HST296e: Reading Notes, 27-Jan-2005

James Henretta, “Families and Farms: Mentalité in Pre-industrial America,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd series 35 (1978), pp. 3-32

"...mentalite...is the examination of the common man' outlook and perception of events rather than the analysis of the events themselves." Darnton, Robert. "The History of Mentalities", p.109

Writing in the wake of the quantitative analysis movement in history, Henretta asks if such methods, while they might delineate the "structures of social existence," can also indicate the "motivations, values, and goals" of pre-industrial rural America. (p. 3)

He begins with James T. Lemon's analysis of 18th cent. rural Soueastern Pennsylvanis. He states that Lemon concludes the settlers were individualists, assumed the land was open and limitless, and were concerned primarily with economic advancement (Lemon ascribes this to "liberal consciousness" and entrepreneurial spirit). Henretta says Lemon's data does not support this. Instead it suggests that, while not consciously congregating as planned communities, still were bound by circumscribed ethnic, linguistic and religious ties, ie, like-minded groups.

Nor did all have equal economic opportunity. Economic status was directly tied to age and family. "Properties status was the product of one or two decades of work as a laborer or tenant, or of the long-delayed inheritance of the parental farm." (p. 7) Young adults did not expect, nor were they expected, to be self-sufficient, economically, though that was their expected goal.

Interesting: "If cultural norms legitimated an age-stratified society in the minds of most northern farmers, then the character of social and economic life accustomed them to systematic inequalities in the distribution of wealth." (p. 8)

The pattern throughout colonial/expansionist America is similar: older people held the land, younger people moved west to obtain land, meanwhile young people moved into and through communities with the same goal (as one portion of a population left another filled its place). Massive expansion of westward lands in early 19th century altered this trend: "Massive westward migration enabled a rapidly growing Euro-American population to preserve an agricultural society composed primarily of yeoman freeholding families in most eastern areas, and to extend these age- and wealth-stratified communities into western regions." (p. 9)

Did they think of themselves/were they entrepreneurs? Charles S. grant says yes. Henretta says the evidence does not support this. Grant's study, Democracy in the Connecticutt Frontier Town of Kent, concludes that 1730-40s settlers were driven to create trades and farms for profit. Henretta disagrees, seeing the trade production as simply providing necessary service for the community. Also, the data suggests that a moderate percentage (15-20) were profit-seeking, as opposed to grant's conclusion that most were primarily motivated thus. Grant also sees evidence in sale of surplus agricultural products. Henretta counters that the surplus was simply that, an excess that was gotten rid of in the most practical way. And even that there was not all that much surplus.

Why so little surplus? One limitation was access to markets: why grow extra if you can't sell it? The goal of "the system of local exchange. . .was not profit but the acquisition of a needed item for use." (p. 15)

"A commercially oriented agriculture began to develop after 1790' but the market was still small: "As late as 1820, 'the portion of farm products not consumed within the northern rural community' and sold on all outside markets, both foreign and domestic, amounted to only 25 percent of the total." (p. 17) Limitations on export were transport (inland and overland being difficult and expensive), technology (sickles are slow and labor-intensive), and cultural (social practice was 'grow it with the family/keep it in the family'). The goals were not profit but "the yearly subsistence and the long-run financial security of the family unit." (p. 19)

So what was the "metalité of the pre-industrial yeoman population?" (p. 20)
What changed (from 1600s to 1800s)?
These changes in economic structure did not immediately alter social, familial, practice. Children still needed parental permission to marry. Sons still needed to inherit family land, or later, western land, or eldest son would buy out younger sons. Family property was communal: widow's third.

Other changes: eldest son inherited, cultivated family farm but younger children, women, produced other goods. Revolution disrupted this pattern: less imports from England meant more needed to be produced here. Entrepreneurs stepped in moving production out of individual homes: move to factory system.

Chapter 5, “Farm Ecology: Subsistence vs. Market,” in Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender and Science in New England

"During the capitalist ecological revolution, imitation was subverted by analysis. No longer merely wooed for survival, nature was mastered for wealth. Production was oriented, not for subsistence, but for profit. . .New England's transition to modernity began in the late eighteenth century. Tendions between requirements for production and reproduction forced the ecological transformation." Over the succeeding decades, the majority of New Englanders were drawn into new forms of production, new gender relations of reproduction, and new forms of environmental consciousness." (p. 149)

Characterized by susbsistence, barter, family units for security and preservation. (She mentions farmers were individual land owners, not communal like in Europe - see Powell from other class!)

Agricultural Ecology
pre-19th: holistic, subsistence; post-19th: intensive, specialized, ecologically stressed

Farm as a system: interaction of soil, labor, animals, input and output (market/barter)

Early farmers combined traditional crop rotation and fallow system with adoption of indigenous crops. In pre-1790 subsistence situations this was ecologically balanced. Post-1790 European demands for meat and grain accelerated production.
Production and Reproduction in tension

Ecologically, production and reproduction were in balance: raise enough kids to produce enough for the family. Out of balance? a cultural reality; sons have to inherit farms. Family-centric systems mean those farms should be close. (interesting: widow Joanna Wakefield sold her farm to John White but retained a portion of the house, barn and fields). Coupling increased population with depletion of soil: trouble.

Political opened up western lands, European demands combined with the established practice of surplus needed to supply Revolutionary troops set stage for increased production. "a turning point in American consciousness had been reached." (p. 189)

More lumber, dairy, meat, hay, grain means more fertilizer: intensive farming.

Market Production and Ecology

Timber economy: cordwood, worked wood (staves, etc.) and potash which makes lye (for soap, glass, dyes and gunpowder) but this withdraws nutrients from the system.

Dairy economy: cleared land can support more cows. manure spread on tillage increases grain yields, true, but depletes hay fields (manure not returned to hay fields). To keep up intensive levels of production, farmers had to become "capitalist": specializing, using outside labor, keeping records.

Results: cleared land, more roads to get things to market, decline in population in East as depletion could support less and less.


"New England's capitalist ecological revolution was initiated by tensions between the requirements of producing and reproducing the "extensive system" of family farming.. .But as farmers used the techniques of the older extensive system to take advantage of new economic opportunites, ecological impacts intensified. . .As more land was put into production it had to be managed more intensively to ward off collapse. . .Faced with declining yields, farmers took up more calculating, systematic methods of management. . .it was also transforming the consciousness of its people." (p. 197)

Chapter 2, “The Commercialization of Rural Life, 1760-1835,” in William Gilmore, Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life

Bring up a child in the way he should go...
Reading instruction framed in "socially stable rural life centered around the duties of salvation and republican citizenship" leads to "an acquired resistance to material and cultural change." (p. 53)

Cool: "By the mid-1820s nearly every commentator was suggesting that change itself had already become an essential feature of American life." (p. 53)

New roads/markets (see Merchant article above) also means new reading material.

This chapter looks at the general economic milieau in which this cultural change took place.

The Commercialization of Rural New England, 1760-1835

commercialization/literacy: not ad/propter hoc, just parallel

People needed to read newspapers to follow and engage in market activity? Advertising dominates and supports weeklies, also discussions about nature/worth of commercialization were played out in weeklies.

General stores: have to adapt to rural cycles to fulfill customers needs
Again, math/money used as abstract equivalency system, not necessarily exchanged as such.

Understandings of Economic Life in Windsor District, 1760-1835

One has to learn the ideal as well as the reality of economic life, just as in agriculture: how it's supposed to be (plant, care, harvest) vs. how it often is (weather bad for planting, crops don't do well, harvest destroyed). Five ideas impacted view of economic life:
<>So, many works dealt with  what was seen as a struggle between salvation later and prosperity now. What were they reading (or at least had at home)?

"A large share of the reading matter perused by families in our villages, hamlets and nearby farmsteads bristled with positive assessments of commercial activity." (p. 68) i.e. commerce is OK, its "natural," a sign of man's development (sort of evolutionary). Better yet, a blend of agrarian and commercial. Still, the virtual and virtuous yeoman farmer ideal remained strong.

Commercialization, Stage One, 1760-1795: The Settlement Era

Settlement patterns: stick close to water. Weeklies show just how far afield goods were available from - in the stores. "half of the 101 items available at Porter's general store consisted of an ample stock of woven cloth"

Commercialization, Stage Two, 1795-1815: The Rise of a Commercial Society and Economy

middling sort and poor families begin active market exchange
population increase
cash becomes more important
by 1810, more stores, along with greater diversity of products
towns consolidate around manufacture, wage workers: class conflict

"The values of saving time and of frugality, economy, punctuality, reason, and industry were constantly lauded, and there were several critiques of ideleness and wealth." (p. 97)

Some families were able to live permanently in villages relying on stores and shops for most necessities (p. 97)

Commercializationm Stage Three, 1815-35; The Commercialization of Daily Life

post 1812 - ambivalnce of commercialism recedes
communication/media desemmination greater than we generally assume
many more firms advertising - they can cater to smaller geographic areas
access to reading material means formation of other than family affiliations


"The commercialization of rural society and the enrichment of the communications network also created many competing patterns of affiliation based on interest other than class unity." (p. 112) and one would suppose, other than lineal

hope.greenberg@uvm.edu, created/updated: 27-Jan-2005
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