Ralph Borsodi (1886 – October 26, 1977) was an agrarian theorist and practical experimenter interested in ways of living useful to the modern family desiring greater self-reliance (especially so during the Great Depression). Much of his theory related to living in rural surroundings on a modern homestead.
Life and work
Born in New York City, he spent the earliest years of his life in Manhattan. His father was a publisher who had connections in the advertising field, and Ralph worked in this business as a boy. By the age of 22, Borsodi was personally testing the idea of moving "back to the land." He had fully embraced the concept of simple living by 1920. Borsodi was influenced by the reformer Bolton Hall (1854–1938), a friend of his father's; Hall introduced Borsodi to the ideas of the economist Henry George. Borsodi was also influenced by Thomas Jefferson, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, and Laurance Labadie.
Borsodi is chiefly known for his practical experiments in self-sufficient living during the 1920s and 1930s, and for the books he wrote about these experiments. The Distribution Age (1927), This Ugly Civilization (1929), and Flight from the City (1933) are his best known works. He established a School of Living in Rockland County, New York during the winter of 1934–1935. Before long about 20 families began attending regularly from New York City, spending the weekends at the school. Some commentators claim Borsodi’s books inspired "hundreds of thousands of people" to follow his example during the Great Depression. In 1948 Borsodi self-published, even doing his own typesetting, Education and Living a two-volume work designed to suggest a curriculum for the ongoing School of Living. In 1950, Borsodi moved to the Town of Melbourne Village, whose founders had been influenced by his teachings. Mildred Loomis, his most devoted student, continued the work of the School of Living into the 1970s when it was headquartered at Heathcote Community in Freeland, Maryland.
With Bob Swann, Borsodi created a land trust that functioned as an economic, banking, and credit institution, probably influenced by the ideas of Josiah Warren. Called the Independence Foundation, Inc., Borsodi intended it as a new and ethical way of making low-cost, cooperatively shared credit available to people who wanted to build homesteads in the community. This institution made it possible to provide people access to land without their having to pay outright for property in the beginning.
Borsodi spent decades analyzing the ills of modern society and imagining remedies for the problems. His 1968 work, published in India, and titled Seventeen Universal Problems of Man and Society, catalogued his research and can be considered the beginning of a modern taxonomy of human problems and solutions. His followers felt he usually was working at solving problems at least 20 years before most analysts realized the problem existed. For example, it is said he predicted the inflation of the 1970s some thirty years before it came. One of his interests was in local currencies, and he started an experiment with such a currency in his home area, Exeter, New Hampshire; however, the project came to an early end with Borsodi's failing health. He created a commodity-backed bartering currency called the Constant, reminiscent of Josiah Warren's "labor notes" at the Cincinnati Time Store. These appeared first as paper notes, but in 1974, coin-like pieces, called Globes, were minted and sold in 1/2 ounce and 1 ounce .999 silver denominations. The non-profit organization that sponsored them was the International Foundation for Independence, Inc., but the Globes were minted and sold by an organization called Arbitrage International.
Borsodi died in Exeter, New Hampshire in October 1977, survived by his wife Clare and two sons - Edward M. and Ralph W. - by his first wife Myrtle Mae Simpson.
Borsodi was cited as an important modern critic and creative thinker by Helen and Scott Nearing in such writings as Living the Good Life, a book sometimes credited as being the clarion call of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. J.I. Rodale, who founded Organic Gardening and Farming magazine got his introduction to organic gardening at Borsodi's Dogwood Acres Homestead, as did the Keene family, founders of Walnut Acres organic food catalog. Borsodi was also a significant influence on the American libertarian movement.
A number of Borsodi's texts can be found in the Social Criticism section of the Soil and Health Online Library.
- The Distribution Age (1927).
- This Ugly Civilization (1929).
- Flight from the City (1933).
- Prosperity and Security, A Study in Realistic Economics (1938)
- Inflation Is Coming (1948)
- The New York Times obituary has October 27 as his death date. Obituary, New York Times, 11 November 1977, p. 29
- Gould, Rebecca Kneale. At Home In Nature: Modern Homesteading and Spiritual Practice in America, University of California Press, 2005, p. 8
- Miller, Timothy. The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America: 1900-1960, Syracuse University Press, 1998, p. 128
- Shi, David. The Simple Life, University of Georgia Press, 2001 p. 227
- James J. Martin's biography of Laurance Labadie states that his colleague,Mrs. Loomis, recognized the historical continuity of the ideas dating back to Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, and Benjamin Tucker.
- Shi, pp. 228-9
- Obituary, New York Times, 11 November 1977, p. 29
- McCarthy, Daniel (2007-03-12) Enemies of the State, The American Conservative
Available at Soil and Health Online Library:
- The Distribution Age (1927)
- This Ugly Civilization (1929)
- Flight from the City (1933)
- 1974 interview