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the history of simplicity (and why I call myself a minimalist)


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Katie Carpenter wrote a thoughtful post entitled Can Minimalism Be Warm and Fuzzy? In the comments the author mentioned that she prefers the term ‘simplicity’ over minimalism.

I have a confession to make: my stomach lurches when I think of the term ‘simplicity.’ You see, in my mind, simplicity is far from simple.

When I think of simple I am reminded of my childhood in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Of days spent playing by the creek and laying in the grass. If those were my only memories simplicity would be a wonderful thing, but life back then involved much more.

Once a year it was time to dig a new hole for the outhouse. Two big guys would pick a spot on the edge of the yard and dig until the hole was above their heads. They would then clamber out, pick up the outhouse shelter and carry it over to this new hole. The first, stinky hole was filled in with the dirt from the new one and then everyone went home smelling like human waste.

Using those things during the summer months was an olfactory experience no matter how much lime you scattered in the bottom! Add to that the occasional newspaper or magazine instead of bathroom tissue (preferred by the simplest folk) and it was an experience you would likely never forget.

Then there was planting time. If you were lucky your neighbor would have a team of horses and you could pay to have your garden plowed but if there were no horses (or you had no money) you had to dig that sucker yourself. Even with a tiller it was hard on your back.

You plant and weed and plant again when some of the seeds fail to sprout. You fight to keep the chickens and the coons and the other wildlife from killing your precious plants. You pray for rain and water using your precious well reserves when the creek runs dry. Finally, in a mad rush of energy you harvest, can and store your produce.

The animals weren’t too awful bad but they required work as well. The hogs and chickens needed to be fed daily, eggs needed to be gathered and if you had a milk cow you had to milk her twice a day like clockwork and leave enough for the calf so that the cow wouldn’t run dry and the calf wouldn’t starve. The cow would be missing her baby so much during the day – she wasn’t allowed to stay with her baby because then the baby would drink all of the milk – so she would try to hurry you up so that she could spend some precious few minutes with her little one.

Slaughtering time was brutal and bloody. Chickens would be grabbed by their heads and flipped around like a children’s toy until their heads popped off or the person moved on; these animals flopped all over the ground on slaughtering day. Us kids had to pick them up by their feet, dip them in scalding hot water then pluck the feathers from their bodies before they were piled up to be eviscerated and tossed in the deep freeze.

The pigs and cattle were slaughtered when the cold arrived. A tripod and a come-along would be mounted in the clearing, the animals shot in the head and their throats slit before they were chained by the back legs and raised up to bleed. Some hogs were scraped, other singed and still others just skinned depending upon the preference of the owner.

Cattle were done the same way but in my experience we just skinned them all.

The pork fat was rendered into cracklins then heated over a big outdoor fire to make lye soap. You had to be very careful because one splatter could really hurt you.

No one threw anything away because it may come in handy. Grandpa had a whole building filled with empty bleach bottles when he died – saved for “just in case.” I remember my father’s frustration at his attempts to follow Grandfather’s path and keep everything. Occasionally he would give up and we would have a bonfire in the middle of the yard.

If someone was injured it would take hours to get them to a hospital – once when my arm was broken it took us most of an afternoon and a trip all the way to a neighboring city just to find a doctor. It was so far away that our car overheated on the interstate, unprepared for such a journey.

When I think of simplicity I think of unflushed commodes (when you had one) because the water was low in the well and whore-baths taken for the same reason. I think of having to carry and bury heavy buckets of human waste when an outhouse was not available.

I think of walking out to the outhouse in the dead of winter and freezing your butt off when you had to use it.

I am reminded of buying fabric in bulk and trying to keep it away from the rats and the mice then sewing sewing sewing to make an outfit for an unanticipated occasion.

I remember my grandmother in the kitchen, unable to enjoy a visit from her children because she had to cook. Simple meals are far from simple to prepare when you make everything from scratch.

These are the things I most often remember when I think of simplicity and the main reason why I use the term minimalist to describe my lifestyle. I want to have a minimum to clean, to care for and thus choose to only keep those things I find to be either beautiful or useful.

I keep my bills to a minimum so that I can work as little as possible – and I consider work to save money in the same realm as working to make it.

I keep my obligations to a minimum in order to maximize my time for what I truly enjoy – and I don’t enjoy mowing lawns, slopping hogs or killing chickens.

I keep things to a minimum so that I can relax and enjoy my life to the maximum – something I never saw in the simple livers of my past.

Sometimes we tend to look at things with rose-colored glasses and ignore how hard the reality truly was. I believe that the Simplicity Movement has suffered this fate.

What is your opinion? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.



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11 Comments

  1. Hi Annie! It’s interesting that the terms we use can mean such different things to different people. You equate simplicity with difficulty, but I equate it to ease. I think of your former days as more minimalist than simple because you had to do without so many things! For me, simplifying is about making things easier – i.e., less difficult, not more. Technically, I think you and I are on the very same page: have less of the stuff that can make life hard (like a job), but don’t be so minimal that you give up everything – like indoor plumbing! :-)

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Annie wrote:

    Dear Kate,

    I’m sure we are on the same page as far as goals but when I think of the Simplicity Movement that is what pops to mind just the same. Maybe I’ve read too many granola posts lol!

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  3. Well, I’m glad you wrote this. Folks need to think of simplifying/minimalism in their own terms and not just accept the concepts others might mean by them. It may help them to clarify their OWN goals.

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
  4. Eric West wrote:

    The idea of simplicity has always rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m not really sure why. From what I’ve seen recently, simplicity is the new minimalism. Everyone grew tired of the term minimal so they started using simplicity.

    Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t but it’s the perspective I have at this point.

    I’m not really looking for simple. What I am looking for is more time and more money. I’m not sure simplicity gets that for me, but I know that minimalism does. Reducing the amount of stuff that takes up time and money in my life make room for more fun activities and adventures.

    Who knows, maybe it’s just a semantics and word usage issue, maybe they are two sides of the same coin. :)

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Linda wrote:

    If you take simple to mean close to nature, do it yourself and home made in the way you describe then I agree with you. In that context simple does not mean easy. I use simple in a more general sense to mean “less complicated” which I think is more like what you mean by minimalism. My reservation with minimalism as a term is it can sound extreme, and doesn’t need to be. Either way, there ain’t no live hogs in my life plan.

    Monday, April 22, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Permalink
  6. bio wrote:

    I never had a choice in the matter or very little, as having “more” has never been a realist thing for Me. I do understand that todays “simplelife” people could not have their lives without the extremes of others working very hard,and getting tired of , or not being hep to the jive,having all kinds of extra stuff to give away, trash, donate etc.

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  7. Mark Blasini wrote:

    It’s interesting. For me, simplicity is means taking out the unnecessary in order to make room for what truly matters or means something. I wouldn’t consider myself a minimalist because I think that minimalism requires too much work. I don’t know. Perhaps this is just a semantic issue.

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  8. Michele wrote:

    After reading your post minimalist sounds good to me! We have so much today and I am glad to see people recycling more. Annie, you would of been proud of me Saturday, I gave away 10 chairs, 3 tables, 10 purses, 2 book shelves, and 5 pictures. It was clean up week in our neighborhood and many of the neighbors took the good stuff and I was glad they did. I am on my way to living with less but I still have too much…

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink
  9. Ray wrote:

    The trouble with labels is that they can’t accurately capture the details. Labels are so one or the other while people are very rarely all of one or all of another.

    After all, what makes a person minimalist vs. not minimalist? Is it a set number of possessions? Am I minimalist if I own 100 items, but not if I own 101, 1001, 10001? Am I choosing a simple life if I choose to prepare my meals from scratch or am I living a simple life if I choose to buy prepared foods that I simply toss in the microwave?

    Labels-schmabels. They’re handy for google searches, not so handy for living a life. Life you just mishmash up what you think is best at the time.

    Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  10. Christa wrote:

    I think just like you do. When I first started simplifying, I kept reading about volunteer simplicity and thought it was the answer. The next thing I know, I’m sneezing my head off and have dirt in my finger nails and covered in sweat trying to plant a garden. No thank you. I prefer minimalism. Get rid of the unnecessary and enjoy life. If I want nature these days, I go hiking and enjoy a sandwich to keep it simple.

    Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Permalink
  11. Zaftig Diva wrote:

    I wish there was a like button for the comments and various places in your post. While I might choose to complain about the “hardships” of my childhood, I have more skills than the average person, and so do you. When my children were young, I bought fabric by the bolt and made all our clothes. When we traveled, we dressed to match and I was never concerned about searching for a lost child or them blending in with others. They were young duckling and waddled happily along.

    As a young mother, I cooked with friends. We made large meals to last the entire week. We baked from scratch. We washed flour to make gluten patties. We learned to identify wild edibles. We hiked, gardened, and followed a clean lifestyle – air, water, nature, temperance, relaxation, etc…

    It takes hope and faith to dig, plant, and wait for produce. Some years there is a bounty, others not so much. That’s why we save and prepare and have alternatives. The nice thing about labels, whether we choose them or spurn them, is that google will track and connect those who have walked the path (and posted about their journey).

    That’s how I got here. We all have so much to share, from the fringes or the middle, about living well with less – whatever that means.

    There is enough of everything for everyone – even me.

    Friday, April 26, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
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