“The way to save wealth; showing how a man may live plentifully for two-pence a day”: A 17th-century guide to frugal living

A common New Year’s resolution is to save more money, and there are numerous personal-finance books and websites that offer step-by-step plans for spending less, whether out of present necessity or in the hope of reaching a future financial goal. Seeking tips and tricks to live more frugally is nothing new, of course. Thomas Tryon’s 17th-century self-help book “The way to save wealth; showing how a man may live plentifully for two-pence a day” is filled with practical advice to this end.

The title page serves almost as a table of contents, informing the reader that the book contains information about how to eat and drink inexpensively, make shoes and coals last long, save soap, cloth, and candles, and feed livestock at a low cost. The book also goes beyond what readers today might consider practical, as it includes instructions on how “to know anyone’s mind by signs,” how to interpret dreams, how to “cure wounds by sympathy,” and more.

Title page
Thomas Tryon. The way to save wealth; shewing how a man may live plentifully for two-pence a day. London, 1695? Folger 150-428q. (Click to see a zoomable image in the Folger digital image collection.)

In his preface, “The Way to Live for Two-pence a Day,” Tryon writes the following:

“Experience teacheth us, that Nature is satisfied with a little; and that little is also easily to be obtain’d; such as Corn-food, Spring-water, Herbs, Roots, Fruit, Milk, Cheese, &c. And for my own part, seriously when I feed upon Bread and Water, and sometimes more splendidly, upon Bread and Cheese, and if I have but brown Bread, Hasty-pudding, Wheat, or Barley-broth, I think my Table so well furnish’d, that I dare dispute Felicity with any Person.”

As might be guessed from this opening paragraph, his advice related to food and drink requires certain sacrifices that not all readers might be prepared to make. Tryon offers instruction on how to prepare “a hundred noble dishes of meat, without either flesh, fish, or fowl”—in other words, how to go vegetarian. Need ideas for how to make bread cheaply? Tryon will tell you how to make it from “roots, herbs, and leafs of trees.” And then there’s his coffee substitute: Horse-beans.

Photo by Ben Lauer

Bound together with this copy of Tryon’s book in the Folger collection are several other how-to books that look to have been printed by the same publisher. It’s a small volume – one that could be easily carried around for consultation on the go. There are several common themes with these books, such as improving land to make it more productive, caring for livestock, making alcoholic drinks, and getting rid of vermin.

There’s “The Compleat Husbandman and Gentleman’s Recreation: or The whole Art of Husbandry,” with advice about curing diseases in horses, teaching dogs, and brewing beer. And there’s also “A New Book of Knowledge; Treating of Things, Wherof Some are Profitable, Some Precious, and Some Pleasant and Delightful,” which includes instructions for how to “write secretly,” “make ink,” “fatten fowl,” “pickle French beans,” and “take spots out of linnen,” among other things. And let’s not forget “The Husbandman’s Jewel,” which includes many of the previously covered topics, “to which are added, the Arts of Angling, Hawking, Fowling, Ringing”.

This particular volume was featured in “How-to Books for Everyday Living,” curated by Elizabeth Walsh, Head of Reader Services, and Rosalind Larry, Head of Circulation, for the Folger exhibition The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries from the Folger Vault. “Beginning in the sixteenth century and continuing throughout the seventeenth century, procedural manuals, or how-to books, were very popular, not only with the English gentry, but with the average person as well,” they wrote. “The manuals are generally small in size and contain legible type, clearly defined illustrations, and tables of contents calculated to help the reader carry out a variety of tasks with ease.” They share examples of other how-to books in the Folger collection, such as swimming, drawing, and reading.

The book was also exhibited as part of First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas. As a “self-help book for the supposed benefit of the poor,” it was juxtaposed with an engraving of King James II’s coronation banquet, illustrating wealth inequality in early modern Britain.

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