Retrospect — Cottage Economy

Energy & Sustainability Science

“The word Economy, like a great many others, has, in its application, been very much abused,” explained William Cobbett, the irrepressible British (and at times North American) radical agitator and pamphleteer, in the introduction to Cottage Economy.

Cobbett (1763–1835) was one of the leading social commentators of the post-Revolutionary period in England and the United States, when the business of today’s bloggers was conducted by pamphleteers. Cobbett’s Political Register was pre-Victorian England’s Huffington Post. But the stakes were high, and a charge of sedition over one of his postings, exposing corruption in the military, earned him two years in Newgate Prison.

Cobbett took advantage of his imprisonment to write one of his more inflammatory monographs, Paper Against Gold; or, The History and Mystery of the Bank of England, of the Debt, of the Stocks, of the Sinking Fund, and of all the other tricks and contrivances, carried on by the means of Paper Money.

“There was, to be sure, when people looked into the matter more closely,” he observed, “something rather whimsical in the idea of a nation’s paying interest to itself; something very whimsical in a nation’s GETTING MONEY by paying itself interest upon its own stock.”

Cobbett, who was born into a family of rural farmers and began working in the fields at the age of 6, grew increasingly enraged over the mistreatment and growing impoverishment of the working poor, who, in the shift from agriculture to industry, were being forced to buy (and pay heavy taxes on) things they had formerly been able to make, and grow, for themselves. Cottage Economy, written as a series of pamphlets and later assembled into a book, was an attempt to shift the trend the other way.

“I propose to treat of brewing Beer, making Bread, keeping Cows and Pigs, rearing Poultry, and of other matters; and to show that while from a very small piece of ground a large part of the food of a considerable family may be raised, the very act of raising it will be the best possible foundation of education of the children of the labourer,” Cobbett wrote. “And is it not much more rational for parents to be employed in teaching their children how to cultivate a garden, to feed and rear animals, to make bread, beer, bacon, butter, and cheese, and to be able to do these things for themselves, or for others, than to leave them to prowl about the lanes and commons, or to mope at the heels of some crafty, sleek-headed pretended saint, who while he extracts the last penny from their pockets, bids them be contented with their misery, and promises them, in exchange for their pence, everlasting glory in the world to come?”

To Cobbett, who estimated “that we use, in my house, about seven hundred gallons of beer every year,” the demise of home brewing epitomized the subjugation of the working class. In former times, he wrote, “to have a house and not to brew was a rare thing indeed,” whereas workers were now forced to purchase beer instead of making it.

“The causes of this change have been the lowering of the wages of labour, compared with the price of provisions, by the means of the paper money; the enormous tax upon the barley when made into malt; and the increased tax upon hops,” Cobbett explained. “These have quite changed the customs of the English people as to their drink. They still drink beer, but, in general, it is of the brewing of common brewers, and in public houses, of which the common brewers have become the owners, and have thus, by the aid of paper money, obtained a monopoly in the supplying of the great body of the people with one of those things which, to the hard-working man, is almost a necessary of life.”

Cottage Economy offered practical and detailed instructions to “prepare for the making of beer in our own houses, and take leave of the poisonous stuff served out to us by common brewers.” This included a diatribe against the evils of tea, arguing at length “that tea has no useful strength in it; that it contains nothing nutritious; that it, besides being good for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves.”

With brewing out of the way, Cobbett proceeded to demonstrate, in detail, “that a large part of the food of even a large family may be raised, without any diminution of the labourer’s earnings abroad, from forty rods, or a quarter of an acre, of ground.”

He tackled the growing of cabbages, turnips, and mustard (“Why buy this, when you can grow it in your garden? The stuff you buy is half drugs, and is injurious to health.”) as well as the raising of chickens, and the husbandry of goats, cows, and pigs.

He praised the compost heap: “Every thing of animal or vegetable substance that comes into a house, must go out of it again, in one shape or another. The very emptying of vessels of various kinds, on a heap of common earth, makes it a heap of the best of manure.”

Cobbett advised milling one’s own flour and gave instructions for making bread, acknowledging that “it would be shocking indeed if that had to be taught by the means of books,” and adding that “many women in England, who seem to know no more of the constituent parts of a loaf than they know of those of the moon … appear to think that loaves are made by the baker, as knights are made by the king.”

Potatoes are viewed as an evil almost as great as tea, a food that forces the impoverished to live like animals who “scratch them out of the earth with their paws,” while the family that bakes its own bread has “bread always for the table, bread to carry afield; always a hunch of bread ready to put into the hand of a hungry child.”

To counter the ruinous tax on candles, Cobbett explained how to illuminate the cottage by burning rushes soaked in grease, noting that “my grandmother, who lived to be pretty nearly ninety, never, I believe, burnt a candle in her house in her life.”

He included a lengthy treatise on preparing native grasses for weaving into straw hats, advice on milking cows and goats, and a series of tips on raising (and eating) rabbits and geese. He examined the advantages of barter, noting that the cottager “ought to pay for nothing in money, which he can pay for in any thing but money.” He explained (and illustrated) the construction of large, circular, heavily insulated icehouses, in which ice cut in the wintertime can be kept for use during the hottest part of the year.

A mouthwatering chapter is devoted to the preparation of bacon, covering every step along the way, from the breeding to the fattening of hogs to the best way to singe the hair off the freshly-slaughtered sides, and the best manner in which to salt and then smoke-cure the resulting bacon.

“Meat in the house is a great source of harmony,” noted Cobbett. “A couple of flitches of bacon are worth fifty thousand Methodist sermons and religious tracts. The sight of them upon the rack tends more to keep a man from poaching and stealing than whole volumes of penal statutes.”

To William Cobbett, who rose to become a member of Parliament in later life, cottage economy remained the foundation upon which the health and wealth of the nation rests. “There never yet was, and never will be, a nation permanently great, consisting, for the greater part, of wretched and miserable families,” he wrote.

All of us, rich and poor, would do well to revisit his advice.

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George Dyson

George Dyson, a kayak designer and historian of technology, is the author of Baidarka, Project Orion and Darwin Among the Machines.

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