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100 Years after the Publication of “A Theory of Consumption” by Hazel Kyrk (1923)

Paper Session

Friday, Jan. 6, 2023 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM (CST)

New Orleans Marriott, Preservation Hall Studio 3
Hosted By: History of Economics Society & International Association for Feminist Economics
  • Chairs:
    David Philippy, CY Cergy Paris University
  • Rebeca Gomez Betancourt, University of Lyon 2

Hazel Kyrk (1886-1957) and the Research on Consumption Standards

Edith Kuiper
SUNY-New Paltz


Hazel Kyrk, author of A Theory of Consumption (1923), conducted ground-breaking research for the
Bureau of Home Economics of the US Department of Agriculture, making a considerable contribution to a large empirical survey of household expenditures (Kyrk, Hazel, Monroe, Day, Brady, Dorothy S., Rosenstiel, Colette, and Rainboth, Edith Dyer (1941). Family Expenditures for Housing and Household Operations. Five Regions. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture). Kyrk et al. (1941) developed standards for what could be considered as the minimum requirements for a “decent living” (van Velzen, 2003). This research provided the base-year prices for the official consumer price index (Lobdell, 2000). This paper outlines this aspect of Hazel Kyrk’s research, her role in the constitution of the Consumer Price Index, and reflects on her theoretical and methodological approach.

Hazel Kyrk’s Intellectual Roots: When First-Generation Home Economists Met the Institutionalist Framework

David Philippy
CY Cergy Paris University
Rebeca Gomez Betancourt
University of Lyon 2
Robert W. Dimand
Brock University


In the years following its publication, Kyrk’s Theory of Consumption (1923) became the epicenter of the field that would later be known as the “economics of consumption,” which gathered together theoretical and empirical works on consumption. In the existing literature on Kyrk, her theory is generally depicted as the starting point of the field’s history, thus failing to appreciate how and why it emerged the way it did (Kiss and Beller, 2000; Tadajewski, 2013). This paper examines Kyrk’s intellectual heritage, which, we argue, can be traced back to two main threads: the American home economics movement and the institutionalist movement. Both movements conveyed specific answers and endeavors as responses to the American society’s material and social transformations that occurred at the turn of the 20th century (i.e. the changing role of consumption and that of women in American society). On one hand, Kyrk pursued first-generation home economists’ effort to make sense and put into action the shifting of women’s role from domestic producer to consumer. On the other hand, she reinterpreted Veblen’s (1899) account of consumption in order to reveal its operational value for a normative agenda directed toward good consumption. This paper examines how Kyrk carried on first-generation home economists’ progressive agenda, and how she adapted Veblen’s fin-de-siècle critical account of consumption to the context of the household goods development in the 1900-1920. Our account of Kyrk’s intellectual roots offers a novel narrative to better understand the role played by gender and epistemological issues in her theory.

What Should Families Want? From Hazel Kyrk to Margaret Reid and Beyond

Miriam Bankovsky
La Trobe University


In “The Backward Art of Spending Money” (1912), Wesley Mitchell left unanswered what he referred to as the “most baffling of difficulties”: the question of what constitutes a family’s “good”. This paper aims, first, to provide an overview of Hazel Kyrk’s answer (1923), and second, to explain how it fell into oblivion. Regarding the overview, Kyrk argued that families would do well to consume “wisely” according to five qualitative criteria. Wise consumption would include, first, a degree of balance and proportion between the interests represented; second, a provision for full and varied experiences; third, a degree of individuality and originality; fourth, the selection of the most lasting, least costly, and most basic sources of satisfaction; and fifth, the use of scientific information and the best thought of the ages in the selection of means to desired ends. Kyrk was critical of thoughtless consumption that aimed merely to emulate. As to why it fell into oblivion, although Kyrk felt her account avoided paternalism, other early consumer economists begged to differ. Margaret Reid felt Kyrk’s account required too much of families (1938). Elizabeth Hoyt also felt economists should mostly accept family choice as it was (1938). Avoiding “deeper questions” (Reid 1938), these consumer economists instead sought to simply provide families with adequate information about “what others of like income and status are doing with their money…. since it gives them some basis of comparison for their own scale” (Hoyt 1938). In closing, we explain how Kyrk’s focus on family consumption (undertaken primarily by women in that period) reflected a pragmatic acceptance of intra-familial gendered norms that some feminist economists would later find problematic. We also consider the continued relevance of certain aspects of Kyrk’s account, in a contemporary context of climate crisis.

Hazel Kyrk, the Economics of the Social Relevance of Consumption and Keynes’s Consumption Function

Attilio Trezzini
Roma Tre University


With A Theory of Consumption 1923, Hazel Kyrk achieved the most comprehensive and articulate formulation of an approach to the analysis of consumption that in the early 20th century was developed in the United States. This approach was part of a wide stream of analyses about consumption expenditure that had been started for more than a century. These analyses were mostly empirical and mostly empirical and centered either on practical problems or on theoretical issues different from the mere determination of the level of consumption and its evolution in time.
In the analysis of consumption proposed by Keynes in the General Theory, we find together with theoretical elements that can be traced back to the traditional marginalist analyses, strong original elements. The dependence of the level of consumption expenditure on the level of income, which is essential for the assertion of the principle of effective demand, can be traced back to the whole body of empirical studies. In qualifying this relationship, then, Keynes uses elements traceable to the analyses that constitute the approach to consumption as a social phenomenon of which Kyrk is the most advanced exponent. The paper seeks to argue that the non-marginalist elements of Keynes' analysis of consumption derive from his knowledge of the empirical literature on consumption and of the analyses by Kyrk and the other women authors of the approach to consumption as a social phenomenon.

Nancy Folbre
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Shoshana Grossbard
University of San Diego
William Waller
Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Felipe Almeida
Federal University of Paraná
Giulia Zacchia
University of Rome-La Sapienza
JEL Classifications
  • B2 - History of Economic Thought since 1925
  • D1 - Household Behavior and Family Economics