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100 Years after the Publication of “A Theory of Consumption” by Hazel Kyrk (1923)

Paper Session

Friday, Jan. 6, 2023 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM (CST)

New Orleans Marriott, Preservation Hall Studio 3
Hosted By: History of Economics Society & International Association for Feminist Economics
  • Chairs:
    David Philippy, University of Lausanne
  • Rebeca Gomez Betancourt, University of Lyon 2

Hazel Kyrk (1886-1957) and the Research on Consumption Standards

Edith Kuiper
,
SUNY-New Paltz

Abstract

Hazel Kyrk, author of A Theory of Consumption (1923), conducted ground-breaking research for the
Bureau of Home Economics of the US Department of Agriculture, making a considerable contribution to a large empirical survey of household expenditures (Kyrk, Hazel, Monroe, Day, Brady, Dorothy S., Rosenstiel, Colette, and Rainboth, Edith Dyer (1941). Family Expenditures for Housing and Household Operations. Five Regions. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture). Kyrk et al. (1941) developed standards for what could be considered as the minimum requirements for a “decent living” (van Velzen, 2003). This research provided the base-year prices for the official consumer price index (Lobdell, 2000). This paper outlines this aspect of Hazel Kyrk’s research, her role in the constitution of the Consumer Price Index, and reflects on her theoretical and methodological approach.

Hazel Kyrk’s Intellectual Roots: When First-Generation Home Economists Met the Institutionalist Framework

David Philippy
,
University of Lausanne
Rebeca Gomez Betancourt
,
University of Lyon 2
Robert W. Dimand
,
Brock University

Abstract

In the years following its publication, Kyrk’s Theory of Consumption (1923) became the epicenter of the field that would later be known as the “economics of consumption,” which gathered together theoretical and empirical works on consumption. In the existing literature on Kyrk, her theory is generally depicted as the starting point of the field’s history, thus failing to appreciate how and why it emerged the way it did (Kiss and Beller, 2000; Tadajewski, 2013). This paper examines Kyrk’s intellectual heritage, which, we argue, can be traced back to two main threads: the American home economics movement and the institutionalist movement. Both movements conveyed specific answers and endeavors as responses to the American society’s material and social transformations that occurred at the turn of the 20th century (i.e. the changing role of consumption and that of women in American society). On one hand, Kyrk pursued first-generation home economists’ effort to make sense and put into action the shifting of women’s role from domestic producer to consumer. On the other hand, she reinterpreted Veblen’s (1899) account of consumption in order to reveal its operational value for a normative agenda directed toward good consumption. This paper examines how Kyrk carried on first-generation home economists’ progressive agenda, and how she adapted Veblen’s fin-de-siècle critical account of consumption to the context of the household goods development in the 1900-1920. Our account of Kyrk’s intellectual roots offers a novel narrative to better understand the role played by gender and epistemological issues in her theory.

What Should Families Want? From Hazel Kyrk to Margaret Reid and Beyond

Miriam Bankovsky
,
La Trobe University

Abstract

In “The Backward Art of Spending Money” (1912), Wesley Mitchell left unanswered what he referred to as the “most baffling of difficulties”: the question of what constitutes a family’s “good”. This paper aims, first, to provide an overview of Hazel Kyrk’s answer (1923), and second, to explain how it fell into oblivion. Regarding the overview, Kyrk argued that families would do well to consume “wisely” according to five qualitative criteria. Wise consumption would include, first, a degree of balance and proportion between the interests represented; second, a provision for full and varied experiences; third, a degree of individuality and originality; fourth, the selection of the most lasting, least costly, and most basic sources of satisfaction; and fifth, the use of scientific information and the best thought of the ages in the selection of means to desired ends. Kyrk was critical of thoughtless consumption that aimed merely to emulate. As to why it fell into oblivion, although Kyrk felt her account avoided paternalism, other early consumer economists begged to differ. Margaret Reid felt Kyrk’s account required too much of families (1938). Elizabeth Hoyt also felt economists should mostly accept family choice as it was (1938). Avoiding “deeper questions” (Reid 1938), these consumer economists instead sought to simply provide families with adequate information about “what others of like income and status are doing with their money…. since it gives them some basis of comparison for their own scale” (Hoyt 1938). In closing, we explain how Kyrk’s focus on family consumption (undertaken primarily by women in that period) reflected a pragmatic acceptance of intra-familial gendered norms that some feminist economists would later find problematic. We also consider the continued relevance of certain aspects of Kyrk’s account, in a contemporary context of climate crisis.

Economics of Consumption as a Social Phenomenon: The Debate on the Aggregate Consumption Function

Attilio Trezzini
,
Roma Tre University

Abstract

The idea that the choices of individuals are affected by social elements such as considerations of
status has been present in economic theory since the very origins of the discipline. At the beginning
of the 20 th century, some American institutionalist women economists – H. Kyrk, T. McMahon, J.
Peixotto and E. Gilboy - developed theoretical, empirical, and historical contributions that
constituted a theory of consumption. As initially argued by Veblen, consuming certain goods makes it
possible to identify oneself with specific social groups and this idea is assumed as the basis of a
complete theory of consumption that, in the original formulations, was independent of - and even in
opposition to - the principles of marginalist analyses. The origins, the early phases and the
transformations of these theories have been recently analyzed. The present paper argues that this
approach was quite popular at least until the 1950s, being a reference point for the economists who
first tried to study aggregate consumption function both from theoretical and empirical points of
view. An echo of this approach - probably due to a direct knowledge of the theoretical and empirical
contributions of the American women economists - can in fact be found in Keynes’ General Theory. In
empirical econometric works of the 1940s, some American economists assumed relations between
variables typical of this approach as the most natural choice for their econometric analyses of
aggregate consumption aiming to solve an empirical puzzle. Some of these authors – as F. Modigliani
and P. Samuelson – became famous mainstream economists. At that stage, however, as the
institutionalists of the first phase of the approach, they did not refer to marginalist principles.

Discussant(s)
Nancy Folbre
,
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Shoshana Grossbard
,
University of San Diego
William Waller
,
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Felipe Almeida
,
Federal University of Paraná
Giulia Zacchia
,
University of Rome-La Sapienza
JEL Classifications
  • B2 - History of Economic Thought since 1925
  • D1 - Household Behavior and Family Economics