Flight From The City


Borsodi, Ralph. Flight From The City. New York: Harper & Row, 1933.

    Chronicles the Borsodi family's journey from job-in-the-city dependency to self-sufficient country independence. Borsodi was far-sighted enough to accomplish this move during the prosperity of the 1920s; his books served as guideposts for many anguished wage-slaves who saw his book as a guiding light toward financial security, even survival, during the Great Depression. More, Ralph Borsodi was an amazingly intelligent social critic whose view cut through to the very heart of the contradictions and problems of industrial civilization. PUBLIC DOMAIN.



 The question to which I have been seeking an answer is whether the way of life described in this book is a way out for a population evidently unhappy both in the city and in the country. Those who are interested in this question, and those who are considering such a way of living, may find in this volume an answer to many of the problems which perplex them in connection with it. Those who are interested in the broader implications of the Borsodi family's quest of comfort in a civilization evidently intolerably uncomfortable will find them fully discussed in This Ugly Civilization.

    We are living in one of the most interesting periods in the world's history. Industrial civilization is either on the verge of collapse or of rebirth on a new social basis. Men and women who desire to escape from dependence upon the present industrial system and who have no desire to substitute for it dependence upon a state controlled system, are beginning to experiment with a way of living which is neither city life nor farm life, but which is an effort to combine the advantages and to escape the disadvantages of both. Reports of the Department of Agriculture call attention to the revival of handicraft industries--the making of rugs and other textiles, furniture, baskets and pottery--for sale along the roads, in near-by farmers' markets, or for barter for other products for the farm and home. Farmers, according to the Bureau of Home Economics, are turning back to custom milling of flour because they can thus get a barrel of flour for five bushels of wheat, whereas by depending upon the milling industry they have to "pay" eighteen bushels of wheat for the same quantity of flour.



    We lived in New York City--the metropolis of the country. We had the opportunity to enjoy the incredible variety of foodstuffs which pour into that great city from every corner of the continent; to live in the most luxurious apartments built to house men and women in this country; to use the speedy subways, the smart restaurants, the great office buildings, the libraries, theaters, public schools--all the thousand and one conveniences which make New York one of the most fantastic creations in the history of man. Yet in the truest sense, we could not enjoy any of them.

    How could we enjoy them when we were financially insecure and never knew when we might be without a job; when we lacked the zest of living which comes from real health and suffered all the minor and sometimes major ailments which come from too much excitement, too much artificial food, too much sedentary work, and too much of the smoke and noise and dust of the city; when we had to work just as hard to get to the places in which we tried to entertain ourselves as we had to get to the places in which we worked; when our lives were barren of real beauty--the beauty which comes only from contact with nature and from the growth of the soil, from flowers and fruits, from gardens and trees, from birds and animals?


    Here I came much nearer to a satisfactory explanation of the curious results of our cost studies of home canning. Factory production costs had, it is true, decreased year after year as industry had developed. Nothing had developed to stop the factory in its successful competition with handicraft industry, so far as costs of production were concerned. Our economists, therefore, took it for granted that the superiority of the factory in competition with the home would continue indefinitely into the future. What they overlooked, however, was that while production costs decrease year after year, distribution costs increase. The tendency of distribution and transportation to absorb more and more of the economies made possible by factory production was ignored. Transportation, warehousing, advertising, salesmanship, wholesaling, retailing--all these aspects of distribution cost more than the whole cost of fabricating the goods themselves. Less than one-third of what the consumer pays when actually buying goods at retail is paid for the raw materials and costs of manufacturing finished commodities; over two-thirds is paid for distribution. While we were busily reducing the amount of labor needed to produce things--as the technocrats recently discovered--we were busily engaged in increasing the numbers employed to transport, and sell, and deliver the products which we were consuming. That a time might come when all the economies of factory production would be lost in the cost of getting the product from the points of production to the points of consumption had been generally ignored.


    One after another we gave up predigested breakfast foods, white bread, factory-made biscuits and crackers and cakes, polished rice, white sugar. But it wasn't easy to secure suitable substitutes for all the foods which we believed unfit for human consumption. What should we do in order to secure clean, raw milk, fresh vegetables, and decent chickens? The pasteurized milk which we had been drinking for years was a crime against the human stomach even though the germs which got into the milk in the course of its progress from the cow-stable to our back doors were all embalmed and thus rendered harmless. The fresh vegetables and fruits in the city markets were of necessity of inferior qualities; they had to be picked green, before they ripened naturally, in order to make it possible to transport them without too much spoilage. In addition, they withered and dried out while being shipped, stored and displayed for sale. Meat came to us from a spick and span butcher shop, but we could never forget that it had first passed through the packing-houses which Upton Sinclair had called "the jungle." After we moved to the country and acquired the habit of eating fresh-killed chicken, we could hardly force ourselves to eat chicken in the city. Nothing which a cook can do to a chicken in the kitchen can disguise for us the flavor which develops in a chicken after it has been kept for weeks and possibly for many months in cold storage with all its intestines intact inside. In the course of our studies of diet we became conscious for the first time of the fact that all these things were part and parcel of city living and of the factory packing of foodstuffs to which industrialism seemed to have irretrievably condemned the consuming public.


    Now let us contrast the sheets which were in my grandmother's home with the sheets in our home today and in that of practically all of the homes of industrialized America. Compared with the luxurious heavy linen in my grandmother's home, we use a relatively cheap, sleazy, factory-spun, factory-woven and factory-finished sheet, which we used to send out to commercial laundries, and which we replaced about every two years. With domestic laundering they last about twice as long. True, the first cost of our factory-made sheets is much less than the cost of the hand-made linens, but the final and complete cost is much greater and at no time do we have the luxury of using the linens which in my grandmother's home were accepted as their everyday due. I do not know what her linen sheets cost in labor and materials fifty years ago. We pay about $1.25 for ours, and on the basis of commercial laundering, have to purchase new ones every two years. Our expenditure for sheets for thirty years, with a family one-quarter the size of grandmother's, would therefore be $18.75 per sheet--much more, I am sure, than was spent for sheets during the same period of time in my grandmother's home. And at the end of thirty years, we would have nothing but a pile of sleazy cotton rags, while in the old home they still had the original sheets probably good for again as much service.

   ...............   In the average home, a loom which will weave a width of a yard is sufficient. Ours is able to handle fabrics up to forty-four inches in width. While many things can be made on a simple two-harness loom, we find the four-harness loom a more useful type because of its greater range of design. But every loom should be equipped with an efficient system for warping, and with a flying shuttle, if it is to enable the home-weaver to compete upon an economic basis with the factory. Neither of these are expensive--in fact, the whole investment in equipment in order to weave need not exceed $75 if one can make the flying shuttle arrangement oneself. The shuttle attachment on my loom was home-made and took me only three or four hours to put together. With such a loom, even an average weaver can produce a yard of cloth an hour--and a speedy weaver, willing to exert himself, can produce thirty yards per day. Since it takes only seven yards of twenty-seven-inch cloth to make a three-piece suit for a man, it is possible to weave the cloth for a suit in a single day on a small loom, and in less than a day on a loom able to handle fiftyfour-inch cloth.


    In the course of the year during which I spent all my spare hours remodeling the house, building in cupboards and closets and furniture, putting in electric lights, installing an automatic pumping system, I acquired a wholesome confidence in my ability to work with tools. I learned that deficiencies of experience and skill could be offset by the time and pains put into each job. Before I was through with my building operations on "Sevenacres," I came to the conclusion that most of the work which we think only skilled mechanics can do is quite within the capacities of any intelligent and persevering man. While some of the work which they do, and certainly the speed with which they can work, requires years of experience, most of their skills involve relatively simple techniques. The mysterious knowledge which makes the average city man, in his ignorance, telephone for an electrician whenever a fuse blows out or an electric light fixture fails to function, and to hunt for the janitor or call for a plumber when a faucet leaks, hasn't the right to be mysterious to anyone over the age of fifteen.


    Here with regard to water we have another of the many illustrations available of the mistaken idea that mass production is of necessity economical. With water, as with other conveniences and with most products, what is saved by mass production tends to be lost in the costs of distribution. It undoubtedly costs the city of Suffern less to pump water than it costs me in the country. My small and relatively inefficient pumping system cannot hope to compete in cost per gallon of water raised with the large and relatively efficient pumping system of a city of many thousands of people. But when I pump my water on the "Dogwoods," all costs in connection with water end. When the city pumps its water, its real costs of supplying water only begin. It is the cost of distributing the water through an expensive system of water-mains which absorbs the economies of the "mass" pumping, and replaces them with an actual higher cost than that of the individual homesteader The city's investment and operating costs for its pumping system are negligible in comparison with its investment and maintenance costs for its watermains. The pumping costs are taken care of by the water tax, but the distribution costs are hidden in higher land values, except right when the mains are laid when they are made visible in the form of assessments against the lots before which they have been laid.

   ...............   A simple and inexpensive septic tank, with a drainage tile system to dispose of the overflow from the tank, is all that is needed in order not only to dodge the heavy cost of sewage disposal in the city, but for converting the waste into a contribution to soil fertility. What is taken from the soil is then returned. After we installed such a system on our place in the country, the sewage problem vanished for us.


    Thus began our experiment in domestic education. And again, individual production proved its superiority to mass production. Mrs. Borsodi found it possible to give the boys, in two hours' desk work, all the training which they were supposed to get, according to the state, in a whole school day plus the work which they were supposed to do at home. One of her first discoveries was that the training of the boys on such sheer fundamentals as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division had been so poor that mathematical progress and understanding were almost impossible. She made the boys retrace their steps. Some conscientious drilling on the A, B, Cs, and they were then able to gallop through the more difficult parts of arithmetic. Working closely with them, she knew whether or not they really understood. She did not have to rely upon an examination to find out--an examination which revealed little to the teacher because of its mechanical limitations. Two hours of such study, I agreed with Mrs. Borsodi, were sufficient for the sort of thing upon which the public schools concentrated; the rest of the day would prove of more educational value to the boys if devoted to reading and play. The play, in such a home, was just as educational as the reading. Productive and creative activities in the garden, the kitchen, the workshop, the loom-room furnished the boys opportunities to "play" in ways since adopted as regular procedure by the progressive schools. In our home, however, such play was directly related to useful functions; they were not merely interesting exercises.

  ...............  Our experience showed that in such a home as we were establishing these opportunities abounded. Education was really reciprocal; in the very effort to educate the boys, we educated ourselves. Indeed, it is a notion of mine that no real educational influence is exerted upon the pupil unless there is also an incidental educational effect upon the teacher. The average public school is operated upon the theory that this personal relationship is unwise; that the relationship should be impersonal, objective, and mechanical, the example of Socrates and the peripatetic school to the contrary notwithstanding.

  ...............  In this school the members of the family, old and young, and those who have lived with us, have been both faculty and students. The subject which they studied has been living, the pedagogic system has been what might be called the work-play method, the textbooks have been anything and everything printed which touched upon the problems of the good life in any way. The absence of formality in this school may deceive the uninitiated, and the fact that a systematic educational activity is going forward may be overlooked. For that reason I once put down the various projects which have in one way or another been the subjects of our study, and found that they formed a fairly comprehensive curriculum falling into four major divisions--Art and Science, Management, History, Philosophy.


    The production of 4,750 pounds of various foods, 200 dozen eggs, and the 1,200 quarts of milk above listed would require from three to five acres of land. A homestead of this size would make it possible to raise not only the food for the table, but the feed for the livestock, the livestock consisting of 25 laying hens and 25 cockerels or capons (raised from 75 chicks); two grade or pure-blooded Swiss goats with their four kids each year (two of these kids, the bucks, could be slaughtered and added to the meat diet, the does being raised and probably sold), and two hogs raised from pigs purchased each year. The bees, of which there ought to be three or four hives, would, of course, feed themselves. A considerable number of variations in this livestock scheme are possible without materially changing the land area needed to raise feed. Turkeys, ducks, and other fowls may be added or substituted for some of the chickens; sheep raised in place of hogs; a cow used instead of milch goats. The cow would require more land than the goats; the addition of sheep or an increase in the quantity of hogs would also increase the area of land needed for grain and pasturage. The area devoted to the orchard and the kitchen garden would have to be large enough to supply about 500 quarts of vegetables and fruits to be canned and preserved for winter, or to be dehydrated if that method of food preservation is preferred.

    On a three-acre homestead, about one and a half acres of the land would need to be put in grain for the goats, hogs, and chickens; about a quarter of an acre into alfalfa, soy beans or some similar crop, and a half acre reserved for pasturage. A quarter of an acre would be needed for the corn or wheat for the family's cereals. This means about two acres for field crops. The remaining acre would be all that was needed for the vegetable garden, the orchard, the barnyard, the flower-gardens and lawns, and the homesite itself. Indeed, if the family were content to live exclusively on vegetables and nuts, all its food could be raised on this one acre of land. On this general plan, three acres would be all that would be needed, while five acres would be a generous allowance. If a common pasture were made available, the three acres would be ample. I therefore suggested that the Dayton Homestead Units should consist of 160 acre tracts laid out for between thirty and thirty-five homesteads of three acres each, with the remainder of the land for common use.


    As I write these lines, the newspapers are carrying a story to the effect that 15,252,000 men and women are unemployed. This means, according to The Business Week, which was responsible for this estimate, that during November, 1932, over 31.2 per cent of those who are normally employed in the United States were unable to earn a living: 46 per cent of those ordinarily employed in manufacturing; 45 per cent of those in mining; 40 per cent of those in forestry and fishing; 38 per cent of those in transportation; 35 per cent of those in domestic and personal service; 21 per cent of those in trade; I7 per cent of those in agriculture; 1O per cent of those in public service; and 10 per cent of our professional classes were unemployed. On the basis of one and a half dependents for each worker, 37,500,000 men, women, and children were directly affected by unemployment. And the situation since that estimate was made has become steadily worse. But these millions by no means number fully all those affected by the economic catastrophe which struck the country four years ago. It would be safe to say that again as many have had their standards of living sharply reduced by reductions in wages, by part-time work, and by declines in the price of what they produce or possess. And if we were to add those who live in terror of unemployment or of financial ruin, almost every person in the country would have to be included.

    After nearly two centuries of industrial expansion and a full century of social reforms during which we destroyed monarchical tyranny, abolished human slavery, established a sound currency, reduced greatly the hours of labor, granted universal suffrage, and adopted countless other reforms, we find most of the country unemployed, reduced to poverty, dependent upon charity, in terror of ruin! In spite of the fact that the whole history of industrial expansion and social reform is filled with demonstrations of the impossibility of establishing security, much less happiness, by any measures which still leave the individual dependent for his living upon the industrial behemoth, what has thus far been done and what is now proposed by industrial leaders, politicians, and economists is in the main merely a continuance of the futile process of trying to produce prosperity by creating new industries, expanding credit, cheapening money, spreading work, shortening hours of labor, or establishing unemployment insurance.

  ...............  The essence of the matter is that when the farmer shifted his productive activities from production for his own use to production for sale, he subjected himself to economic insecurities of a type roughly comparable in nature to the insecurities to which the wage-worker and the office-worker are now subjected. The farmer at one time was self-sufficient. He not only produced his own foodstuffs; he produced his own fabrics and clothing. Weaving and knitting were as much the activities of the homestead as farming. Sheep furnished him wool; the cattle he slaughtered furnished him leather; a wood lot furnished him fuel for heat and cooking. The farmer of the past, in most instances, spent the part of the year when farming operations could not be performed because of the season, operating grist-mills or lumber-mills, or working at some craft or trade. Such a life had only the insecurities which nature itself seems to impose upon human activities, and the possible damage from storm and drought, from locusts and hail, was reduced by storage of supplies and diversification of production. The threat of dispossession and unemployment which the dependence of the farmer upon the cash market has brought into farming was then unknown. Today farmers have abandoned not only the production of fabrics and clothing, but on about 20 per cent of the farms in this country there is not even a cow or a chicken; on 30 per cent there is not a single hog, and on approximately 90 per cent not even one sheep. What is more, on many of the farms in our banner agricultural states no gardens are kept and almost every article of food is purchased at the store. If the unemployed of the cities turn to that kind of farming, they will merely have exchanged one kind of economic insecurity for another.


    We have in this country at present about fifteen million men and women, formerly employed, who are today unemployed. In the aggregate, this army of ex-factory-workers, ex-farm-laborers, ex-railroad-workers, ex-office and store workers, has created such a stupendous and complex problem that it is easy for us to forget that in its fundamentals the problem of every one of these fifteen million human beings is exactly the same. If we consider it from the standpoint of the individual unemployed workers, we shall avoid the danger of being deceived by the sheer size of the problem. Now if we consider it this way, here is what we find: John Doe, who was formerly employed--perhaps in an office, perhaps in a factory--is now no longer employed by that office or that factory. What is more, he cannot find employment in other offices or factories.

 ...............   When a family cannot support itself, and secure the food, clothing, and shelter it needs by getting employment in a factory, or an office, or a store, the only sensible thing for it to do is to support itself by producing these things for itself on its own homestead. If the unemployed are to be made secure at least as to the needs of life, nothing short of this is adequate. They surely cannot be made secure by shifting their dependence for their livelihood from the business cycle to the political cycle, neither of which is capable of coping with the inherent insecurity of industrial production.

From the homesteading library:

Personal Note (TB):

I guess I would agree (in principle) with just about everything..... although the technology might need updating in a few places: Solar energy instead of a kerosene heater, for example.....  He's also thinking in terms of 3 - 5 acres for a family homestead.... Which is probably much more efficient than smaller units -except of course, eventually one runs into land distribution problems. Climate and soil conditions will also vary in different parts of the world -and so local produce and lifestyles (culture and agriculture) must also vary in accordance. There are probably no "universal" solutions.


Project Home Farm

Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2013