Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Life of Ralph Borsodi: Unsung American Back-to-the-Land Pioneer

This is the first of a series of articles that explore the life and work of Ralph Borsodi.  This article was taken from a chapter on the back-to-the-land movement in my upcoming Building the Self-Sufficient Community.  The next in this series will discuss the development of the School of Living founded by Borsodi.

Ralph Borsodi (1888 – 1977) was probably born in Vienna, Austria.  His father, William, was Hungarian.  William Borsodi immigrated to the US and established a successful printing and advertising business in New York City.  Ralph had little interest in school but spent his days in the NYC public library absorbing a wide array of subjects.  From the beginning he was a generalist, what Bucky Fuller came to call a “comprehensivist,” who distrusted specialized expertise.  He learned the trade of printer, followed his father into advertising and went on to become a consultant to clients that included the Wall Street greats of the day.  He became a keen business and financial analyst and mastered cost accounting, a passion for quantification becoming his hallmark.  He never, however, developed a taste for speculation; indeed, he turned against urban-industrial America with a rare and consuming passion.

Ralph Borsodi’s revolt against corporatism perhaps came from his father.  William Borsodi, who had participated in the Hungarian land reform movement, was attracted to Henry George (Progress and Poverty), giving Ralph an early and influential introduction to George’s philosophy.  William became friends with Georgian Single Taxer Bolton Hall and an ardent supporter of the Georgist movement.  Hall supported George’s New York City mayoral campaign in 1886.  William printed two of Hall’s books, Free America (1904) and Three Acres and Liberty (1906).

In 1907, when Ralph Borsodi was 18, living on his own and working full time in his father’s business, there was a severe economic panic.  William, in a 50 page, detailed open letter to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, said that the agency “should lead a back-to-the-land movement by providing free land to the unemployed in the country, using vacant lots for urban gardening and educating the city dwellers for self-sufficiency.”  He advocated Hall’s idea for three-acre, part-time farms located near the city to provide access to other work.  William Borsodi enumerated the advantages of country life such as “its promotion of a greater sense of productivity, physical health, independence, moral integrity, as well as providing a safe refuge in a time of adversity.”  These farms would have been where the suburbs are today. 

The next year William collaborated with Hall on A Little Land and Living.  He purchased a tract of land in Texas, and Ralph moved there to try this experiment.  This move helped Ralph begin to break out of his introverted, bookish, urban, immigrant family perspective into an awareness of life in the U.S. at large.  Although Ralph did not do well in agriculture on the Texas plains, he did meet Myrtle Mae Simpson in Chicago and they were married in 1911.  Myrtle had grown up on a farm and understood life on the land, was a writer, gifted organizer and became both a collaborator and strong supporter of her husband’s work.  They moved back to NYC where Ralph developed his practice as a consultant in advertising and marketing. 

Ralph Borsodi was troubled by what he saw in American culture and economics.  While he worked hard to support the American dream, he gave considerable thought to the socialist leanings of the Georgist party in New York.  He wrote articles and lectured frequently at the Henry George School.  He was not only a supporter of economic reform but an advocate for cultural enrichment and found an audience in the workers’ education programs that were very strong in NYC at the time.

By 1920, Ralph and Myrtle came to a decision to leave the city; they had had enough of living on the edge financially, congestion, pollution and rising urban real estate costs and rents.  When they lost the lease on their house in 1920, they found a place within commuting distance of the city in Rockland County where they began their experiments in homesteading on a place they named “Dogwoods.”  While lacking both skills and experience, they managed to build their homestead one small step at a time, mostly on weekends.

Dogwoods became a working laboratory where Borsodi used his creative mind to find ways to reduce the drudgery of labor and to escape dependence on markets for a more self-sufficient life.  His expertise in cost accounting and financial management enabled him to methodically investigate the efficiency of everything he did on the homestead; for him, this careful analysis was essential to achieving self-sufficiency and these insights helped him systemize the practice of homesteading. 

Borsodi turned to writing to express his distaste for inefficiency, injustice, environmental degradation and aesthetic destruction.  He published The New Accounting (1922), National Advertising Versus Prosperity (1923), and The Distribution Age (1927).  He saw American capitalism moving towards collapse[1] and he found urban, industrial civilization, a product of a ‘century of progress,’ “appalling, dehumanizing, and ugly.”  For Borsodi, mass production industry served its own ends, not human needs.  Industry wasted valuable resources.  Advertising drove an artificial demand for products.  Labor became degraded, the factory a “repetitive treadmill.”  He found it revolting that the factory system had become the dominant American culture. 

Borsodi believed there were two really valuable things in life:  The natural resources of the earth and the time spent in the enjoyment of life well lived.  He saw living the homestead life as an opportunity to practice skills, restore pride in work, create a healthy balance with nature —all important facets of a life worth living.  He was not determined to eliminate the factory – he valued modern products and appliances – but only to remove it as the dominant institution and foundation of American culture.  The factory, he believed, should produce things that were desirable and essential to support life on the land and do so with skill and foresight and pride in work and product.  He took some encouragement from the progressive movement of his time as an example of a popular counter-revolutionary endeavor.  He thought consumers, particularly the middle class and farmers, and not politics, could alter the factory system.  He saw farmers, who were caught up in mass production, as their own worst enemies.  However, he knew that public action on any scale was a remote possibility. 

His ideas came to a clear focus with This Ugly Civilization (1929):  We must go back to the land, Borsodi insisted.  He believed that the homestead, centered on the family that lived on it and producing the essentials of life for themselves, would be the means to restoring the good life.  The homestead, he asserted, would raise food of superior nutritional quality, provide real physical work and health, develop manual and practical skills, strengthen familial bonds, and become the school for, and improving, the education and character of children.

Borsodi was a pioneer, and well known in his day.  Today, however, his 14 books have been long out of print.  There is very little biography.  A close associate of Borsodi, Mildred Loomis, wrote Ralph Borsodi:  Reshaping Modern Culture, of which only 300 copies were printed.  The best biography is an unpublished 1985 doctoral dissertation by Richard Schubart.  Much of the following biographical information comes from those two sources.  Two of Borsodi’s books, This Ugly Civilization and Flight from the City (his best work on back-to-the-land), also important resources for understanding his work, are reviewed.

In This Ugly Civilization Borsodi described the ugliness of urban-industrial America circa 1920s.  He saw the production and distribution of goods as the dominant element of American culture.  He attributed this ugliness to an abuse of the machine and to the factory system.  He saw it in the life of the worker consumed by this system and in the life of the citizen dependent upon its products.  Borsodi wrote: 
“The industrial revolution closed hundreds of thousands of workshops and community mills. It destroyed the value of incalculable investments of capital in domestic and workshop manufacturing equipment.”
“It destroyed the trades and livelihoods of millions of workers. It precipitated misery, ruin, and rioting. It was responsible for an amount of suffering that it is impossible for the human mind to fully visualize.”
So why not, he asked, create a counter-revolution?  Why not develop a humanistic response to the injustices of corporatism?  And why, he asked, should a plea for an alternative society be summarily dismissed as utopian?  Borsodi gave as an example of the counter-revolution a small, home-based flour mill and home baking.  He wrote a clear business prospectus for this bakery model.  He estimated that 6,000 families producing their own flour and bread would shut down one ugly factory.

Borsodi wrote This Ugly Civilization from his homestead.  He had relocated his family to a sixteen-acre property in a village not far from New York City, but still, in those days, out in the countryside.  Although the skyline of Manhattan can be seen from high points in the county, it fulfilled Borsodi’s criteria for a home within commuting distance of the city, and he maintained his day job in the city for several years.  The Borsodis slowly rebuilt the property, dug a garden, and began to build a lifestyle.  The book appeared just as the Great Depression descended upon America, and his homestead provided a model for a successful alternative to unemployment and poverty:   “A modern homestead is a small plot of land on which the family lives and works to produce as much as possible of its food, clothing and shelter – the source and scene of creativity, security and freedom.” 

It has to be remembered that, as a cost accountant, Borsodi very carefully explored the cost of homesteading both in terms of the savings (or earnings) it provided a family compared to factory goods, and the reduction of drudgery he and Myrtle Mae were able to realize by thought­ful development of their work methods.  Borsodi was not anti-machine; indeed, he bought what he thought were the best and most efficient mechanical devices including an electric range, flour mill and canning paraphernalia. 
He wrote about home canning and he wrote about spinning and weaving, citing Gandhi’s program to bring back home textile industry.  Enough people spinning and weaving could close more ugly factories and encourage factory workers to take up a more humane lifestyle.  At every point Borsodi made a business case for homesteading.  He methodically described a better and more satisfying, more self-sufficient life.

As an alternative to life in the factory, Borsodi wrote of the life of the agrarian community, an enterprise of farmers who also pursued other crafts and trades to supplement their incomes and provide for the needs of their families and neighbors.  He began to explore the benefits of associative living, of a lifestyle based on cooperation and mutual care that characterized pre-industrial life in America. 

Borsodi envisioned doing away with the routinized, unskilled drudgery of the factory worker.  “But the factory worker is not merely an automaton. He is a joyless automaton.  There is no song on his lips; no laughter in his heart.  Gone are the spring songs, the harvesting songs, the chanteys and the lays.”  Instead he advocated increasing reliance on skilled hand work and artistry to produce goods that are useful, attractive and durable.  Myrtle Mae turned her capable hands to reviving lost homemaking skill, and also to writing articles and giving lectures on how she and Ralph were transforming life in and around the home.  She sought to raise homemaking from drudgery to craft, from mere necessity to a lifestyle.  She turned homemaking into a science and an art.

In places Borsodi waxed philosophical.  He observed that the ugliness of civilization comes from the quantity-minded, while the beauty we find comes from the quality-minded.  He was troubled by the effect of mindless work, poor education and advertising in forming the mentality of the vast mass of people — a herd mentality.  To improve our culture requires both an improvement in education and the development of quality-minded leadership.  Borsodi was clearly a humanist with a bent for liberal learning[2].  He, realistically, appreciated that the formation of a quality mind is a difficult and exacting task for education.[3]

The stated goal of the factory system is to provide us with comfort.  But what is comfort?  Ugliness makes us uncomfortable.  How can we shut down the factory system and retain comfort?  Borsodi answered:  “The organized, creative and productive home can free us from our dependence upon the factory.”  He continued:  “The home of today, as the factory has fashioned it for the factory world's better functioning, cannot.  …   It is built around two individuals, often both working outside the home” that “has come to function economically only as a consuming center, wholly dependent upon the factory.”

Borsodi contrasted urban and rural living.  In 1920, he noted, 61.5% of Americas were classified as rural by the census, living on farms.  Even when not farming these families had land, facilities and equipment.  They could easily raise vegetables, fruit and poultry.  In contrast, the urban family lived mostly in rented housing with minimum space, appliances designed for factory consumption and little, if any, land.  The rural family was, unfortunately, also becoming dependent on the industrial economy, increasingly relying on the market, on canned goods and other commodities.  Borsodi charged that the industrial economy was destroying the American farm as a way of life[4]

Where do we start to rebuild a healthy life?  Borsodi observed that food, clothing and shelter absorbed, then, 65% of the income of the “average well-to-do” family (today about 43% of the budget of the average family).  Adding fuel and electricity brought it to 70% of the family budget (adding transportation costs and energy brings us to nearly 80% of that family budget today).  In his usual, systematic, style, Borsodi addressed each of the major household expenses in terms of home production.  He carefully analyzed the time required to earn the money needed to purchase these goods and services versus the time required to produce them in the home.  The homemade always won.
Borsodi returned to one of his favored themes — communal living.  What would it mean for a number of individuals and families to form a cooperative association?  He went as far as to draft a set of bylaws for such an “organic” homestead.  He mused:
“For quality-minded men and women, the economic independence which such a homestead would furnish would be of revolutionary consequence. For note this: while freedom from dependence upon the factory would prove a boon to all types of men, in it lies a distinctive value for this minority of mankind. In our factory-dominated civilization it would enable them to ‘sell’ their talents without having to prostitute them. If the majority of our artists, writers, architects, engineers, teachers, musicians, scientists were in this way to secure the freedom to refuse to do work which outrages their tastes, life for everybody would undergo a radical change. The mere fact that business men would lose their power to dictate to the idealists of the world; that they would have to solicit the services of idealists rather than that idealists should beg them to utilize their services, would be sufficient to change a society in which emphasis is placed upon money into a society in which emphasis would be placed upon ideals.”
“But it would go farther. It would furnish a better pattern of how life should be lived because it would furnish mankind a more intelligent social leadership. Our plutocracy, which today furnishes society with its culture patterns, makes accumulation seem the most desirable thing in life. It stimulates all of mankind to a reckless race for material possession on the theory that wealth is the key to happiness. An economically independent, intellectual aristocracy would very quickly demonstrate the hollowness of a life, of mere acquisition.”
“How can the quality-minded create such a society unless they free themselves from an economic servitude which makes them ridiculed and despised by their fellows?” 
Borsodi was certain this independent and self-sufficient life can be lived without drudgery.  Indeed, he saw it as a way to recapture the leisure we need to enjoy life and live well.  It is certainly not a machine-free life.  Borsodi coined the term “appropriate technology” brought to a large audience in the 1970s by E.F. Schumacher, with whom he once collaborated. 

Borsodi discussed the social-psychology of that day as it applied to developing the quality minded personality.  He outlined the principle barriers to achieving a quality, organic, homesteading life, including economic, physiological, social, biological, religious, political, moral, psychological, educational, and the individual.  Here we find his first formulation of what would become, at the end of his life, the “problems” of life.

The reception of This Ugly Civilization was overall positive.  Max Lerner called it an “audacious and prophetic work.”  Helen and Scott Nearing said the book was their original inspiration that led them to leave the city and set up their own now famous homesteading experiment in Vermont in 1932.  There were a few negative reviews of the book.  The worst criticism, from Rex Tugwell (who would become Borsodi’s nemesis), who dismissed the book as “utopian.”

Borsodi drew his largest public audience when the New Republic ran a three-part condensed version of This Ugly Civilization during the summer of 1929.  Eleanor Roosevelt (Franklin Roosevelt was then governor of New York) read the New Republic series and visited the Borsodis at Dogwoods. 
There was clearly a strong back-to-the-land sentiment in the air.  Henry Ford was quoted as saying:  “No unemployment insurance can be compared to an alliance between a man and a plot of land.” As the Depression deepened, F.D.R., in 1931, while still governor of New York and a year before his election as President, proposed a land use plan at Cornell to “marry industry with agriculture.”  This plan promoted rural road improvement to support more traffic by autos, trucks and buses serving farms, railroads, rural electrification, and improved mail service.  In many ways this was a rehash of Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission.  In January 1932, F.D.R. said, “We have sufficient studies to know that an immediate gain can occur if as many people as possible can return closer to the sources of agricultural food supply.”  Ralph Borsodi was an important source of these “sufficient studies.”

The book set Borsodi on a new course.  Many communities across the country were experimenting in ways to relieve the distress of the Great Depression.  Elizabeth Nutting, Director of the Council of Social Agencies in Dayton, read the New Republic series.  Dayton had begun a plan of cooperative “production units.”  A Unit Committee had been established which bought 160 acres four miles from Dayton and divided it into 35 three-acre homesteads with an additional 55 acres held in common.  Twelve families established their small homesteads and set out to achieve a greater self sufficiency through production of food and barter.[5]  Nutting invited Borsodi to Dayton to explore combining production units with his model of homesteading.

The Dayton project needed capital and as the depression deepened, money became scarcer.  The Federal government provided some funding but then decided to centralize govern­ment control of the homesteads.  Borsodi fought back.  He believed the project would fail if placed under centralized control.  He had a wide range of contacts and considerable support for his “decentralism,” even within government, but he also had opponents, and there was resistance from Dayton business owners.   Rex Tugwell, then a New Deal insider, opposed homesteading in preference to suburban Greenbelt towns.  The Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickles, invited Borsodi to Washington to discuss the issue.  

Borsodi strongly recommended local self determin­ation.  Ickles, against this advice, decided to federalize and bureaucratize the homestead projects in 1934, dealing Borsodi a stunning defeat.  Borsodi left Dayton in disgust, returning to Dogwoods, intending to set up a “true,” not federally subsidized, homestead movement.  As he predicted, the federalized Dayton project, and the Federal Homesteading Administration itself, slid into oblivion, choked by red tape.

Borsodi, though disappointed, learned from the experience and moved on.  He well knew that the public would not readily accept sweeping changes.  He had already documented the barriers he saw to the acceptance of social innovation.  At the root of the change process would have to be education and leadership development. 

In 1933, Borsodi published his second and far more comprehensive book on homesteading, Flight from the City: An Experiment in Creative Living on the Land (republished as a paperback in 1972).  In his introduction, Borsodi commented on decentralization, of both industry and population, of moving away from the city and ultimately back to the farm and family enterprise to produce the food and goods needed by local societies.  He referred to the Dayton experiment, which he called “colonization.”  His ideal “colony” would consist of 40 homesteading families.  As an appendix to the book he provided considerable details about the Dayton experiment.  He still found the Dayton idea sound, but the takeover of management by an outside entity, he insisted, was a fatal error.  These colonies, or associations, would have to be self-managing, self-governing.  The term he came to favor was “decentralized.”

Borsodi used several chapters to describe his homesteading experience in detail.  He reiterated how his family had fled from the city on the eve of the post-war depression and established their homestead with little in the way of knowledge and skills for growing food and taking care of themselves.  Yet, by the end of the first year they had harvested and canned an abundance of food and established themselves on their land.

Borsodi described his careful cost accounting of producing their own food.  Even with home labor added, their canned goods cost 20-30% less than store-bought canned goods.  True, he said, the factories, with their elaborate division of labor and economies of scale, could produce a can of food for less, but the addition of advertising, management and distribution costs significantly raised the final price.  Home-grown food, he added, is also of higher quality and provides better family nutrition with the additional benefit of improved health and resistance to illness.  Labor replaces the cult of physical fitness, bestowing a strong as well as healthy body.  From the garden he moved to diary and poultry.  He planned to grow more of his own livestock feed, thus cutting even more costs.  He had not yet undertaken raising grain but did buy a grist mill to grind flour to produce better quality bread at a fraction of the store prices.

The Borsodis also undertook weaving to make cloth for clothing, blankets and wall hangings.  They added a flying shuttle to a home loom and were able to produce a yard of cloth per hour.  Borsodi wrote proudly of a fine twill business suit he had tailor made from homespun. 

As the Borsodis gained confidence in their skills and acquired tools, they decided to build a house.  Rockland County was named, or so the locals joked, from the abundant rocks that were extracted from the fields.  Using a then popular technique for building with stone developed by Ernest Flagg, they built their new house.  They added a well and power pump, improved sewage disposal and developed an efficient method for heating water.  They continually studied ways to save labor and drudgery.

In the seventh chapter of Flight from the City, Borsodi introduced the School of Living.  The idea was started with the education of their two children.  Dissatisfied with the local school administration, Ralph and Myrtle Mae started a home school.  They turned “education” into “learning,” instilled a joy of reading in their two sons and sought to awaken their active young imaginations.  The school combined living with play and work.  It involved not only the children but adults — parents and, ideally, grandparents.  He moved on to develop an adult, practical, life-long learning program.

Starting from his own experiences in school and reading at the library, Borsodi outlined a more holistic education.  Elaborating on the barriers presented in This Ugly Civilization, he wrote:  “We need for every-day living: (1) economic polices, (2) physiological, (3) social, (4) biological, (5) psychological habits; and (6) religious, (7) moral, (8) political (9) education, (10) individual values.”  To that list he added history – past, present and future.  He also added arts and sciences.  These subjects were learned not in separate compartments but as different facets of the whole of living our lives.  They are approached not in the abstract but in terms of their use in life.

Borsodi moved on to what would be another of his major themes:  the land trust.  He tallied up the cost of starting a homestead.  He observed that there were then fifteen million men out of work and without resources.  He, characteristically, carefully calculated what would be needed for a family of five to live comfortably.  He estimated that they would need to raise two and a half tons of food plus dairy and meat.  That, he concluded, could be accomplished on three acres of land.  Homesteads produce not only food but goods, each according to the needs and skills of the family, and surplus food and goods become a source of trade.  He described the advantages of cooperative sharing of things like expensive farm equipment.  Pasture and wood­lands could be held in commons.  Raising grain, he noted, was an excellent opportunity for cooperative farming.  Working together, a few families could raise all that was needed for the community. 

Going back to Henry George, he advocated putting land into trust, if not into the public domain, and making it available for the cost of rent.  In 1935 he found 40 acres of land near Suffern, New York, not far from Dogwoods.  A number of families had been frequent visitors to Dogwoods, and 16 of them decided to take up homesteading, a commuter colony, in what they called the Bayard Lane Community (at the end of Bayard Lane).  Instead of a hefty down-payment and mortgage, these families could rent from the trust.  The new community would be developed not around church or factory or trade, but around the school — The School of Living. 

In the introduction to the second edition of Flight from the City, Borsodi listed purposes of the School of Living:
·      To associate a select group of artists, craftsman and teachers in a demonstration of the contribution which decentralized, self-sufficient living in the country may make to redress the economic and psychological insecurity of our industrialized civilization
·      To study and develop the possibilities of the home and homestead as a productive and creative institution
·      To furnish to men and women the opportunity to follow a carefully developed plan of learning and experiences in living securely, comfortably and richly and in leading others to live equally well
·      To offer those who may be able to come for short visits only a place to see and study the relationship of homesteading and domestic produce:
o   To the past, present and future
o   To our present industrialized, centralized, organized, political society; and
o   To make life more meaningful to themselves here and now.

But that is another story.

[1] So did management guru Peter Drucker in 1939 in his The End of Economic Man.
[2] Borsodi formed an early alliance with the Great Books seminar approach of St. John’s College.
[3] He devoted much of the rest of his life to achieving quality education.
[4] Much of this story is in the preceding chapters on American agrarianism.
[5] Borsodi wrote about them in an article for The Nation, showing an early sympathy for the experiment.