Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article title “To Save Money, Maybe You Should Skip Breakfast.” Cue the internet outrage. The article was behind a paywall, but from what I could see, it used the increasing price of eggs to suggest that people can economize by skipping breakfast. I’m not here to add to the moral outrage. Many others have done that already. Skipping breakfast is not a helpful suggestion for people struggling with food insecurity, who may already skip meals. The article is tone-deaf clickbait, one of many ridiculous finance hacks that clog my newsfeed, like articles that suggest I could be a millionaire if I gave up my daily coffee habit, or that I could pay off my student loans by moving back in with my parents. Neither are practical solutions.
I mention the article because it reminded me of the chapter on breakfast in Caroline French Benton’s 1908 housekeeping manual for new brides, Living on a Little. The manual is in the form of a novel. Younger sister Dolly is engaged to engineer Fred, who has departed for a year to work on a project in South America. In the meantime, Dolly, wants to learn how to properly run a household. She appeals to her older married sister Mary for instruction. In the chapter on breakfast, Mary explains that during the winter when eggs are expensive, she only serves one egg apiece, once or twice a week. Dolly is aghast. “But one apiece! My dear Mary, I am positively certain Fred will demand two eggs for his breakfast, if that is all he is to have.” Mary assures her that Fred won’t notice if the eggs are scrambled in an omelet or served over toast. They may be economizing, but at least Benton’s fictional characters are still eating breakfast.
I found Living on a Little a few years ago while browsing Project Gutenberg, and I finally read it over Christmas break. When researching a cookbook, I start by looking for information about the author or corporation that produced it. Benton wrote several books on cooking and entertaining, so when I sat down to write this post, I thought her biography would be the easy part of my day. I could not have been more wrong. I searched the internet and several academic databases, and I came up empty handed. Wikipedia’s entry for her is typical of the information I found: “Caroline Frances Burrell, née Benedict (died 20 September 1923) was a prolific author who wrote under the pseudonym Caroline French Benton.”
That’s it, except for an incomplete list of her books.
At this point, I could have stopped and focused on the content of the book, but I can’t help myself. I knew there had to be more to her story. My first stop was the US census on Family Search. I found several Caroline Burrells, but one on the 1900 census caught my attention – a 39-year-old Caroline B. Burrell in Brooklyn married to Reverend Joseph Dunn Burrell. New York seemed like a logical place for a writer to live, and the age seemed right given the publication dates of her books. Married women sometimes used their maiden names as middle names, so I reasoned the B. could stand for Benedict. Someone had linked her to their family tree, which led to an earlier census record with her maiden name Benedict. I still wanted to confirm I had the right Caroline. Using her husband’s name, additional internet sleuthing led me to bulletin of Yale alumni obituaries published in 1930. Sure enough, Joseph Dunn Burrell’s obituary mentioned that his wife Caroline wrote under the pen name Caroline French Benton.
Here’s what I was able to piece together about Caroline French Benton’s biography in my afternoon of searching. Born in Lake Forest, Illinois, in July 1861 or 1862 (the census dates vary), Caroline Frances Benedict was the third child of Amzi Benedict, listed on the 1880 census as a cloth merchant, and Katherine Walrath. Caroline’s eldest brother died in infancy. Her older sister, Enella Benedict, studied art in Chicago, New York and Paris. Enella became a well-known Chicago artist and founded the art school at Hull House. Caroline had three younger siblings, though only one, brother Sidney, lived to adulthood.
In October 1888, Caroline married Joseph Dunn Burrell in a ceremony at the Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest. Joseph graduated from Yale in 1881 and Union Theological Seminary in 1884. After graduation, he became the minister of the Presbyterian church in Clinton, Iowa. How Caroline and Joseph met is a mystery. The newlyweds returned to Joseph’s post in Iowa where Caroline gave birth to two daughters: Katherine a year after the wedding and Monica in 1891. In 1892, Joseph accepted a position as minister of the Classon Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, a post he held until 1919.
The 1900 census provides a small window into the family’s life. The census lists Reverend Joseph Burrell, 41, as head of household. Caroline, age 39, is listed below, followed by daughters Katherine, age 11, and Monica, age 9. During this time, census enumerators filled out the forms, so not unusual for names to contain misspellings, such as Katherine’s name being spelled with a “C.” The two other members of the household, the cook Aline Forst and waitress Amelia Borri, were both recent Finnish immigrants in their early 20s. Servants were necessary to maintain a middle-class household, but they could be difficult to retain. Young women left domestic service for a variety of reasons, such as getting married or finding jobs that did not require living with one’s employer. Not surprisingly, neither Aline nor Amelia were living with the family in the 1905 New York census.
Caroline’s first book, Gala-Day Luncheons: A Little Book of Suggestions was published in 1901 after the family was settled in Brooklyn. It offers suggestions for seasonal and themed lunches. She may have written short domestic pieces for newspapers and magazines before Gala-Day‘s publication. I ran across brief mentions of this kind of freelance work, but I need to do more research. Gala-Day Luncheons was followed by several books including
- A Little Cook-Book for a Little Girl (1905)
- A Little Housekeeping Book for a Little Girl; or Margaret’s Saturday Mornings (1906)
- Living on a Little (1908)
- The Mothers’ Book: Suggestions Regarding the Mental and Moral Development of Children (1909 – editor)
- A Little Girl’s Cookery Book with Mary Florence Hodge (1911)
- Fairs and Fetes (1912)
- Easy Meals (1913)
- Women’s Club Work and Programs or First Aid to Club Women (1913)
- The Fun of Cooking: A Story for Boys and Girls (1914)
- The Complete Club Book for Women (1915)
- Easy Entertaining (1917)
- Our Girls and Our Times (1927)
Some books are published under the pseudonym Caroline French Benton, and others are published under her real name – Caroline Benedict Burrell. The themes of the books – entertaining, household management, child-rearing, volunteer work – would have appealed to middle class readers of the era.
Which brings me back to Living on a Little. Dolly’s first task was to write a list of yearly expenses based on Fred’s $1800 annual income.
- Food = $365
- Rent and Fuel = $480
- Service = $200
- Clothes = $100
- Total = $1,195
This left a grand total of $600 out of Fred’s yearly salary for incidentals. At first, Dolly thought the budget looked fine, but Mary quickly reminded her of all the expenses that come out of the incidentals category, like medical bills, life insurance, car-fares, and church offerings. To this Dolly declared she would do all her own housework, cutting the service bill significantly. Mary dashed her optimism and pointed out that at minimum, she’d have to hire out the washing. Instead, Mary argued that food was the category where she could save with careful planning.
While the book is broadly about household management, it mostly focuses on how to manage the cost of food, which amounts to 20.2% of Dolly’s budget, which was nearly double the 10.3% that Americans spent on food in 2021, according to the USDA. Since Dolly spent a larger percentage of her budget on food, there was greater potential for savings.
To put food costs into perspective, let’s look at eggs. In Living on a Little, Mary said eggs cost $0.04 each in the winter, a cost that she considered exorbitant. In today’s money, that equates to a real price of $1.22 per egg, or $14.64 per dozen (here’s the calculator I like to use). You can see why poor Fred only got one egg with his breakfast!
Like the Wall Street Journal article on skipping breakfast, Living on a Little was not for people who were truly struggling. It was for middle class audiences with aspirations and fears about their place on the social ladder. Fred was not always going to be an entry level engineer. At some point, he and Dolly’s financial situation would improve. It was up to Dolly to make sure they lived gracefully within their means until that happened. Mary cautioned Dolly against expensive boxed cereal and eggs in favor of oatmeal, rice, and corn meal. Fred still got a hot breakfast everyday, even though it was simple fare. By economizing on breakfast, Dolly could save enough to have friends over for luncheon or dinner. As a minister’s wife, Caroline Burrell likely knew the challenges of living on a small budget while maintaining a middle class appearance. Her general advice does not sound out of place today. Shop sales and buy food in season when it’s cheaper. Go easy on expensive food items by finding less expensive substitutes, except for coffee. Burrell is a woman after my own heart. She advises buying good coffee or going without. There is no in-between.
Caroline Burrell died sometime after 1942, not in 1923 as all the sources say. She is listed as a survivor in her sister Enella’s 1942 obituary. I haven’t been able to track down her death record yet. Unfortunately, this is where her story ends, for the moment. I’m going to keep digging. She seems like an interesting person, and there must be more to her story.