Richard “Ragged Dick” Hunter is a young, homeless boy who makes a living by shining the shoes of businessmen. While it might seem that such a life would be dismal—especially in a cold, northern city like New York—Dick manages to get by pretty well. He frequents the theater, buys expensive cigars, and often treats himself and his friends to lavish meals. Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick’s author, sees such spending as inappropriate and highlights it as a fault in Dick’s character—something Alger hopes his young readers won’t emulate. When Dick’s encounter with the well-off Frank Whitney helps the bootblack see the value of saving money, Dick’s entire life is turned around for the better. Living thriftfully, Alger thus argues, is a prerequisite for a successful life.
At the beginning of the book, Dick is quick to spend every penny he earns and is impoverished specifically because he fails to be prudent with his money. Sometimes his expenditures are on necessities, like food and lodging, but they’re often on decadent luxury items. Dick even wastes his money through gambling, with the result that he can’t, at times, afford to pay for necessities and must sleep on the streets on an empty stomach—a result that directly reflects the consequences of overspending.
Everything changes for Dick after he spends the day acting as a tour guide for Frank, an experience that grants him his first glimpse into the pleasures of financial stability. Dick feels great respect for both Frank and Frank’s uncle Mr. Whitney, and promises to heed their advice when they admonish him to be better about saving his money in order to work his way up in the world. Mr. Whitney gives Dick five dollars for his time, and in a testament to Dick’s new attitude, he uses the money to rent a room rather than go to the theater.
As soon as Dick abandons this lavish way of spending, he discovers that he is able to live more comfortably and respectably, and his entire life quickly begins to turn around. When he stops wasting money on theater tickets and cigars, for instance, he is able to stop eating his meals at the run-down restaurant that he normally frequents, and instead to afford proper breakfasts complete with coffee and toast. This extra nutrition, in turn, gives him more energy with which to approach his work, allowing him to make more money than he’d been able to previously. Because of this, he’s also able to pay an entire month’s rent in advance. This gives him a permanent address that he can use when applying for jobs. It also gives him a secure, (comparatively) clean place to store his possessions, especially the treasured suit given to him by Frank—an item that has helped him to earn a great deal more customers, as he in it appears much more respectable than his bootblacking peers. Most importantly, by not spending all of his money at once, Dick is able to take the step of establishing a savings account. Such an account will help him if he ever becomes ill or experiences an unusual lull in customers for his shoeshine business. Thrift in the novel is thus a mark of foresight and ambition, a virtue reflective of the mature desire to think beyond the present moment and anticipate a future for oneself.
It’s important to note that Alger’s notion of thrift doesn’t preclude generosity, something which Dick has always shown; on the contrary, Dick’s newfound sense of financial responsibility allows him to be even more generous than he was as a poor bootblack. Whereas before Dick would offer free meals to whatever friend he happened upon, he now reserves his charity for those truly in need and whom he can truly help—and, with the help of his ever-increasing savings account, he can help them in much more substantive ways. Because he has a savings account, Dick has funds available to buy his friend Fosdick a new suit, for example. This suit allows Fosdick to apply for jobs that are a better fit for him, since Dick recognizes that Fosdick isn’t very good at the shoeshine business. Similarly, the savings account also allows Dick to pay the rent for the Wilkins family when Mrs. Wilkins falls ill and is unable to work. By saving his money, Dick is able to save an entire family from ruin and lift his friend out of poverty.
While Dick constantly meets with great success when he chooses to live thriftfully, Alger is careful to note that living in such a way isn’t always easy. In fact, it often involves sacrifice in the sense that Dick must deny himself fleeting comforts and indulgences, deal with the bureaucracy inherent to being a person of means, and resist temptation in the name of future happiness. Yet thrift—like many virtues in Alger’s world—is itself transformative. Once Dick manages to get himself on the right track—once he has seen the value of thrift, that is—it becomes increasingly easier for him to stay there. His frugality even sets in motion a series of events that cements Dick’s position in the middle class: it is only because he has saved so much money that Dick can afford to take off the fateful afternoon during which he saves a wealthy businessman’s son from drowning. He is rewarded with a new job and an impressive starting salary, and Alger makes clear that his thrift has been an invaluable factor in his windfall. That Dick leaves the shoe-shining business but vows to hold onto his old bootblack box, meanwhile, underscores that he will never fail to appreciate every penny he earns.
The Power of Thrift ThemeTracker
The Power of Thrift Quotes in Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks
“Oh, I’m a rough customer,” said Dick. “But I wouldn’t steal. It’s mean.”
Another of Dick's faults was his extravagance. Being always wide-awake and ready for business, he earned enough to have supported him comfortably and respectably. There were not a few young clerks who employed Dick from time to time in his professional capacity, who scarcely earned as much as he, greatly as their style and dress exceeded his. But Dick was careless of his earnings.
Now, in the boot-blacking business, as well as in higher avocations, the same rule prevails, that energy and industry are rewarded, and indolence suffers. Dick was energetic and on the alert for business, but Johnny was the reverse. The consequence was that Dick earned probably three times as much as the other.
“I’m in luck,” thought our hero complacently. “I guess I’ll go to Barnum’s to-night, and see the bearded lady, the eight-foot giant, the two-foot dwarf, and the other curiosities, too numerous to mention.”
“Did you ever read the Bible?” asked Frank, who had some idea of the neglected state of Dick’s education.
“No,” said Dick. “I’ve heard it’s a good book, but I never read one. I ain’t much on readin’. It makes my head ache.”
There isn’t but one thing to do. Just give me back that money, and I’ll see that you’re not touched. If you don’t, I’ll give you up to the first p’liceman we meet.
I've give up sleepin' in boxes, and old wagons, findin' it didn't agree with my constitution. I've hired a room in Mott Street, and have got a private tooter,
who rooms with me and looks after my studies in the evenin'. Mott Street ain't very fashionable; but my manshun on Fifth Avenoo isn't finished yet, and I'm afraid it won't be till I'm a gray-haired veteran. I've got a hundred dollars towards it, which I've saved from my earnin's. I haven't forgot what you and your uncle said to me, and I'm trying to grow up 'spectable.
“…you were ‘Ragged Dick.’ You must drop that name, and think of yourself now as—”
“Richard Hunter, Esq.” said our hero, smiling.
“A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.