Little Lessons on the Prairie

My girls are currently reading through the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My oldest is just about to start The Long Winter while my middle daughter is a couple books behind. I’m not sure how much is soaking in their little heads (outside of wolf howls, scary locust hordes, and Indian war-cries), but it’s been an interesting learning experience for me as a 21st century parent.

Some of the personal finance bloggers I read describe their lifestyles as roughly akin to 1950s standard of living, but with modern computing technology. Smaller house/apartment, one car if any, etc. But traveling further back in time, it is amazing to see just how far the normal standard of living has come.

The sheer amount of daily labor needed for basic survival was incredible, and yet the Ingalls and Wilder families both had enough leisure time to socialize in the evenings, play music, and let the kids have (some) free play time. Children were happy to receive a few pieces of candy as a Christmas present and little else. Compared to that, I feel silly with the sheer amount of stuff my kids are showered with at holidays, and what they have available from day to day – and I don’t think they’re ‘spoiled’ by any means. More and more research supports the unsustainability of the typical Western lifestyle, especially if we hope to expand more of the world’s population to ‘developed’ status. It’s humbling to think what people lived on – and flourished on – less than 150 years ago.

I also had to chuckle when my oldest was reading Farmer Boy during the first deep cold snap. Here we are, worried about the ‘polar vortex’ when Almanzo and his siblings walked to school in -40F weather. They didn’t have high-tech fabrics or safety gear. They had wool clothes and (non-insulated) moccasins and boots. I’ll admit we haven’t done much outdoor stuff this winter, but I feel a little silly being so cautious about it when I read things like this.

I’m not about to advocate being a Luddite, but the series is worth reading even as an adult, because it acts as a reality check concerning lifestyle inflation.

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2 Comments on “Little Lessons on the Prairie”

  1. I loved, loved, loved those books when I was a little girl. I think I had like eight different dolls named “Laura” and the one blonde doll was “Mary.” I reread them as an adult and what struck me was how close to disaster they lived. Starving to death was a real, honest-to-God possibility during that long winter. Today, you could disconnect the electricity to your house and sew all your clothes from handspun thread and your life still wouldn’t be anything like theirs, because the giant social safety net would still be waiting to catch you if anything went wrong. The Ingalls were working without a net.

  2. Moonwaves says:

    I loved the TV program as a kid (sat down gleefully to re-watch it a few years ago and barely made it through the first episode – so saccharine sweet and “moral-ly” it made me squirm) but didn’t read the books until about five years ago. But even though I was only reading them for the first time as an adult, I loved them, have re-read them since and will read them again, too. And not just because I found it absolutely hilarious that the American word for brawn is head-cheese. 🙂 Different things strike me every time – like Pa being so careful with how many nails he used – I’m sure I’ve dropped a pile of nails more than once and not been too bothered if a couple got lost down the back of the sofa, so to speak. Every little thread or scrap of material was saved. Such a different way of living.


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