Seminar in the History of Rural Life
in the United States
Professor Dona Brown
Office hours: Tuesday 1:00-4:00, and by appointment
(E-mail communication is welcome, but remember that I will
probably not be in my office 24 hours a day!)
This seminar explores the history of rural life—which was for most of
American history the experience of the vast majority of men and
women. We begin the course with historical readings organized
around a series of questions about the history of rural life.
When, if ever, was there a “traditional” way of life in the
countryside? When, if ever, were those ways completely outpaced
by the demands of industrial capitalism? What was the impact of
American agricultural practice on the environment that sustained
farmers? How was work organized within the farm household? How
have Americans imagined the farm and rural life over time?
Most important, however, this course is a research seminar, designed to
offer you the opportunity to conduct your own research project in a
group setting. It is really a “how-to” class—a series of
workshops in the analytical, research, and writing skills you will need
to complete a work of original scholarship. Although you will not be
required to turn in a final version of your essay until the end of the
semester, it is very important to begin thinking about it early in the
semester. I will ask you to turn in a detailed proposal for the
project in the week of March 10, and I will meet with you individually
to help you shape your project. Near the end of the semester, you
will present a “smooth draft” of the paper—as good as you can make
it—to the class. You will then have one more opportunity for a
Obviously, the most important factor in your grade for the class will
be your final paper. It will make up roughly 60% of your grade.
But you will have other significant obligations to the class.
Roughly 40% of your grade will be based on class presentations and on
the help you provide to classmates with their projects. There will be a
formal structure that will allow you to offer readers’ responses to
your classmates. Of course, our weekly sessions are vitally
important. Unless you are the victim of a sudden and serious
crisis, I will ask you to attend class regularly and to commit yourself
to the due dates listed below. Your grade will suffer from
frequent absences or if you turn in assignments late. The date
for class discussion of your paper, especially, is written in stone,
once you have committed to it.
These books will be available to buy (and also in the library)—
These readings will be available at the library and also circulated
from Wheeler House—
- Sally McMurry, Families and
Farmhouses in Nineteenth-Century America: Vernacular Design and Social
Change—on reserve (NA8208.5 .M36 1988)
- Helen and Scott Nearing, Living
the Good Life—in Special Collections (S521 .N33)
- Elliott Merrick, Green
Mountain Farm—on reserve and in Special Collections
(PS3525.E6394 G7 1978)
- Hal Barron, Those Who Stayed
Behind—in Special Collections, on reserve (HN79.A11 B37 1984),
and at Wheeler House
- Chapter 5, “Farm Ecology: Subsistence vs. Market,” in Carolyn
Merchant, Ecological Revolutions:
Nature, Gender and Science in New England—on reserve (GF504.N45
M47 1989) and at Wheeler House
- James Henretta, “Families and Farms: Mentalité in
Pre-industrial America,” William and
Mary Quarterly 3rd series 35 (1978), pp. 3-32—in Periodicals, at
Wheeler House, or on-line at www.jstor.org
- Chapter 2, “The Commercialization of Rural Life, 1760-1835,” in
William Gilmore, Reading Becomes a
Necessity of Life—in Special Collections (Z1003.3 .N4 G54 1989)
and at Wheeler House
- Chapter 5, “That Dream of Home,” in Dona Brown, Inventing New England—on reserve,
in Special Collections (G155.U6 B76 1995), and at Wheeler House.
Options for Student Discussions (all books
available on 72-hour reserve)
Each student will choose one book to report on for the semester, at the
time specified below. The team (usually 3 students) will describe
the argument of the book and its evidence, and place the book in the
context of readings done by everyone in class. Your task, in
short, is to report on your book in such a way that it will be as if
your classmates have read the book, too.
- February 3: Brian Donohue, The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in
Colonial Concord (S451.M4 D66 2004)
<>Donohue describes the agricultural practices of the farmers in
18th-century Concord, Massachusetts, and evaluates whether they were as
wasteful and slovenly as historians have thought.
- <>February 17: Steven Stoll, Larding
the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America
(S624.A1 S77 2002)
<>Stoll takes the perspective of agricultural writers who advocated
that farmers practice more careful farming in the East rather than
abandoning used-up land and moving West—another environmental argument.
- <>February 24: Sally McMurry, Transforming Rural Life: Dairying Families
and Agricultural Change (SF274.U6M38 1995)
<>><>Another book by McMurry. This one argues that the
transition to commercial dairy farming had a long-term impact on the
gendered distribution of labor in the farm household.><>
- <>March 17: David Danbom, The Resisted Revolution: Urban America and
the Industrialization of Agriculture, 1900-1930 (HD1765
<>Danbom explains why so many farmers resisted the modernizing
reforms of the early twentieth-century Country Life Movement.
- <>March 17: Katherine Jellison, Entitled to Power: Farm Women and
Technology, 1913-1963 (HD6073.F32 U65 1993)>
<>Jellison describes the process by which farmers chose to embrace
new technologies and consumer goods, and the relationship with gendered
power relations in the farm family. >
Week 1 (Jan. 20): Introductions
Week 2 (Jan. 27): Magic and the
Henretta, "Families and Farms:
Mentalité in Pre-Industrial America"
Chapter 5 from Merchant, Ecological
Chapter 2 from Gilmore, Reading
Becomes a Necessity of Life
Week 3 (Feb. 3): Northern Farms
Student Discussion #1 on The Great Meadow
We will spend the second half of this class in Special Collections,
where we will explore 18th and 19th-century farm materials and you will
identify materials for next week.
Week 4 (Feb. 10): The Farmer's
#1: Letters and Diaries
The library holds a wide assortment of published and unpublished
diaries and letters from farm families. Identify some that you
find interesting and browse through the entries. Write a short
(500 word) description of one document or set of documents. If you were
to use this document as a basis for a project, what “big issues” might
it help to illuminate?
Week 5 (Feb. 17): Abandoning
Barron, Those Who Stayed Behind, Chapters
Student Discussion #2 on Larding the
Week 6 (Feb. 24): Modernizing
McMurry, Families and Farmhouses
Week 7 (Mar. 3): Writing about
Student Discussion #3 on Transforming
Individual meetings this week!—please
#2: Magazines and government publications. Identify
a published source from the late 19th or early 20th century (state or
national government publication, farm magazine…). What does it
tell us about the plans of the “experts” to change farm practices,
rural life, or farm family experiences? Write a short (500 word)
description of what you have found.
Week 8 (Mar. 10): Proposals for
papers due (see attached description)
Week 9 (Mar. 17):
Industrializing the Farm
Student Discussion #4 on Danbom, The
Student Discussion #5 on Jellison, Entitled to Power
Week 10 (Mar. 31): Returns to
Brown, “That Dream of Home” in Inventing New England
Merrick, Green Mountain Farm
Week 11 (Apr. 7): New Dreams of
Helen and Scott Nearing, Living the Good Life
Week 12 (Apr. 14): New Dreams
No class—individual meetings to work on
projects—Group 1 drafts due
Week 13 (Apr. 21): Group 1
class presentations; group 2 drafts due
Week 14 (Apr. 28): Group 2
to Writing Paper Proposals
A proposal is more than an idea. It is more than one word or one
phrase—“dairy farms,” or “the decline of dairy farms.” In order
to write an effective proposal, you must already have consulted a wide
variety of sources. You must have a good idea of what sorts of
materials area available, and what it is possible to find out from them.
For example, perhaps you are interested in finding out about farming
during the Depression. You would need to know something about the
Depression and rural life in the 1930s in general, and you would also
need to know something about the primary sources available to you. Are
there any diaries or letters from the 1930s in Special
Collections? Are any of them interesting? Would you look at farm
magazines from the 1930s? Government documents? If not, you will
need to search in a different way, so you should be aware of that as
soon as possible.
When you have investigated your general topic in secondary sources and
located some promising primary sources, you are ready to refine your
question. Perhaps you have decided on a more specific
question: did the Great Depression change the way people farmed
in northern New England? Now you are ready to find more specific
sources (histories of northern New England, town histories, local
histories). And now you can begin to look more closely at the
primary sources you intend to use. Make sure they can tell you
what you want to know!
Now you can make a proposal.
Think of your proposal as a contract that describes what you intend to
do and how you intend to do it. Of course you may have to change
course later, but the more closely you can stick to your plan the
better off you will be.
Formulate a hypothesis, or a basic question: “Did the Great
Depression force people to modernize their practices, or did it force
them to return to older methods of farming?”
Sketch your plan for research:
“There are three good studies of rural life in northern New England:
they are --, --, and --. I will use these as background and to
compare with my own research. There are 5 interesting diaries
from farm families in the Great Depression. ( 2 of these are from
--, 1 is an older woman, …) I will use those to draw up a
composite picture. There are also 3 published memoirs of growing
up on farms in the Depression. I will use those, too, but they
will be a little different because people remember their childhoods
If you act on this proposal and later find out that you are more
interested in the diaries, for example, you can alter your emphasis,
but you will not have wasted your time gathering irrelevant background
information (or not gathering any!).
Finally, you write a title for your proposal: “The Impact of the
Great Depression on Three Northern Farm Families.”
You append to your proposal a bibliography, listing the sources you
intend to consult, along with the most important related books,
articles, etc. The bibliography is not a random list of stuff you
find in the catalog, but materials that you have checked out and have
found important. It includes primary sources and secondary
sources. I will give you instructions about proper format.
1. Using a diary, journal, or letters of a farmer or farm family,
analyze the economic life of a farm over time. To what extent
does it fit historians’ notions of “self-sufficiency” or
“market-oriented” behavior? Does it follow the general trends of
farms for its time and place? How does that work for this family?
2. Using published “back-to-the-land” accounts, analyze the motives and
experiences of urban people who “returned” to the farm in the 1930s,
3. Explore the rise or fall of a specific sort of farming. Using
census materials and other government documents, tell the story of the
rise and fall of sheep farming in Franklin County or vegetable farming
in New Jersey. (This project adapts well to non-local sources.)
4. Look at the representation of rural life in museums (Shelburne
Museum, Ethan Allen Homestead, Rokeby…). What do museums teach
people about farming and rural life? How do they represent rural people
and rural ways?
5. Using a diary or letters, see if you can reconstruct the gender and
age-related distribution of work on a specific farm. Who did what
work, and where? Does your sample reflect historians’ notions of
how such things worked?
6. Using diaries in combination with local newspapers and other
materials, try to reconstruct the social lives of rural people at a
given time and place. What sorts of entertainments did they
enjoy? What social contacts did they have? How often did
7. Explore the curriculum of a typical land grant college—perhaps at
the University of Vermont. What were the experts teaching young
rural people at the turn of the 20th century?
8. Using a variety of published materials, test the “decline” thesis
for a rural community.
9. Using a variety of materials, look at the effects of one or
more rural ‘reform’ efforts in the first half of the twentieth century:
consolidated schools, for example.
10. Decribe the history and evolution of an Old Home Day or Week
celebration in a town: what has its effect been?
11. Do a study of a particular rurally-oriented magazine.
What sorts of articles are published in it? Does its content
change over time? Can you determine who subscribed to it?
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