In honor of the holiday, please enjoy this, the earliest description of the first Thanksgiving, from a letter to England printed in Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, first published in 1622:
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
Have you ever been curious about those long, vertically slatted, empty-looking barns near Bradley Airport and lining the riverfront of Glastonbury? In case you weren’t aware, they’re tobacco barns, for drying the shade-grown tobacco (yep, that’s what those ghostly canopies in the fields are for) that has been a central crop in the Connecticut River Valley for over a century. Connecticut History has a great piece up about the history of Connecticut tobacco culture, and the labor sources (young southern black students, among them a young Martin Luther King, Jr.) that supported it during the twentieth century.
The intertwined stories of race, class, and farm labor in America continue to be both incredibly significant and the great invisible aspect of current movements around farms, food, and agriculture. From the days of Carey McWilliams, Dorothea Lange, and John Steinbeck, to the era of Harvest of Shame (which you may now watch in its entirety here), to the United Farm Workers and the lettuce and grape boycotts of the ’60s and ’70s, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, social commentators, labor advocates, concerned consumers, and workers themselves have repeatedly attempted to draw Americans’ attention to the plight of those who tend, fertilize, cultivate, pick, and process our foodstuffs here at home. But, despite these efforts, Americans on the consuming end have generally failed to latch on to farm labor issues as a lasting cause and concern, even while they have become more conscious of the health problems associated with certain types of industrial agriculture and our modern food system.
Part of this is related, I think, to how, at least in the last few decades, movements around food have been consumption-side rather than production-side: they have focused on the ways in which the American food system is contributing to the ill health of those eating processed foods. The most well known of these critiques today is the one Michael Pollan lays out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. (To be fair, Pollan has acknowledged criticism for his focus on the consumer, and replies that he does talk about labor issues more in his shorter pieces for such publications as the New York Times Magazine. You can see him respond to historians about these and other issues at the recent AHA meeting here.) There’s been some great historical work lately on health, environment, and labor in the food industry — Linda Nash’s Inescapable Ecologies springs most immediately to mind — but I would guess that the average Whole-Foods shopper is not thinking about the labor that produced his or her purchases as much as he or she is about what is most healthy or safe for his or her family. Indeed, as an NPR interview this morning reminded me, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is staunchly anti-union, and has a new book out about what he calls “conscious capitalism” — a great reminder of the diverse set of ideologies and beliefs that intersect and find common ground in today’s food movement (and, as my friend and colleague Andrew Case will remind me, that have long latched on to food and health concerns, J.I. Rodale being just one example).
What is perhaps most interesting to me about the article on Connecticut shade-grown tobacco labor is the way it sheds light on how enduring ideas in this country have been about the suitability of certain people and certain bodies to particular kinds of farm labor and the tending of specific crops: the notion that black students from the South, for example, were perfect for harvesting Connecticut tobacco. These ideas have a long history that goes back to the colonial period, when European settlers were uncertain whether their own bodies could survive in the environment of the New World, and believed that a process of “seasoning” European bodies to these new conditions was required before they could thrive. Like plants and other organisms, humans needed an adjustment period when being transplanted from their natural environment to another, foreign one. (Some good books that deal with this process are Joyce Chaplin’s Subject Matter and Conevery Bolton Valencius’s The Health of the Country.)
A corollary to these notions of bodily adjustment, seasoning, and environment was the idea that other bodies — most notably those of Native Americans and Africans — were better suited to the climates and conditions of the American continent. These peoples also possessed knowledge that Europeans required in order to thrive not just physically but economically as well: knowledge about plants, animals, the cultivation of particular crops chief among them. Southern rice culture was successful largely because of the knowledge of African slaves — and, of course, their labor. What is perhaps most striking about the development of agriculture in what would eventually become the United States is how utterly dependent its earliest practitioners were upon the knowledge and labor of subjugated peoples. The appropriation, or at least the control, of that knowledge went hand in hand with the control of those bodies. (A work that deals with these connections among labor, power, race, and knowledge is Andrew Zimmerman’s excellent Alabama in Africa.)
The legacy of slavery is the much more well known dimension of these enduring associations between peoples and plants. Many plantation owners believed that blacks were constitutionally suited to the field labor involved in cotton cultivation, tobacco culture, and rice harvesting. These beliefs were not confined to the South: ideas about who should cultivate what crops, and, perhaps more importantly, who should be able to own land, were everywhere in evidence. California’s exclusion acts barred Chinese and Japanese immigrants from owning land, and this legislated discrimination continued into the 20th century. The South was, of course, riddled with continued discrimination upheld by statute and enforced through both economic subjugation and threat of bodily harm. Tenancy was a huge problem there; the exploson of migrant labor in the 1920s and ’30s, as agricultural depression hit the nation in the wake of World War I, became a national concern, and prompted the exposes of the FSA photographers like Lange, and the books of Upton Sinclair, Carey McWilliams, and John Steinbeck. While the groups of people who do the labor have shifted in the intervening decades, the problems, to a frightening degree, remain the same.
The connections between knowledge and labor here are of particular interest to me. In my own research on 4-H, I’ve encountered such amazing documents as extension reports from Montana that discuss how counties are utilizing the labor of Japanese and German POWs to bring in the sugar beet crop: the Germans were of particular use to beet growers, as Germany had pioneered sugar-beet cultivation and processing, and many of them were familiar with the crop and the methods required to harvest it properly. County agents remark upon how useful this knowledge is to them. The labor and the knowledge are never far apart.
I think it’s important to remember these intertwined stories of race and labor when we think about our food system today — for, as Pollan admits in his comments at the AHA, when you pull on one thread of the problem, you find that you’ve ended up grabbing a whole snarling mess. Food and eating are connected to growing and farming which are connected to the environment and the health of everyone, not just consumers; human and environmental health are connected to labor conditions; these, in turn are connected to how we organize space and the geographies of inequality in our nation, which are the result of historical processes that have to do with land tenure, property law, and the legacies of racism and oppression. As we approach the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend, let us be conscious of the ways in which justice may be enacted in our country, and how connected our actions are, not just as individuals, but as groups and communities, to the lives of all our fellow citizens.
One of the wonderful things about finishing the Ph.D. is the way it frees you up to think about new projects. There are two that have been percolating for me of late: one, which relates to what I’ve come to think of as the “sciences of rural life”—fields like agricultural economics, rural sociology, and large swaths of home economics—and the way they organize and create knowledge; and a second, which deals with the history of the modern office, in particular the clerical work and information organization that support it.
Since beginning my postdoc at the National Museum of American History, I have realized that the Smithsonian has great resources for this second project, and it would be a good idea to start doing some research in that vein while I’m here. I’m thinking in particular about the collection of trade catalogs the museum has, as well as the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, and the Dibner Library. For instance, one of the things I’m really interested in is stenography and shorthand: I found a slew of books and manuals on phonography (the general term for sound-based shorthand systems), as well as such interesting items as the brochures and catalogs for business colleges like Bryant & Stratton in Boston, and the Troy Business College in Troy, NY. These not only give the researcher an idea of the kinds of things that were taught at such institutions, but what the classroom space looked like, and how instruction happened. As such colleges were set up to recreate for their students the experience of working in an office as closely as possible, they offer a wonderful glimpse into how offices of the late nineteenth century were organized.
I’ll be posting more on this subject as I move forward. I’m hoping to offer some samples of interesting items from the archives and libraries that give a sense of what’s available and how someone like me might use it. For now, I should probably be getting to the office myself!
My daily commute takes me past some of the great monuments to our country’s history. This past week, I was pleased to note the distinctly agricultural motto that graces the west side of the southern steps to the National Archives on Constitution Avenue:
Here’s to the seed! And to those who cultivate it. And to all tomorrow’s harvests.
When I’m doing research, there are things I take photos of just because they are so striking, or singular, or strange, or funny, that they make me look twice. This often has the added benefit of becoming a wonderful surprise later on, when I am going through my materials, since stumbling on these things a second time brings me joy. The one that caused me to collapse in a heap of laughter today, amid the rather dull task of making a spreadsheet of Mississippi extension publications, was this gem:
I love so much about this: the fact that, despite the big operation behind him, our farmer here is essentially putting this chicken in a pot of some kind; the self-satisfied smile on his face as he does so, like he knows how “safe” he’s being; the emphasis on “safe” through typography in the title… Ah. Extension, you’ve done it again.
This week I am putting together a conference paper, and in the process am wrestling with some big questions in the dissertation. How do local people, county leaders, land-grant specialists, and USDA officials collaborate to create agricultural knowledge? How does the knowledge that each of these groups creates differ? How do these different people make use of that knowledge, and put it to work? And how does it circulate and change across these different levels of administration, expertise, and practice?
These are difficult questions to answer, and the issue of scale — the fact that agricultural research and change happens not just at the federal and state levels, but at the county and locality and farm levels as well — makes them even more complicated. How do you trace an idea or a fact or a practice or a technique through this knowledge-making system? What documents should you look at to do so?
My dissertation pivots on the notion that one set of documents you can utilize to gain insight into these matters are extension records, in particular those relating to 4-H club work. The Cooperative Extension Service, created by an act of Congress in 1914, was in many ways the capstone to the Morrill Act of 1862, which granted federal land (or scrip for land) to the states to establish colleges for the agricultural and mechanic arts. This was the first step in a process whereby federal monies were made available to encourage the doing and sharing of scientific agricultural research. (Other important milestones included establishing the Experiment Stations and the 1890 Institutions.) The creation of the Extension Service was a response to continued poor conditions in the countryside, and a sense among many that the fruits of scientific research weren’t really being disseminated widely enough. The 1914 act called for face-to-face and in-person contact, demonstrations, and object lessons in both agriculture and home economics to supplement the printed material coming out of the Colleges and Experiment Stations. It was directed at people not enrolled or resident in the colleges; in a real sense, it was about bringing the university to the people. As such, it entailed involving local people in the process of knowledge-creation — through demonstrations and experiments on their farms, using their labor and their land and their experience — and knowledge-circulation.
As is probably clear, I come at this topic with a belief that the county, local, and even farm levels matter in answering these questions about agricultural knowledge-making: that what rural people do to get a living from the land, and how they respond to extension efforts to modify, guide, reshape, or even drastically change the means by which they do so, is integral to understanding agricultural research programs and their effects. That what we generally think of as a top-down process of transmission — of knowledge, of information, of methods, of tools and seeds and livestock and other artifacts — from urban or land-grant-college/experiment-station center to rural periphery, from expert to layperson, from scientist to farmer, is in reality far more complicated. The language of these bills — with its repeated references to distribution and diffusion — implies a one-way movement of ideas; yet it is more accurate to say that ideas circulated, were appropriated by different groups, were reproduced in new ways. Dissemination, I think, offers a good metaphor: scattering seeds widely, which then take on lives of their own. The seed metaphor helps us further: the seeds mature differently, depending on where they are planted. Place and locality matter. Likewise with ideas, practices, techniques.
I’ve been thinking about these questions through the lens of an image I came across in the Cornell Archives that illustrates a 4-H “chain of knowledge” linking the land-grant-college specialist, the 4-H agent, the local leader, and the club member. Though this schematic is obviously quite simplified, I think it represents a good tool to think with. The chain is not a straight line, but a loop: knowledge can flow in both directions. The chain is comprised of more local- and county-level links than it is of state- and federal-level ones (in fact, in this representation, the federal level is completely absent): knowledge circulation happens on a highly localized scale. Furthermore, the chain puts the land-grant specialist in direct contact with the club member, linking individuals across several scales and kinds of knowledge. This indeed happens in the context of club congresses, camps, fairs, and other gatherings that bring youth and experts into personal contact, supplementing the more distant contact of, say, a club member reading an extension circular authored by a specialist. Finally, the links in the chain are not static: people can (and often do) pass through several of them, becoming different nodes in the network at different points in time. 4-H club members who grow up to be club leaders, or extension agents, or land-grant-college professors, or USDA officials represent one way of traversing this network, following people as well as ideas and practices.
Which brings me to another point: organisms and artifacts move through this network as well. Pigs, ears of corn, vegetables, canned goods, dresses, poultry, eggs… The products of 4-H club work also circulate. And they circulate through two overlapping and mutually constitutive systems: the knowledge system of the land-grant complex, and the economic system of markets in agricultural and domestic products. Production for home use and for sale: this is central to the 4-H idea from the beginning, and this economic or market orientation sets 4-H apart from other youth movements coming out of the Progressive Era. These markets are also critical in making agricultural knowledge, something I’m hoping to talk about in this paper as well.
Catch me next week, and I’ll probably have a better-theorized way of explaining all of this, but these are the ideas I’m grappling with right now. For the moment: back to making knowledge (on a different level) about agriculture.
As I am constantly discovering in the course of my research, libraries today are in the midst of massive digitization projects, and more documents are becoming available online to researchers worldwide every day. Today I discovered the full run of the Experiment Station Record from 1900 to 1949 at the University of North Texas’s digital collections. This was a great boon to me, because I recently scanned a bunch of bits and pieces of the ESR I had photocopied from research I did for my master’s several years ago, but these constituted a rather haphazard collection, with a lot of title pages copied for reference but few complete articles. So, today, when I wanted the complete May 1914 issue (rather than the one page I copied), it was surprisingly easy to conjure up on my screen. Now I can read all about the official Experiment Station take on the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, which created the USDA Extension Service.
I hope to put together soon a more comprehensive entry on agricultural historical resources available online; for now, please enjoy perusing other UNT Digital Collections. If you’re into the ag stuff, check out the Experiment Station Reports they have there as well.