SECTION 2
 
 

SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MATERIALS

AND THE NEED FOR PRESERVATION AND ACCESS



We cannot solve the problems with knowledge of the present day alone.
Prophecy is conditioned on experience and the longer the experiences,
and the keener the appreciation of it, the truer will be our judgments.
In all the bewildering opinion and achievement, we must not forget.
       Liberty Hyde Bailey
 

United States history cannot fully be understood without studying its rural life and agricultural heritage.  Agriculture fueled the social and economic engine, which built our nation, which generated our state, and local governments, which stimulated and regulated pioneering, farming, land tenure, and the trading of agricultural commodities.  Much of what defines the national character of Americans, our cultural values and mores, is rooted in our agrarian past.  The farm family was the basic social unit molding American life for nearly 200 years.  Agriculture has transformed the American countryside and provided its rural strength.  Due to the centrality of agriculture in the American experience, economic, social, and cultural historians, as well as those in science and technology, have been fascinated by the published record of agriculture and rural life, and must utilize it regularly.

The story of American agriculture is captured in a broad band of documentary resources ranging from the memoirs and transactions of early agriculture societies to newspapers and almanacs; family, community, and corporate archives; and state and county extension service publications.  The evolution of farm and rural life and agricultural economy is chronicled in the agriculture periodical press and the numerous local, regional, and national farm journals that exhorted, informed, and shaped the opinions, values, and concerns of early farm families.  Journals such as Country Life in America, Cappers' Farmer, and Farm and Family have much to tell historians about the daily activities, issues, and practices of the time.

The literature of agriculture and rural life is threatened by the slow but inexorable deterioration of books, documents, photographs, and other paper artifacts in libraries and archives across the country.  The condition of these materials -- particularly those created after 1840 on ephemeral, acidic paper -- threatens access to these research resources.  The historical literature of agriculture and rural life typically lacks intellectual access in an online bibliographic environment, limiting the ability of the humanities researcher and scholar to identify and locate resources.  The sheer bulk of the material and its varied locations demand an approach in which the most important material is selected for immediate preservation.

As rural life changed, so did the content of the literature aimed at the farm family.  These materials form a premier scholarly resource to document the experience of the individual farm family, the establishment and evolution of farm communities, the pressures affecting rural culture, and the shifting and evolution in rural culture in response to national and world events.  Supplementing the published literature are the diaries, letters, photographs, and farm records that are critical resources to understand rural life, its role and place in American society.

Agriculture was the predominant social and economic structure well into the 19th century. In 1800, over 85% of the nation's five million people were involved in agriculture; by 1870, the population had grown to about 40 million, of whom 60% were engaged in agriculture.  On the eve of the industrial revolution it took four persons engaged in farming to allow one to engage in non-agricultural pursuits, whereas now one worker in agriculture can sustain sixty or more in other jobs.  Prior to World War II, the basic unit of agriculture and of American society was the family farm.  Powerful forces such as the abolition of slavery, westward migration, the system of share-cropping, the emergence of state and federal agricultural agencies, the introduction of immigrant populations to rural society, and the use of migrant workers in agriculture -- all of these influences shaped and were shaped by the cultural and economic forces of agriculture, its enterprises, and its communities.

During the 19th century, the farm unit shifted its orientation from the family and the immediate community to the market, and to the expanding urban-industrial society.  For nearly 100 years, employment in the American agricultural and food system remained nearly constant at about 35 million while the population soared.  With these changing demographics came shifts in attitudes about rural life, community and family values, and the management of the farm enterprise.  These shifts had a profound effect on farm families, on rural communities, and on the economy of the nation.

The unprecedented growth in U.S. agricultural productivity during the 19th and early 20th centuries was based in part on the use of agricultural literature as a means of sharing and expanding agricultural knowledge.  In 1820, farming was a self-sufficient enterprise with relatively few advances since colonial times.  The average farmer was largely ignorant of the principles of animal and plant breeding, often hampered by superstitious beliefs, and typically skeptical of agricultural innovation.  Agricultural publications before 1819 were few in number and difficult for the average farmer to obtain.  After 1820, American writing on agriculture increased and, most importantly, the medium of the agricultural periodical appeared.  By the 1840s the U.S. had developed the largest farm readership in the world.  Thus the content of these journals over a hundred-year period in U.S. history is an unparalleled resource for the study of cultural and social attitudes.

Early farm journals were clearinghouses of general agricultural information.  They borrowed liberally from each other and thus track the movement of information and ideas.  As farmers left eastern farms with their dreams or despair and moved west, they brought their agricultural knowledge with them -- knowledge and experience often completely unsuited to the climate and topography they found.  The dreams of farmers and the cries of entrepreneurs mingle in the literature and documents of agriculture and rural life to tell the story of success and defeat, exaltation and catastrophe.  The fate of the Native Americans swept up and overrun by land-hungry pioneers is part of this story.  The clash of Anglo culture with Spanish and Mexican culture in Florida, Texas, and California over land and agricultural tradition is a principal theme.  European and Asian immigrants brought their varied agricultural heritages and created the distinctive ethnic communities that influenced and altered the farms and rural communities of America.

The establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862 and the passage of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 (which founded the present-day system of land-grant universities) further involved the federal government in agriculture and were followed by legislation that established state-level agriculture experiment stations and extension services.  The growth of these organizations boosted agricultural research with a constant emphasis on practical applications within farming communities.  Local journals tracked the effect -- or lack of effect -- that new research and practices had on farming and rural life.  The remarkable history of federal-state cooperation in establishing a national network of experiment stations, land-grant universities, extension services, and 4-H clubs is an example of the impact of agriculture on the reach and methods of government.  Government involvement in education, youth programs, and scientific research all stem from early efforts to support and improve the nation's most important industry: agriculture.

An emphasis on higher education and the emergence of agricultural research in the early part of the twentieth century stimulated the production of scholarly treatises and journals that joined a panoply of federal, state, and county documents.  These resources now allow scholars to track both the evolution of government policy and attitudes toward the agricultural enterprise, and the response of the individual farmer and farm communities to greater government involvement and intervention.

Before 1834, farm journals presented information without much regard for system or organization.  Subsequently, journals began to develop columns such as “Cattle Husbandry,” “Horticulture,” and “Poultry”.  These columns reveal the roots of the developing specialization of agriculture -- a trend reflected in a dramatic increase of periodicals and monographs in the late 19th century devoted to a specific type of farm activity.  However, in addition to information about technical agriculture, the numerous local, regional, and national farm journals routinely included editorial comment, political and economic reviews, a “ladies’ corner” aimed at the purview and concerns of the farm wife, columns on family and community issues, and extensive advertising.  The substantial home, family, and community content distinguishes the literature of pre-1945 agriculture from the literature of the latter part of the 20th century that focuses nearly exclusively on technical and financial information.  The changing content of the literature documents the contest between two ways of life: one urban-based and tied to industrial forms of production, the other rural and tied to family, community, and craft-based production.

The application of the principles of science and engineering to agriculture -- so spectacularly realized since World War II -- had its beginnings in the 19th century.  Decades of applied research caused an increase in agricultural production that was unparalleled in earlier civilizations.  The United States led the world in this remarkable effort.  However, the productivity of modern agriculture had its dark side.  In addition to altering the landscape and social structure of rural American communities, the intensive use of energy, fertilizers and pesticides created a polluting and ultimately unsustainable system of production.

Thus the social, economic and cultural insight afforded to historians by agricultural literature is only one of its important dimensions.  Nineteenth and early twentieth century publications are in demand by scientists who are looking for information and insights about agriculture and the environment.  Current research offers promising approaches for the ongoing revolution in agricultural values and techniques variously referred to as “sustainable agriculture” and “alternative agriculture.”  Increasing concern about the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers causes researchers to comb the literature looking for clues to earlier, natural methods of combating disease and pests.  The search for clues to a sustainable agriculture capable of feeding the earth's current five billion persons is sending researchers back to literature as diverse as the archaeological record of desert civilizations and the transactions of state agricultural societies in 19th century New England.

The historical literature of agriculture chronicles the beginning of an era in which the pressures of population and the opportunities of urban and global markets resulted in an agricultural system which is arguably the most productive in the world, but which is also a major contributor to environmental degradation.  The negative effects of modern agriculture were somewhat unanticipated, making the story of agriculture's transformation of major interest to cultural historians chronicling the history of the environmental and agricultural worker's rights movements, and the rise of the land conservation ethic.

The literature of agriculture is replete with information about sustainable agricultural methods, observations, production, and effects.  Until the 1940s, farmers did not use pesticides and chemical fertilizers in quantity.  The record of pre-World War II agriculture is almost entirely a literature of what we now call “alternative” agriculture.  In land-grant university libraries across the country, 19th and early 20th century books and journals -- now seriously embrittled and deteriorating -- are in demand as we begin yet another agricultural transformation.  This time the transformation is along ecological and environmental lines rather than economic and technological.

***

Even as agriculture evolved from a home and family craft-based way of life to the market-driven business enterprise we know today, urban and suburban residents have held onto the images of an agrarian past, as depicted in Currier and Ives prints and Grandma Moses paintings, and more recently in the remarkable popularity of home and community gardening.  The deeply felt American myth celebrating the pioneer, the self-sufficient farm family, the rural community, and the spirit of the individualistic American, are preserved in the literature of agriculture and rural life.  These materials will eventually contribute to further discovery and interpretation in weaving the colorful history of our nation and in understanding our national character.

One fundamental component of this rich record of American agriculture and rural life is state and local level publications of each of the fifty states.  Section 6 of this proposal contains descriptions from each of the project participants of their agricultural literature and an overview of the historical trends and issues it documents.  Due to its critical importance to the study of state, regional, and national history, this state- and local-level record is among the highest preservation priorities of land-grant institutions.

To guide a nationally coordinated effort to preserve the record of agriculture, the United States Agricultural Information Network has developed and implemented a National Preservation Program for Agricultural Literature.  This cooperative project to continue the preservation of the agriculture and rural life literature of the states advances one key component of a larger national plan.
 

Grant Proposal, PHASE IV
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