The following is excerpted from Bill Sharp’s biographical sketch of Ralph Borsodi, taken from a chapter on the back-to-the-land movement in his forthcoming book Building the Self-Sufficient Community.
Ralph Borsodi (1888 – 1977) was probably born in Vienna, Austria. His father, William, was Hungarian. William Borsodi immigrated to the US and established a successful printing and advertising business in New York City. Ralph had little interest in school but spent his days in the NYC public library absorbing a wide array of subjects. From the beginning he was a generalist, what Bucky Fuller came to call a “comprehensivist,” who distrusted specialized expertise. He learned the trade of printer, followed his father into advertising and went on to become a consultant to clients that included the Wall Street greats of the day. He became a keen business and financial analyst and mastered cost accounting, a passion for quantification becoming his hallmark. He never, however, developed a taste for speculation; indeed, he turned against urban-industrial America with a rare and consuming passion.
Ralph Borsodi was troubled by what he saw in American culture and economics. While he worked hard to support the American dream, he gave considerable thought to the socialist leanings of the Georgist party in New York. He wrote articles and lectured frequently at the Henry George School. He was not only a supporter of economic reform but an advocate for cultural enrichment and found an audience in the workers’ education programs that were very strong in NYC at the time.
By 1920, Ralph and Myrtle came to a decision to leave the city; they had had enough of living on the edge financially, congestion, pollution and rising urban real estate costs and rents. When they lost the lease on their house in 1920, they found a place within commuting distance of the city in Rockland County where they began their experiments in homesteading on a place they named “Dogwoods.” While lacking both skills and experience, they managed to build their homestead one small step at a time, mostly on weekends.
Dogwoods became a working laboratory where Borsodi used his creative mind to find ways to reduce the drudgery of labor and to escape dependence on markets for a more self-sufficient life. His expertise in cost accounting and financial management enabled him to methodically investigate the efficiency of everything he did on the homestead; for him, this careful analysis was essential to achieving self-sufficiency and these insights helped him systemize the practice of homesteading.
Borsodi turned to writing to express his distaste for inefficiency, injustice, environmental degradation and aesthetic destruction. He published The New Accounting (1922), National Advertising Versus Prosperity (1923), and The Distribution Age (1927). He saw American capitalism moving towards collapse and he found urban, industrial civilization, a product of a ‘century of progress,’ “appalling, dehumanizing, and ugly.” For Borsodi, mass production industry served its own ends, not human needs. Industry wasted valuable resources. Advertising drove an artificial demand for products. Labor became degraded, the factory a “repetitive treadmill.” He found it revolting that the factory system had become the dominant American culture.
Borsodi believed there were two really valuable things in life: The natural resources of the earth and the time spent in the enjoyment of life well lived. He saw living the homestead life as an opportunity to practice skills, restore pride in work, create a healthy balance with nature —all important facets of a life worth living. He was not determined to eliminate the factory – he valued modern products and appliances – but only to remove it as the dominant institution and foundation of American culture. The factory, he believed, should produce things that were desirable and essential to support life on the land and do so with skill and foresight and pride in work and product. He took some encouragement from the progressive movement of his time as an example of a popular counter-revolutionary endeavor. He thought consumers, particularly the middle class and farmers, and not politics, could alter the factory system. He saw farmers, who were caught up in mass production, as their own worst enemies. However, he knew that public action on any scale was a remote possibility.
His ideas came to a clear focus with This Ugly Civilization (1929): We must go back to the land, Borsodi insisted. He believed that the homestead, centered on the family that lived on it and producing the essentials of life for themselves, would be the means to restoring the good life. The homestead, he asserted, would raise food of superior nutritional quality, provide real physical work and health, develop manual and practical skills, strengthen familial bonds, and become the school for, and improving, the education and character of children.
Borsodi was a pioneer, and well known in his day. Today, however, his 14 books have been long out of print. There is very little biography. A close associate of Borsodi, Mildred Loomis, wrote Ralph Borsodi: Reshaping Modern Culture, of which only 300 copies were printed. The best biography is an unpublished 1985 doctoral dissertation by Richard Schubart.
In This Ugly Civilization Borsodi described the ugliness of urban-industrial America circa 1920s. He saw the production and distribution of goods as the dominant element of American culture. He attributed this ugliness to an abuse of the machine and to the factory system. He saw it in the life of the worker consumed by this system and in the life of the citizen dependent upon its products. Borsodi wrote:
“The industrial revolution closed hundreds of thousands of workshops and community mills. It destroyed the value of incalculable investments of capital in domestic and workshop manufacturing equipment.”
“It destroyed the trades and livelihoods of millions of workers. It precipitated misery, ruin, and rioting. It was responsible for an amount of suffering that it is impossible for the human mind to fully visualize.”
So why not, he asked, create a counter-revolution? Why not develop a humanistic response to the injustices of corporatism? And why, he asked, should a plea for an alternative society be summarily dismissed as utopian? Borsodi gave as an example of the counter-revolution a small, home-based flour mill and home baking. He wrote a clear business prospectus for this bakery model. He estimated that 6,000 families producing their own flour and bread would shut down one ugly factory.
Borsodi wrote This Ugly Civilization from his homestead. He had relocated his family to a sixteen-acre property in a village not far from New York City, but still, in those days, out in the countryside. Although the skyline of Manhattan can be seen from high points in the county, it fulfilled Borsodi’s criteria for a home within commuting distance of the city, and he maintained his day job in the city for several years. The Borsodis slowly rebuilt the property, dug a garden, and began to build a lifestyle. The book appeared just as the Great Depression descended upon America, and his homestead provided a model for a successful alternative to unemployment and poverty: “A modern homestead is a small plot of land on which the family lives and works to produce as much as possible of its food, clothing and shelter – the source and scene of creativity, security and freedom.”