had brought. If so, he was not alone. In eastern cities, small numbers of committed middle-class reformers embraced “retrenchment,” and replaced their fine furniture with simple wooden tables, and their fancy silverware with more primitive utensils. Perhaps no greater symbol of ambivalence to the new
materialism was the popularity of Lydia Maria Child’s best-selling book, The American Frugal Housewife. First published in 1829, Frugal Housewife was an early American best-seller, in its 33rd edition by 1855. Sub-titled “for those who are not ashamed of economy,” Child’s advice manual offered American women countless practical tips for getting by with less.In fact a piece of advice that Child offers in the preface of that book is curiously similar to the advice John Chapman gave to the startled farm wife: “Look frequently to the pails, to see that nothing is thrown to the pigs which should have been in the grease-pot,” Child admonished her readers, and “look to the grease-pot, and see that nothing is there which might have served to nourish your own family, or a poorer one.”
In her obsession for keeping and finding uses for every candle stub and even the smallest scraps of fabric and twine, Child was a kindred soul to Chapman. For Child, as for Chapman, frugality was religion and had the power to improve the world. “True Economy,” Child declared, “is a careful treasurer in the service of benevolence; and where they are united respectability, prosperity, and peace will follow.” Similarly, John Chapman’s own frugality allowed him to be more charitable, giving away not just his own worn out shoes to a barefoot family, but also cash he earned selling apple-seedlings and had saved by sleeping rough rather than paying for board.
Both Child and Chapman were products of the market revolution era, and each in their own way offered some resistance to it; Child through her advice manual, and Chapman through his lifestyle. It is no accident that the vast majority of Johnny Appleseed stories that come down to us are about his later years, when John Chapman, the primitive Christian, found himself living in a world transformed by markets. It was only then that his radically anti-materialistic lifestyle truly stood out. John Chapman’s increasingly middle-class neighbors appear to have found his lifestyle eccentric but also charmingly quaint. While they had little desire
to follow his example, they nonetheless harbored a nostalgia for simpler times, and worried about what values had been lost with the passing of the frontier. By retelling stories about Johnny Appleseed, they were, in a sense, trying to honor those pre-market values. They also honored them in a curiously modern way: by heading to the nearest dry goods store to purchase a copy of Ms. Child’s best-selling book. By doing so, they hoped to demonstrate that despite their new material comfort, they were “not ashamed of economy.”