A money story for kids from the 1800's

By Stew


We have read short-story books to our children since they were able to sit still, but lately we have been sharing longer books with our daughters in the evenings. We are reading a chapter a day from the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and our five year old and six year old are currently enjoying Farmer Boy. Laura Ingalls Wilder books are certainly not cutting edge fiction or drama, but they have a charm that winds up being a good way to end the day. The stories are from a simpler time when all one had on which to depend was family, neighbors, God, and the ability to work, work, work. The accounts of the amount of labor required just to make a meal, much less run a farm is nothing short of amazing. The Wilders farmed in upstate New York in the 1850’s and everyone in the family worked long hours from the earliest age. The story is set when Almanzo (Laura Ingall’s future husband) was nine years old.

As I was reading aloud a few weeks ago,¬† Almanzo’s father gave a great lesson on the value of money to his son. The chapter is too long to print here here completely, but you can find the whole story on Google or Amazon if you would like to read the excerpt in context. I will summarize:

Almanzo was in town with some of his friends on a holiday. One of his friends, Frank, wanted a 5 cent lemonade, so he asked his father for a nickel and purchased the beverage. Apparently, Frank asked his father for money all the time and usually received what he asked for. Almanzo wanted a lemonade too, but knew that he was forbidden to ask his father for money – until his friend “double-dared” him to ask for the coin. Under pressure from his friends, Almanzo summoned the courage to approach his father. The man to whom his father was speaking said, “The boy’s too young, Wilder. You can’t make a youngster understand that.” However, Mr. Wilder thought Almanzo could understand:

“Say you have a seed potato in the spring, what do you do with it?”

“You cut it up, ” Almanzo said.

“Go on, son.”

“Then you harrow – first you manure the field, and plow it. Then you harrow, and mark the ground. And plant the potatoes, and plow them, and hoe them. You plow and hoe them twice.”

“That’s right, son. And then?”

“Then you dig them and put them down cellar.”

“Yes. Then you pick them over all winter; you throw out all the little ones and the rotten ones. Come spring, you load them up and haul them here to Malone, and you sell them. And if you get a good price, son, how much do you get to show for all the work?” How much do you get for a half a bushel of potatoes?”

“Half a dollar,” Almanzo said.

“Yes,” said Father. ” That’s what is in this half-dollar, Almanzo. The work that raised half a bushel of potatoes is in it.”

And then to Almanzo’s shock, Father reached into his pocket, pulled out a silver half-dollar and handed it to him.

“It’s yours,” said Father. “You could buy a suckling pig with it, if you want to. You could raise it, and it would raise a litter of pigs, worth four, five dollars apiece. Or you can trade that half-dollar for lemonade, and drink it up. You do as you want, it’s your money.”

Not only had his father given him money after merely being asked, he had given him ten times as much as Almanzo had asked for. Needless to say, Almanzo when showed all of his friends the shiny coin, they were duly impressed, but no lemonade touched his throat that day.

The truth was that Mr. Wilder gave to Almanzo a far greater gift than 50 cents. The value of money is representational – it is an abstract concept that is difficult for children to understand. Almanzo did not understand the value of money, but he understood the value of hard work. Almanzo’s father had spoken in terms that he knew that his son would understand. Nine-year old Almanzo came to understand¬† the value of money at a young age and it is possible that he understood it better than many adults of today. He learned that

  • money is valuable.
  • money represents work.
  • money is not always valued by everyone else.
  • short-term financial discipline leads to long-term gain.
  • satisfaction and happiness does not come from money.
  • contentment does not come from the things that money can buy.
  • if money is properly cared for, it will grow.

This story challenged me to re-evaluate the financial education that I am giving my children. I had to wonder whether or not my children understand work. Have I made plans to show them how to work so that they can learn to value money? What can I use to demonstrate the worth of money? Have I taught them to wait and save or do I encourage a habit of instant gratification?

What other lessons can we learn from the story of Almanzo’s fifty-cent piece? Can you suggest any modern-day ways to help your children understand the value of money?

If you have young children at home and would like to read a good story with them, I recommend Farmer Boy and the rest of the Little House on the Prairie series.

14 Responses (including trackbacks) to “A money story for kids from the 1800's”

  1. Nate @ Debt-free Scholar Says:

    This is a great story! It is amazing how many people do not realize the lesson that this story teaches. Invest, do not spend.


  2. Luke Says:

    Thanks for sharing this story, Stew. My daughter is working through the same set of Little House on the Prarie books, too! In fact, we recently borrowed a number of the old shows on tape from the library so she could get a visual idea of what life was like in those times.

  3. Stew Says:

    Life back then was incredibly difficult and I know that the “old days” were not always as good as they look through the prism of time, but there is a part of me that would love to live off the land. These people did not live on credit and were not dependent on anyone other than the people they knew personally.

    My oldest daughter has so much energy that she could easily survive on a farm.

  4. Bill Says:

    Thanks for sharing this work. I can’t wait to read it to my daughter and to recommend it to other parents and young readers.

    Clearly, as a nation, we have lost our way financially over the course of the last century and a half. Our forefathers would be shocked to see what a mess we’ve made of it.

    Even then, there were those like Frank who favored the quick buzz over delayed reward, but in that era, the stakes were higher. If you did not work you did not eat, period. There was no McDonald’s down the street to help you and no credit card in your wallet.

    Thanks again for a fantastic post that should serve as a reminder to all of lessons long forgotten.

  5. SJ Says:

    Such a good series of books; you should definitely read your daughters all of them =)

    I actually rmbr that !!

    I like how he links the hours put in to produce that half-dollar!! It’s so crazy, when you think of money like that…

  6. Bible Money Matters Says:

    Great story, and awesome the lesson that it teaches!

  7. Kristy @ Master Your Card Says:

    This is an interesting story. I’ve never read the books myself, so I have no frame of reference to fall back on. However, it’s not unlike a lot of literature – many of which are in today’s literary canon – that teach us some lessons about money. I could probably go through several Shakespeare plays and come away with a half dozen or more financial lessons. It’s sad when you think of it, the wisdom of the ages has been passed down in books and we were too busy to pay attention.

    I think it’s great that you’re reading these books to your children and hope that it opens discussion for you guys! Great post!

  8. Patrick Says:

    Wonderful lesson, and great takeaway, Stew. My first child is on the way and I already have plans on teaching her the value of a dollar. How, is another matter entirely!

  9. Servant Says:

    Excellent object lesson. I remember too how Laura had one little doll. She cherished it, cared for it, played with her constantly. Do you think she would do the same if she had dolls in the double digits? I think not. Overindulged children can’t begin to appreciate all they have.

    I love your place here!

  10. DDFD at DivorcedDadFrugalDad.com Says:

    Great post– lessons can be learned from many places . . . we encourage the kids to watch reruns of Little House all the time . . .

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