Food, Clothing And Shelter: The Essentials Of Comfort

No conquest of comfort is possible if we have to procure the essentials of comfort—food, clothing and shelter up to the standard of living to which mankind’s progress entitles us—by excessive labor or by inexpressive and uninteresting labor. Because it is possible in industrialized America to secure these essentials with relative ease, we overlook the fact that the way in which cure them is as important to our comfort as the food, clothing, and shelter are important to our survival.

What is more, we tend to believe that because America is producing creature comforts in greater quantities than ever before that the quest of comfort will end when it is impossible to further develop the system of production to which we now seem irretrievably committed. We have come to believe that comfort is increased to the degree in which production is increased. But when we increase production at the sacrifice of significance in our daily labor, then what we gain through the increase in the quantity of our so-called comforts is overbalanced by the decrease in our capacity for enjoying them.

We accept the sacrifice of comfort which our factory economy imposes upon us because it does not occur to us to ask whether some better method of procuring the necessaries of life might exist.

Yet a method does exist which makes it possible to attain a material well-being equal to that which we now enjoy with less unpleasant effort and greater security than is the rule today.

The necessaries of life can be procured not only without excessive and unpleasant labor but without fear and uncertainty. For no conquest of comfort is possible if we live fearful of our ability to secure these essentials of comfort; if we live menaced by the pervasive spectre of want; if unemployment, illness and old age mean not only misfortune but economic disaster.

We must feel as certain of our ability to procure the material essentials of comfort as we must feel certain that we shall inhale air when we breathe.

Under our factory economy the sequence by which those of us who have not inherited wealth[1] It should not be forgotten that we have developed a folkway which demands that even those who inherit wealth should work precisely the same as if they had to earn the necessaries of life. secure what we need and desire is as follows:

  1. We sell our labor directly or indirectly in order to earn money; we devote ourselves to production for sale.
  2. But as we cannot eat money, wear money, nor house ourselves in money, we buy everything we need and desire—shelter we buy from landlords; apparel from clothiers; food from grocers, butchers, and bakers; entertainment from theaters and clubs; culture from schools and newspapers.

Under the economic system which I am here advocating, the sequence would be as follows:

  1. We would move on a homestead of our own; install a workshop and loom-room; equip the whole with efficient tools and machinery; develop a garden and orchard; stock the place with livestock.
  2. We then raise and make all the things which we need or desire and which it is practicable and economical and pleasurable to produce for ourselves; we devote ourselves to production for use.
  3. We work the remainder of our time at jobs or crafts or professions; with the money earned in this way we would pay taxes and interest and buy the factory-made products which we could not advantageously make for ourselves.

The change to this economic scheme would furnish three clear gains over the earn-and-buy system upon which most of us depend today:

  1. 1. The time we devoted to work would be spent more pleasantly.
  2. 2. We would reduce the time spent now in securing the things which are essential to our comfort.
  3. 3. We would become secure as to the basic necessaries of the good life.

Food, clothing and shelter absorb about sixty-five percent of the income of the average well-to-do American family of today. If we add fuel and light, approximately seventy percent of the budget of such a family is devoted to the purchase of essentials.

Sundries and savings absorb the remaining thirty percent. While this provides the family with its luxuries, many essential expenditures, such as those for medical treatment, would have to be deducted from the sundry expenditures and added to the seventy percent if the amount for producing the essentials of comfort were to be established.

Upon this basis the following table[2]If the reader will substitute his own actual budget for the budget used in this table, he will be able to better test the validity of the argument so far as his own situation is concerned. is constructed. It gives a rough idea of how much of the time spent in gainful labor is devoted to earning money for a comfortable life.

ItemsDays of laborper year
32.5percent of income devoted to Food91days
17.5percent of income devoted to Clothing49days
16percent of income devoted to Shelter44.8days
4percent of income devoted to Fuel and Light11.2days
70percent of income devoted to Basic Essentials of Comfort196days
30percent of income devoted to Sundries and Savings84days
 Total lime spent in gainful labor280days

If this table means anything,[3]The figure of 280 labor-days per year was arrived at as follows: 365 days per year less 52 Sundays; 8 holidays—New Year’s, Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, … Continue reading it means that more than two thirds of the time which we spend earning money—more than four out of the six days of the working week—is really devoted to securing the basic necessaries of a comfortable existence.

The question which has now to be considered is whether we would save lime and enjoy equal or greater comfort if we were to substitute a large measure of making-and-consuming at home for much of our present well nigh complete dependence upon earning-and-buying.

In short, can we produce the material essentials of comfort for ourselves more economically than we can buy them?

That most of us, having become habituated to the present earning-and-buying economy may not like the proposed making and-consuming economy, does not prove its inferiority. Habit simply has perverted the modern taste and rendered the conventional judgment worthless. The fact that paupers cease to like work, does not prove that a life of pauperization is superior to a life of work.

Earning the money with which to buy food absorbs nearly two days of each week’s work—approximately 91 days out of the entire year’s labor. Yet there are good grounds for believing that much more than a third of this time could be freed for other activities by turning to a make-and-consume economy.

If we divide the food budget of today into its component parts, the fact that the great bulk of the foods we consume can be raised in an organic home at once becomes apparent.

Percentage of Food Expenditures 43
Meat, Fish, Eggs31.3
Milk and Cheese12.4
Bread and Cereals14.7
Vegetables and Fruits18.5
Sugar, etc.3.7
Miscellaneous items8.4

Meat, fish and eggs represent one-third of our food requirements. A poultry yard, a pig or two, and a herd of sheep and goats can furnish us the great bulk of our requirements for these proteid foodstuffs. The care and feeding of these animais, if proper houses, yards and equipment are used, would not take up more than a few hours per week of our time, since many of the tasks in connection with their care could be entrusted to the young and the members of the family too old to work outside of the home.

Producing the next largest item, vegetables and fruit, for ourselves is, if anything, an even easier task for us if we are anxious to procure the essentials of a comfortable existence with the minimum of labor-time. An adequate vegetable garden, which will furnish us all of our vegetables and small fruits, need not be very large, and it requires considerable time and attention only in the early spring. The garden tractor and the wheel hoe have so lightened the labor, that gardening when confined to the growing of our own needs only, requires nothing much more in the way of time than would furnish us the moderately vigorous exercise which every man needs. With a vegetable cellar for storage and the kitchen properly equipped to dehydrate and to can vegetables and fruits for the winter, a year-round supply can be produced in much less time than is needed to earn the money with which to buy them.

The bread and cereal bill can be materially lowered by domestic milling of cereals and flour, and by home-baking of bread and pastry, and can be almost entirely eliminated in the case of a large family where there are a considerable number of adults by undertaking grain farming on a modest scale. If the family is small, however, it would be better to buy wheat, corn and the other cereals and be content with the saving in labor-time which domestic milling and home-baking make possible.

Milk and cheese need hardly be purchased at all because they can be produced on a relatively small scale without excessive labor. The cow is the dairy animal for the large family only; the goat is better adapted to the needs of the small family. Goat’s milk is richer in fat and easier to digest than cow’s milk while the goat itself is cleaner and easier to care for than the cow. It is not, however, suitable for butter making. With either goat’s or cow’s milk, cheese, (which is one of the most nutritious and tasty items in the dietary), can be produced at a fraction of the time required to earn money for buying it.

Fats today consist mainly of two items: butter and lard, and their synthetic imitations—oleomargarine, crisco, cottolene, etc. If the family is large enough to have a cow, the butter problem is solved and if it has pigs the lard problem is solved. The fats are thus procured with smaller sacrifices of time than are necessary if they are purchased. The synthetic imitations so widely advertised are not only inferior in nutritive value to the organic fats, but sometimes positively harmful and we can therefore afford to dispense with them entirely.

There remains the sugar bill—white sugar, corn syrups, and similar sweets—the buying of which can be largely eliminated if we will use the products of the honey-bee, the sugar-maple and the sorghums as nature makes it easy to use them. Surely honey, maple sugar and genuine molasses, (not the dregs of sugar which now go by that name), furnish sugars which are superior to the desiccated products bought from the modern sugar refinery and glucose factory.

Such a program would not entirely eliminate the buying of factory-made foodstuffs, but it would reduce the time which had to be spent earning money to buy food to probably a quarter of that necessary at present. Instead of having to spend nearly two days a week earning money with which to pay the weekly food bill, only half a day of our time would be needed—the other one and one-half days would be freed for food production on the family homestead. But a day and a half per week would not be needed for this purpose—fifty days per year, an average of less than a day a week throughout the year, would suffice. And of these fifty days’ time, a full third would be furnished by other members of the home.

This would mean that we, (speaking of the money-earning members of the home), would be called upon to contribute only 33 days per year to the domestic production of foodstuffs. Add the 23 days which we would spend earning money to buy foods not produced at home and we would be devoting a total of 56 days per year, instead of 91, to the task of providing ourselves with food. This is a clear gain of 35 days, in addition to the gain of spending the time at work which is far more healthful, more interesting, more expressive than that of most of the repetitive “jobs” open to us in this factory-dominated civilization.

We come now to housing, water, light, and fuel—both for heating and cooking. Today the work of securing these items absorbs about twenty percent of our time. For those who live in the city this figure is much too low. In New York City, and in many of the growing cities of the country, rent often represents more than twenty-five percent of the budget, with gas for cooking and electric current for lighting still to be added. In such cities, it is hardly an understatement of the situation to say that over one-quarter of the time we spend at work is devoted to earning the money for the sheer shell of existence.

The question is, can we furnish ourselves with shelter, fuel and light with less effort than these figures indicate? Taking the average figure, rather than the high New York figure, it now takes a little less than one day’s time per week to earn the money for these necessities of life—about 44.7 days per year. Can they be provided at any reduction of this time?

If we assume that we have our own home; that the home is equipped with a well and an automatic water pumping system; that it has a hygienic sewage system; that it has a wood lot which can at least furnish fuel for that source of great joy in the home, an open fireplace, and that it has its own automatic electric lighting system; thus reducing to the minimum the necessity for buying shelter, fuel, light, water and sewage disposal facilities, then all that these things will cost us is the time we spend caring for the home plus the time we shall have to devote to earning money to buy what cannot be produced in the home itself. We shall have only to buy such supplies as oil and gasoline, and paint and varnish. The care of such a home with a “janitor” service fully equal to that of the average rented home today, will require less than one and one-half days’ time per month. Add the time necessary to earn the money for maintenance, supplies, replacements, taxes, insurance and interest—probably a trifle more than one day per month—and the total time required to provide shelter and the shelter items will still be less by half than now has to be spent in earning the money for rent, fuel and light.

But with such a home we should be furnishing ourselves much more than the equivalent of rented and purchased shelter, fuel and light. We should cease to be cave dwellers in a city and would no longer crawl about in the canyons that are called streets. We should be abandoning the noisy, crowded, treeless, grassless cement desert of the city for the quiet, the privacy and the blue and green of the countryside. We should be furnishing ourselves not only a home but also a homestead—with land for flowers and vegetables, for shrubs and for fruit, for pets and for domestic animals. And time formerly necessary to earn money for rent would be released to be used productively, creatively, healthfully in the development of the homestead.

We come now to that very difficult subject, clothing. Clothing represents sixteen percent of the expenditures of the average American family. It requires forty-nine days of labor per year to earn the money to meet the cost of procuring this item of the average budget.

As long as men and women—but men especially—insist upon wearing the style of clothing which they wear today, domestic production can probably cut this item less than any other part of the budget. Men’s clothing will have to be made by skilled tailors as long as they insist upon the hideous garments which they now wear. Women’s clothing, however, is fortunately still simple enough to lend itself to home sewing. A very material saving could be made in the time which now has to be devoted to earning money if, as far as possible, it were made in the home.

While no revolutionary savings are probable on clothing in the immediate future, a very great reduction in the economic “sacrifice” needed for clothing ourselves is possible if we were to take into our own hands the whole subject of costuming. Today this is in the hands of a caste of “designers”—designers working for textile mills which have to keep thousands of spindles and hundreds of looms busy, and designers working for the garment manufacturers who have to keep their serried ranks of sewing machines busy. Naturally the fabrics and garments they design have little relationship either to the physiological or the esthetic needs of human beings. Whether a new style is healthy or unhealthy, ugly or beautiful, is a matter of no consequence to the designer, provided it possesses the one essential virtue of persuading consumers to buy new garments and discard their old ones. New styles are produced not because they are more beautiful or more useful than the old but because they keep the wheels of industry turning.

If the designing of clothing were to be taken over by the wearers of clothing, the costumes would probably be simpler than they are today; they would probably exploit the sense of beauty more intelligently; they would attain a dignity entirely absent from the machine-dominated products of our factories. And it is quite possible that if the designing of clothes became an outlet for the creativity of the individual, a revival of home spinning and weaving might accompany the new interest in home garment making. A renaissance in sewing, embroidering, knitting and the kindred arts might mean a revival of weaving, the craft which furnishes a form for the expression of the creative abilities of every individual, from individuals of minimum artistic endowment to those endowed with real genius. This revival might be further helped by the fact that weaving, if it were developed into a domestic artistic craft, would have economic utility for other things than clothing. It would provide the home with fabrics for hangings and curtains, for robes and bedding, for rugs and carpets.

With scientifically designed domestic machines and equally scientific methods for operating them, we could provide ourselves more abundantly with more beautiful clothing, and supply the home with many of its textiles at an actual reduction of the time which now has to be spent earning the money with which to buy factory-made products. Without waiting for any revolutionary change of costume we could cut down the time now needed to earn money for clothing more than a third, especially since sewing time would be contributed largely by those not now engaged in working outside the home. Ultimately, by displacing the costume values which prevail today with a better set of values, and making our costumes and textiles both more beautiful and more durable, the time now devoted to securing them could be cut in half. Perhaps a quarter of the forty-nine days’ time now needed would be devoted to earning money to buy what we cannot produce for ourselves, and another quarter to making clothing and textiles in the home.

We would be the gainers by fully twenty-four days’ time per year.

We come now to the possibilities of economy in the eighty-four days we now devote to earning money for sundries and savings.

When we consider the vast number of things comprised in the category of “sundries” which the factories make for us but which we could make for ourselves, I am convinced that if I have erred in these estimates, I have erred wholly on the side of underestimating the net savings possible under such a making-and-consuming economy as is here proposed. Soaps, cleaners, floor wax, furniture polish, paints, medicines, germicides, cosmetics, baking powders, beverages of all kinds—both alcoholic and non alcoholic—are only a few of the innumerable things which we can make for ourselves of better qualities and at a large saving of time, if the time necessary to make them be compared with the time necessary to earn the money to buy them. A considerable part of the time now devoted to earning money for these “sundries” can therefore be saved.

When we come to the time devoted to earning money for saving and investment, a making-and-consuming economy would mean an even greater economy of time than is possible with regard to any of the items of the budget which we have up to the present time considered. For we save and invest today at the high rate here estimated—10 percent of the total time devoted to gainful labor—in large part because of the economic insecurity imposed upon us by our factory dominated civilization. We have to save, when saving has not become a pathological habit, because we must provide against illness, unemployment and old age. But under a regime such as that which I advocate this insecurity would almost entirely disappear. We should live with almost absolute security as to the basic essentials of life. We should be certain of food, clothing, and shelter so long as any of the members of the home were able to get about at all. Saving of money would not therefore be so urgent. The mere possession of a productive home and homestead doubly reduces the need of saving because it provides the essentials of comfort for dependents in case of our death. It is no accidental coincidence that the great growth of life insurance has been an accompaniment of the great growth of the factory. With the factory came insecurity, and with insecurity came life insurance.

With saving not nearly so urgent, it could be spread over fully twice the number of years now given to the task of providing against the future. And if we devoted five percent of our yearly time, instead of ten percent, to earning money for this purpose, there would be a clear gain of fourteen days’ time per year.

Even if we disregard entirely the economies possible on the item classed as sundries, and add merely these fourteen days to the economies previously enumerated, it is plain that more than one third of the time we now devote to gainful employment is unnecessary.

At least four months of each year might be released for play, for education, for artistic, literary and scientific endeavor.

I say “of least” deliberately because the following table represents, I am sure, a very conservative statement of the possibilities of time-saving under a making-and-consuming economy.

ItemTime NeededUnder FactoryEconomyTime Needed Under
New Economy
Net SavingUnder New Economy
Earning Money
Total Time Needed
Food 9133235635
Fuel & Light11.25618153323
Clothing 4913122524
Sundries 56(*)5656 
Saving 28 141414
Total 2806412018496

*Omitted because of the difficulty of making any estimate. The probable saving is very large—perhaps as much as one-third of the time at present devoted to earning the money for sundries.

If we can persuade ourselves to devote to the quest of comfort some of the concentrated energy which we now devote to the quest of wealth, we shall find that the domestic production of the essentials of comfort makes it possible to furnish ourselves with food, clothing and shelter not only in the qualities and the quantities to which we are now accustomed, but in qualities far superior to the factory products which we now consume, and in quantities so abundant that hospitality might again become one of the graces in which we could indulge our souls.

The thought and the time which we now give to the four factors which govern the production of wealth must be transferred to the four factors which govern the production of comfort.

For just as land, labor, capital and management are the factors which govern the production of wealth, so the homestead, time, machines and wisdom are the factors which govern the production of comfort.

The substitution of these four categories for the customary categories of classic political economy will make both the practicability and the desirability of the economy I advocate self evident.

Next Section | The Factors In the Quest Of Comfort: I. The Homestead


1 It should not be forgotten that we have developed a folkway which demands that even those who inherit wealth should work precisely the same as if they had to earn the necessaries of life.
2 If the reader will substitute his own actual budget for the budget used in this table, he will be able to better test the validity of the argument so far as his own situation is concerned.
3 The figure of 280 labor-days per year was arrived at as follows: 365 days per year less 52 Sundays; 8 holidays—New Year’s, Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Christmas and 12 days for vacation. Vacation in the type of family which we are trying to picture usually consisting of two weeks but from this the two Sundays which have already been counted have to be deducted. This makes the net result up to this time 293 labor days per year. This could be further reduced by 25 days to 268 if Saturdays were reckoned as half-days. But this figure would be a rank misrepresentation of the working lime of not only the vast majority of the population but even of the more prosperous classes. In very few states are all eight holidays actually observed; two-week vacations are by no means universal; neither are half-day Saturdays. On the whole, a figure midway between 268 and 293 would probably be a fair one. This makes the number of labor-days per year the 280 used in the table. It would no doubt be better to use labor-hours instead of labor-days. But to make a fair estimate of hours devoted to labor per year would be even more difficult. On a basis of labor-hours, the time spent earning a living would probably represent a greater proportion of the total year than on the basis of labor-days.