Thrifty Science

Simon Werrett

Is expanding consumption and use of limited resources and energy an inevitability, or are there alternative ways of living that might lead to a more sustainable world? History offers hopeful solutions, and in this section we consider past practices and ideas concerning material things that understood them in very different ways to those prevalent in the industrialized world today. As Karen Harvey explains in her chapter “The Language of Oeconomy”, early modern writers in sixteenth to eighteenth-century Europe championed “oeconomy” or household management, which valued “thrift” and “frugality” in managing everyday affairs. Thrift was not understood as saving money but as finding a balance between buying new and making the best use of what one already owned. It also combined material and moral concerns, looking after possessions and people were connected and equally important. Thomas Tusser’s book of household tips provides fascinating evidence of this wide meaning of “thrift” in early modern England, revealing its connection to the optimistic notion of “thriving”. Inherent in thrifty living was a form of experimentation and creativity shared by men and women, who sought to “make use” of things as best they could. This was the heart of oeconomy and it could be argued was a major impetus to the rise of experiment as a way of knowing about nature in the seventeenth century. The chemist and champion of experimental method Robert Boyle’s essay “Of Men’s Great Ignorance of the Uses of Natural Things” makes this apparent, as Boyle wrestled to find new uses for a variety of mundane items and waste products in the service of good oeconomy. Women also experimented, finding out the uses of herbs and minerals to make medicines, as Leong shows. Thrifty householders made good use of things, and making things endure helped achieve this. Repair work, maintenance, careful storage and recycling all contributed to extending the lives of goods, areas whose history has been little studied thus far, though some aspects of these practices are examined by Werrett, Oldenziel and Trischler, Fennetaux, Vasset and Junqua. Continuous reworking of possessions into new uses meant that early moderns understood material things to be open-ended or “incomplete objects” capable of constant revision, an idea explored in a contemporary setting by Karin Knorr-Cetina.

How do you define radical hope?

Thrift, understood in its early modern sense of being a path to thriving, offers an alternative to the seeking after endless growth and exploitation of resources characteristic of modern economies. What I call “Thrifty science” consists of a myriad of small-scale, manageable practices for changing everyday life, learned from history, which serve as an alternative to grand but unrealistic ideologies for global environmental transformation. Oeconomic thinking also offers hope. While today’s economics tries to erase the human from the circulation of money and resources, reducing it to measures and numbers, oeconomics reintroduces the human and moral to these flows, investing people and things with importance requiring preservation and care. Oeconomics is a radical path to thriving.

How do you see radical hope emerging or playing out in your case study?

We don’t yet have even the beginnings of a science of oeconomics, but I have tried to begin exploring the idea in a paper entitled “Shiftspaces”. Shift is an early modern term for a clever improvisation, using what you have ready to hand to make something. It could be a scientific instrument made from coffee pots and clay pipes, or a container constructed from old china fragments or bottles. Shiftspaces, then, are places which are made from, and encourage the making of, shifts. They could be “maker spaces” or “hack spaces” of the kinds that have sprung up in recent decades, websites sharing knowledge, or repair shops, or just kitchens or sheds used for tinkering (see the links to Jugaad Innovation, Past Imperfect, the Library of Things, the Maintainers). Shiftspaces are laboratories for oeconomics, where radical hope emerges, where people and things learn to thrive.


  • Boyle, Robert, “Essay X. Of Men’s Great Ignorance of the Uses of Natural Things: or, That there is scarce any one Thing in Nature, wherof the Uses to human Life are yet thoroughly understood,” [1671] in Robert Boyle, The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle, 6 vols. (London, 1772), vol. 3, 470-94.
  • Fennetaux, Ariane; Sophie Vasset and Amélie Junqua, eds., The Afterlife of Used Things: Recycling in the Long Eighteenth Century (New York: Routledge, 2014).
  • Franklin, Benjamin. “The Way to Wealth.” In Anon. Miscellanies in Prose and Verse: Selected from Pope, Swift, Addison, Goldsmith, Sterne, Hume, Smollet, Gay, Shenstone, Prior, Murphy, and Brooke (Leominster, c. 1770), 61-72.
  • Harvey, Karen, The Little Republic: Masculinity and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  • Knorr-Cetina, Karin, “Objectual Practice.” In The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, edited by Theodore R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr-Cetina, Eike von Savigny (London: Routledge, 2001), 175-188.
  • Leong, Elaine, “Collecting Knowledge for the Family: Recipes, Gender and Practical Knowledge in the Early Modern English Household,” Centaurus 55 (2013): 81–103.
  • Oldenziel, Ruth, and Helmuth Trischler, eds., Cycling and Recycling: Histories of Sustainable Practices (New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2016).
  • Tusser, Thomas, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry As Well For the Champion or Open Countrey… and Besides the Book of Houswifery (London, 1672; 1812 edition); xviii-xxi (“The Ladder to Thrift”).
  • Van Driel, Joppe, “The Filthy and the Fat: Oeconomy, Chemistry and Resource Management in the Age of Revolutions.” PhD diss., University of Twente, 2016.
  • Werrett, Simon, “Recycling in Early Modern Science.” British Journal for the History of Science 46 (2013): 627-646.
  • Werrett, Simon, “Household Oeconomy and Chemical Inquiry.” In Compound Histories: Materials, Production, Governance, 1760-1840, edited by Lissa Roberts, Simon Werrett (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 35-56.

Other sources

  • An introduction to Jugaad Innovation <<>>
  • Past Imperfect: The Art of Inventive Repair <<>>
  • The Library of Things <<>>
  • The Maintainers <<>>
  • A very brief video on “thrifty science”
  • <<>>

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