5 Ways Our Poor, Desperate Ancestors Saved Money

Lifehack: Get rid of your teeth and drink only soup
5 Ways Our Poor, Desperate Ancestors Saved Money

You are far richer than your grandparents ever were, assuming that we measure wealth in terabytes. If we instead measure wealth in inflation-adjusted dollars, well, we’re not going to make any assumptions. Some of our readers own jets, while others live under bridges. 

Either way, people in the past sometimes had to deal with types of poverty that you never have to think about. You might wish you had a little more money than you do, but at least you don’t generally find yourselves facing the following levels of desperation. 

Discard Teeth. Soup’s Cheap!

From the 18th century, all the way to the early 20th century, people found various reasons for yanking out all their perfectly healthy teeth. “Leave them in,” some people figured, “and they’ll just ache sooner or later. So we might as well pull them all out in one go!” Or, there was the convincing theory that removing all your teeth was a good way to prevent madness. Removing the spleen or colon might be sensible next steps.

Whatever the motive, after someone removed their teeth, the normal course would be to get dentures. But not everyone went that route. In 1928, a man from Chicago named Mathias Blau got his wife to have all her teeth removed and then refused to buy her dentures. He argued that life without teeth would save lots of money, since he could feed her soup from now on. 

1920s soup ad


Mmmm, Campbell’s. Just 15 cents a can!

This logic was not totally sound. If it’s possible to live on soup, his wife could do so just as easily with dentures as without them. As it was, she took him to court, where a judge called Blau’s actions “the meanest trick.” The judge ruled that Blau had to buy his wife two sets of dentures, and provide her with at least one steak every week

Short on Paper? Just Rotate It!

Today, your phone makes your life mostly paperless. Paper is something that arrives at your door and goes directly into the bin, unread. Centuries ago, however, paper was precious. We told you recently about one consequence of that: Envelopes were considered an absurd extravagance, forcing people into creative solutions when it came to sealing their messages. 

Even covering an entire page with writing was not considered a responsible way to use this resource. If you really wanted to use a sheet to the fullest, you’d write over the entire page, and then you’d write over that same side of the sheet a second time. Between the first writing stint and the second, you’d rotate the sheet 90 degrees. This resulted in a page that looked like, well, a total mess.



Oh, the forgotten art of a handwritten letter.

This was called cross-writing, and it saved on both paper and postage, since mailing two sheets of paper cost twice as much. That makes it sound like the post office was an expensive way of moving things, but that wasn’t always true...

Moving? Post the Building!

America unveiled the Parcel Post Service in 1913. “With but few exceptions, anything weighing under 11 pounds can be mailed,” proclaimed the announcement, and that limit quickly rose to 20 then 50 pounds to address increased demand. You could send fresh eggs from Illinois to Missouri, and someone could bake them into a cake and have that delivered to you that same day. 

Shipping parcels was perhaps too good a deal. When a bank was set to be built in Utah, the owner needed to source the bricks from 100 miles away. The obvious way to transport 40 tons of bricks this distance would be a couple of freight trucks, or maybe one really big truck. In 1913, the default option was wagon freight. But the Bank of Vernal realized it would be cheaper to post the bricks, in 1,600 packages of 50 pounds each. 

Bank of Vernal

National Postal Museum

And you had to wait in line behind as they stuck stamps on each, one by one.

“It is not the intent of the United States Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail,” the post service later announced, as they rewrote the rules to keep anyone from trying this again. Clearly, sending banks via parcel post was absurd. They needed to put an end to it, so they could return to standard operating procedure, in which they shipped live babies

Need a Phone Line? Use Barbed Wire!

At the end of the 19th century, telephones began to spread across America. To get everyone talking on the phone, companies would have to lay down vast networks of telephone lines, which would be a huge endeavor. Fortunately, some places had already laid down a vast network of a different kind of wire, which could work as a phone line in a pinch.

We’re talking about barbed wire, an invention that was responsible for all of American agriculture. With barbed wire, people had a way of enclosing their property and keeping animals from fleeing into the wilds. They’d had other ways, like hedges or planks of wood, but when we have to fence off thousands of miles, nothing was stronger or easier to put up than barbed wire. By 1880, one factory had cracked out 263,000 miles of the miracle material

Barbed wire fence in line brace

Pschemp/Wiki Commons

You might also associate barb wire with horrific prisons and stuff, but that came later.

Barbed-wire fences were able to carry phone signals, most insecurely. You’d have ranches spanning millions of acres using existing barbed wire for phone conversations, or even separate farms miles apart using fencing so lonely farmers could chat. Of course, the fences hadn’t been specifically designed as communications lines, which left some room for improvement. Sometimes, a cattle hand would prop up a bit of wire to boost the network’s range. The preferred gadget for propping up a wire this way? A broken whiskey bottle

No Fuel? Just Burn Your Crops!

But life on the farm wasn’t all broken whiskey bottles and barbed wire. There were also hard times. 

When the Great Depression hit, famers found they could no longer afford coal. The price of corn had plummeted, and they weren’t making money. In fact, corn was now worth less than coal, which is nuts, because one of them gets your hands all dirty, while the other is delicious with butter. In the 1930s, corn was worth so little that it made economic sense for farmers to burn ears of corn in their stoves for heat instead of selling them. 

roast corn

Devaki Surya

Like this, except you never take the corn out.

Even today, people use corn as fuel. Ethanol fuel is just burning corn, with extra steps — and some would say it’s as ridiculous as sticking corn in the stove and is a terrible way to use food. But to understand why corn ethanol is a thing, we’d have to discuss ethanol subsidies, which is the proverbially most boring topic in the world. Instead of thinking about that, just send your mind back to 1930s America, and delight in the knowledge that farms in winter once smelled like popcorn

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