Thoreau On Shelter

As for Shelter, Thoreau does not deny that this is now a necessary of life, though he does make a point of noting that there are instances of human beings, no hardier than ourselves, doing without shelter for long periods in colder countries.[1] Assuming, however, that ‘Shelter’ is indeed a necessary of life, Thoreau proposed that we ‘Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary.’[2] He had seen Indians in his town living in tents of thin cotton cloth, which in the first instance could be constructed in a day or two, at most, and taken down and put up in a few hours; and every family owned one.[3] He had even seen a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three feet wide, in which the labourers locked their tools up at night, and it suggested to him that anyone who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few holes in it to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained at night, and hook down the lid, ‘and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free.’[4] This will strike some as a ridiculous proposition, but Thoreau was ‘far from jesting.’[5] An average house in his neighbourhood cost about eight hundred dollars (at the time) and Thoreau noted that to lay up this sum would take from ten to fifteen years of the labourer’s life; add the farm and one would have to spend twenty, thirty, or forty years toiling – more than half of one’s life is easily spent. Would the Indians have been wise to give up their tents on these terms?

It is in this context where Thoreau made his alternative economics most explicit, expressing the core idea which we have already considered and, for emphasis, will consider again. ‘If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man – and I think it is, though only the wise improve their advantages – it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.’[6] On this basis, Thoreau suggested that ‘when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him.’[7] What is more, ‘if the civilized man’s pursuits are no worthier than the savage’s, if he is employed the greater part of his life in obtaining gross necessaries and comforts merely, why should he have a better dwelling than the former?’[8]     

Thoreau wanted to show at what sacrifice our more ‘advanced’ dwellings were obtained and to suggest that, by living more simply, we may secure all the advantage without suffering any of the disadvantage. With this in mind, he went to Walden Pond with an axe, cut down some trees, and in about three unrushed months had built himself a modest but sturdy cabin. Again exemplifying his alternative mode of economic analysis, Thoreau declared that, ‘I intend to build me a house which will surpass any on the main street in Concord in grandeur and luxury, as soon as it pleases me as much and will cost me no more [in terms of life] than the present one.’[9]

It appears, then, that Thoreau was perfectly content with his shelter, modest though it was. Did this not make him richer than a king who is dissatisfied with his palace? With a little more wit we could all be richer than kings, Thoreau implied; but, unfortunately, ‘Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have.’[10]

Furthermore, Thoreau thought that there is something important in the experience of providing for oneself, of being self-reliant, that has been lost as a result of so-called ‘modern improvements’ and capitalism’s extreme division of labor. He wondered whether ‘if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands… the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?’[11] But, alas, ‘we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built.’[12]

‘Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?’[13] he asked, noting that never in all his walks had he come across anyone engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building their own house. ‘Where is [our] division of labor to end? And what object does it finally serve? No doubt another may also think for me; but it is not therefore desirable that he should do so to the exclusion of my thinking for myself.’[14] Thoreau had come to believe that his contemporaries were endeavouring to solve the problem of their livelihoods by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. ‘To get his shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle.’[15] But Thoreau showed that, if one is prepared to live simply and with more self-reliance, ‘the student who wishes for a shelter can obtain one for a lifetime at an expense not greater than the rent which he now pays annually,’[16] and ‘become richer than the richest are now.’[17]

Thoreau’s calculus here is essentially the same as it was regarding clothing. Perhaps it would be nice to live in a palace or a mansion or even the nicest house on the block, but it must not be forgotten that the more expensive one’s housing is the more of one’s life one will probably have to spend earning the money needed to buy or rent it (assuming we are not kings or queens). So why not keep housing modest and simple? Since housing is the greatest overall expense in most people’s lives, this is an area where people should be particularly cognizant of the time / freedom cost of consumption. Perhaps by lowering ‘standard of living’ (measured by consumption in housing) people could actually increase ‘quality of life’ (measured by subjective well-being)? Indeed, Thoreau’s suggestion is that by living in modest accommodation people can literally save years of labour and thereby become ‘richer than the richest are now,’ not in terms of property, of course, but in terms of freedom and contentment. ‘If I seem to boast more than is becoming,’ he concluded, ‘my excuse is that I brag for humanity rather than for myself.’[18]


[1] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 282.

[2] Ibid 283.

[3] Ibid 283-285.

[4] Ibid 284.

[5] Ibid 284.

[6] Ibid 286.

[7] Ibid 288. I am reminded here of the following passage from John Ruskin: ‘Lately in the wreck of a Californian ship, one of the passengers fastened a belt about him with two hundred pounds of gold in it, with which he was found afterwards at the bottom. Now, as he was sinking – had he the gold? Of had the gold him?’ See Goldian Vanenbroeck (ed), Less is More: The Art of Voluntary Poverty (1991) 41.

[8] Thoreau, above n 1, 289 (emphasis in original).

[9] Ibid 304.

[10] Ibid 290.

[11] Ibid 300.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid 300-1.

[14] Ibid 301.

[15] Ibid 288.

[16] Ibid 304.

[17] Ibid 295.

[18] Ibid 304.