What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little Town on the…
What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little Town on the Prairie’
Laura’s conception of what constitutes “a great deal of money” changes when she starts working for it.
I’ve had more than one request to look at the Little House books, and I picked Little Town on the Prairie because the story centers on a single question: Will Laura be able to earn enough money to keep Mary in college?
Laura, as we learn in the first chapters, is almost fifteen years old. She had planned to start earning money when she was sixteen, by getting a teaching license—but the always-enterprising Pa comes home one day and asks Laura if she wants a job. (Like many parents, he does this after already securing the job for her and telling her employer that she’ll start work right away.)
Laura spends her summer sewing buttonholes, basting shirts, and earning 25 cents a day “and dinner.” She’s not used to sitting still all day and focusing on a few repetitive tasks, or waking up at sunrise, spending the whole day indoors, and coming out just in time to see the sun set—and this shift is as much of a shock to Laura as it was to me, and I might say to many of us, when we started our first full-time jobs.
Here’s another mental shift that might seem familiar:
She had worked six weeks and earned nine dollars. One dollar had seemed a great deal of money only six weeks ago, but now nine dollars was not enough. If she could have earned only one more week’s wages, that would have made ten dollars and a half, or two weeks would have made a whole twelve dollars.
Laura’s conception of what constitutes “a great deal of money” changes when she starts working for it. She also learns that she can be let go at any time—in this case, when business starts to drop—and that she is not in control of her own earnings and employability, no matter how often her boss praises her buttonholes.
But Laura is able to put $9 towards the cost of sending her older sister Mary to the College for the Blind in Vinton, Iowa.
Little Town on the Prairie takes place in 1881 (which we know because the previous installment, The Long Winter, described the winter of 1880), and an online inflation calculator suggests that Laura earned the equivalent of $200 today. Her workday is five hours long, and since we know she gets 25 cents per day, we can figure out that she works six days a week. (We can also figure that out because the book states that Laura gets paid on Saturday night.)
So. Laura puts in 180 hours over six weeks and earns $200 in today’s wages, meaning she’s getting paid well below what anyone would consider a minimum wage. Of course, the federal minimum wage wouldn’t be established until 1938, and Little Town also makes it clear that its residents play fast and loose with the existing labor laws.
Which means I’m going to discuss the end of the book next, and then go back and look at everything that happens in the middle.
As I mentioned, Little Town on the Prairie focuses on a single question: will Laura be able to earn enough money to keep Mary in college? Laura has to take on at least part of this responsibility because Pa never brings in as much money from his crops as he thinks he will. (The entire series is full of Pa saying “it’s finally going to be our year!” and then some kind of farming disaster happens. In this book, it’s blackbirds eating the entire corn crop.)
Laura expects to begin teaching when she is sixteen. However, at the end of the book the county superintendent tells Laura to lie about her age—technically, to not mention it—and sit an exam for a school certificate so they can place her in a school that needs a teacher right away.
Laura does this. The superintendent, who administers the exam, tells her she did an excellent job but he’s going to have to “cut her grades a little” and only give her a third-grade certificate instead of the higher certificate she might have earned, to deflect suspicion. (The theory, as far as I understand it, is that nobody’s going to pay attention to the teacher with the third-grade certificate working at a tiny school with four students. But if Laura had received a higher certificate, people might have asked “Why is this talented woman working at this school that’s only open two months out of the year? Who is she?”)
And thus Laura learns that the working world is fundamentally corrupt. But she can’t say anything about it, or ask for the certificate she deserves, because she needs the money. She’ll earn $40 dollars for two months of work, which is more than twice what she would have earned sewing shirts—but who knows what she could have earned if she had been allowed to wait until she was sixteen and claim her proper certificate.
Now let’s look at why the Ingalls family is so focused on sending Mary to college. We know that the Ingalls have always valued education; even as they struggle to survive on their various farms, Ma (a former schoolteacher) takes the time to read to her children and make sure they both advance and excel in their studies, and Pa becomes a member of the School Board. It makes sense that they would want their daughters to go to college, if it were possible.
But they specifically want to send Mary to college for another reason: because the College for the Blind will teach manual skills as well as liberal arts. Mary, when she returns, will be trained in beadwork and in operating a sewing machine—both of which could earn her, and the family, money.
We know that Laura could have done just as well in college as Mary; that she could have increased her own earning opportunities the way that, in the Green Gables books, Anne Shirley goes from local schoolteacher to high school principal after she gets her college degree.
But the Ingalls family needs the money now. They’ve always needed the money now. Book after book, we see them trying to think long-term but having to compromise their plans to meet short-term emergencies. We see this even in the famous scene in On the Banks of Plum Creek where Ma gives Laura’s doll to a neighbor child, as Sarah Blackwood described for The Hairpin:
But for Ma, the doll is also an item to barter for good will from a neighbor woman under whose (meager) protection she might find herself, should her husband fail to come home. Is it right for Ma to demand this sacrifice of her daughter? Probably not. Is it likely related to her own womanly and motherly instinct for survival? Definitely.
The irony, perhaps, of Little Town on the Prairie is that it’s also the first time since Little House in the Big Woods where we see the Ingalls family with any kind of financial stability. They have discretionary income, which is a huge deal. In previous installments we saw the Ingalls girls walking barefoot to school in too-small dresses, and spending their Christmas pennies (which they received as presents years ago) on necessary school supplies. Now we see Ma making sure all of her daughters’ clothes are fashionable, we see Laura getting to spend 25 cents—an entire day’s wages!—on name cards, and we finally see the Ingalls girls receiving storebought books for Christmas instead of single pennies.
We also see Laura (and her parents) learn that adolescence is expensive, from the name cards to the new hats to the dime that Laura pays to attend a sociable. Town life costs money in ways that prairie life does not. But town also gives Laura job opportunities, and friendships, and the chance to meet the man she will someday marry. Town allowed the Ingalls to earn enough to send Mary to college. Which, in terms of long-term financial benefits, is probably worth the new hat and the dime sociable—and is another lesson many of us learned first-hand, when we moved to our various expensive cities.
It’s fascinating to think how much of Little Town on the Prairie—including the cultural appropriation and racism, don’t think I was going to ignore THAT SCENE—is still the same today.
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