Mixed Harvest: The Second Great Transformation in the Rural North, 1870-1930 By Hal S. Barron
This is the last book for the “Reading Between the Lines” program at GCVM through the NYS Counsel on the Humanities. This book is chronologically just beyond the time period I regularly read but the focus on rural society is on I find interesting.
I am reading this book out of order, starting with the chapters catching my attention first. I began with the chapter on the improvement of roads called “And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight.” This chapter made me want to know more the development, placement, and types of roads in the first half of the century. I hadn’t previously looked at the social and agricultural influences on the establishment of roads. Barron’s explanation was enlightening. I now better understand many of the roads I drive on, on a daily basis. All-in-all, a nice chapter. I think I will see about finding Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845 by John Stilgoe.
The next chapter I read was the one on mail-order catalogs called “With all the Fragrant Powders of the Merchant”. I have mixed thoughts on this chapter. I liked that pre-war information was included. I found this very interesting. I did not like the tone as the chapter progressed. It almost felt patronizing. I also felt Barron neglected to fully acknowledge those who lived in rural villages who didn’t abide by the republican simple life he describes. In addition to these issues, some of the statements made were not documented as well as I like. One example was the generalizations made about pre-war merchants. These merchants were described as manipulative and greedy. The few passages quoted came from secondary sources, rather than primary research.
He makes a few statements but doesn’t cite as well as I would like. Some of what he says I can accept as generally true:
“Besides these attitudes, the main source of tension between country merchants and their rural customer was the determination of value and the negotiation of prices, and because both parties tried to by cheap and sell dear conflict was inherent in their dealings. For agricultural produce such as butter and grain, farmers and merchants could refer to newspaper market reports to determine a satisfactory price….”
But he continues into what I think needs more primary documentation to avoid over generalizations:
“… although storekeepers had to remain vigilant against such ploys as rancid butter at the bottom of the tub and other adulterations.”
His quotations are minimal, including one by P.T. Barnum (which the author does admit has exaggerations)
“It was ‘dog eat dog’ – ‘tit for tat.’ Our cottons were sold for wool, our wool and cotton for silk and linen, in fact nearly every thing was different from what is was represented…. Each party expected to be cheated, if it was possible. Our eyes, and not our ears, had to be our masters. We must believe little that we saw, and less that we heard. Our calicoes were all ‘fast colors,’ according to our representations, and the colors would generally run ‘fast’ enough and show them a tub of soap-suds. Our ground coffee was as good as burned peas, beans, and corn could make, and out ginger was tolerable, considering the price of corn meal. The ‘tricks of the trade’ were numerous.”
Since this section irritated me so much, of course, I need to do some additional reading. The author notes an article by David Jaffee “Peddlers of Progress and the Transformation of the Rural North, 1760-1860” in the 1991 Journal of American History.
I’ve gone back to read the chapters on education reform and the dairy industry at the same time. Lets see if I get this done for Saturday with the distraction of the new pile of books Kathy handed me.