Working in the shade, and always in shadow.

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.

Tobacco barns near Hartford, CT.
Tobacco barns near Hartford, CT.

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.)

Farm workers harvesting tobacco and fitting leaves into bulk curing racks being pulled by tractor.
Harvesting tobacco in North Carolina (n.d.), Agricultural Extension and Research Services, North Carolina State University Libraries, Digital Collections.

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.

Beginning a new project.

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!

From the research files: Lemon and water, 1945.

Here’s a good one I came across today: a Sunkist ad from the close of World War II that links American victory and national strength to regularity, achieved most healthfully by drinking a glass of lemon juice and water first thing each morning.

ad for sunkist citrus
Country Gentleman, vol. 115, no. 9 (September 1945), p. 96.

Here’s to your health!

Logos and letterhead from the archives: Tennessee Farmers Cooperative, 1957.

One of the things I love to see in logos is a geographical sensibility. I can think of several contemporary examples of this among companies that really capitalize on their locality, such as Finger Lakes Distilling and New Glarus Brewing. The logotype for the Tennessee Farmers Cooperative in the 1950s took a similar tack:

Logotype of the Tennessee Farmers Cooperative, ca. 1957. Source: C. I. Smith Papers, A88-21, University Archives Division, Mississippi State University Library, Box 1, Folder 13.

I’m a huge fan of the perspective and color in this one. A simple, timeless design, one that holds up quite well, I think. This is one of my favorites from the archives. (Too bad they didn’t stick with the old design!)

Logos and letterhead from the archives: Hotel Gayoso, 1958.

One of the things I have enjoyed doing as a little side project while going through archival records is snapping pictures of interesting letterhead from different moments in history. Sometimes I admire the design, sometimes the ostentatiousness or elaborate nature of the logotypes, and sometimes it’s just something that gives me a chuckle in the midst of a long day of research. I’ve been stumbling across these while working on the current dissertation chapter, and though I would share one with you today. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the pinnacle of luxury, Memphis’s Hotel Gayoso, the “South’s Most Aristocratic Hotel.”

1958 letterhead of Memphis’s Hotel Gayoso: The South’s Most Aristocratic Hotel. Source: C. I. Smith Papers, A88-21, University Archives Division, Mississippi State University Library, Box 2, Folder 106.

There seem to be historical photographs of the hotel available, as well as a digital collection on Memphis history.

I’ll be posting more as I wade through these archival photos. Get ready for some midcentury design, people!

The document that made me laugh today.

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:

Safe Disposal of Dead Chickens
Paul Yount, Dennis Stringer, and Kermit R. Ray, Safe Disposal of Dead Chickens, Mississippi Extension Publication 270 (1953).

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.

Election day.

I. Polling Place

I vote in an elementary school that was built in the 1930s. I vote in the auditorium, the walls of which are decorated with modernist murals depicting scenes from Wisconsin history. They are beautiful. I like to think of pioneers and lumbermen and wildlife looking down on me as I exercise my civic responsibilities. They are, I imagine, always a little shocked to see us, the voters, with our blue folders and our funny clothes, standing in line, marking pieces of paper and feeding them into a machine, talking with one another, running into friends, being neighborly. The men and women look down knowingly, proudly, like they know what they are building. The animals are silent and serene. What they see, perhaps, is older, and longer, and outlasting.

II. Capitol

This is a piece I wrote in March of 2011, when the Wisconsin Capitol was closed to the public.

When I came to Wisconsin in 2005, I didn’t expect to fall in love with a building.

I was making a tour of graduate schools, and Madison was first on my list. To get a feel for the city, I decided to walk from one side of town to the other. It was a chance to find out if this was a place I could not only study, but live and be happy.

There were many things to like about Madison, but what I really fell in love with that morning was the capitol building downtown. It wasn’t just that it was impressive or beautiful—all state capitols are. Rather, it was this capitol’s sheer openness that struck me, its permeability to the rest of the city, the way in which it clearly served as not just an enclosed place of business, but a thoroughfare for citizens: from legislators, to tourists, to those just passing through. This, I learned, is partly by virtue of geography: the capitol sits smack-dab in the center of Madison, a city squeezed onto a narrow isthmus between two lakes, and, chances are, if you’re on your way somewhere downtown, you’ll want to walk through it to get there.

But the capitol’s accessibility is also a result of policy. Its doors are open all day long, there are no metal detectors or bag-checkers, and it is a pleasant place to escape the heat of a Madison summer, the cold of a Wisconsin winter, or the bustle of a Saturday farmer’s market—and maybe run into someone you voted for. My first semester in graduate school, a group of friends and I ran into the governor as we passed through on our way to a bar. He said hi to us, we said hi back, and we went our separate ways, as if this were a completely ordinary occurrence. The great thing about Madison is that it was.

Full disclosure here: I love capitols. I grew up in Albany, where my father had a job in the capitol, and as a kid, I explored the building from top to bottom. The elevator operators knew me, the Sergeant-at-Arms made me hot chocolate, and I would happily have given tours without script or pay. But by the time I left for college, it was a different world. The elevator operators were gone, replaced by buttons. Metal detectors, pat-downs, and searches greeted visitors, even those just looking for the tour. The capitol had transformed from a place of wonder to a place of fear.

I had assumed that it had gotten to be this way everywhere; that every statehouse tour involved a bag search and a frisking, that feeling at ease in public buildings was a thing of the past. When I discovered that the past was alive and well in Wisconsin, I knew I had come home.

When I moved to Madison that fall, I embraced the capitol as the encapsulation of a civic engagement and democratic participation I thought I had lost. Without ever needing to go to the capitol, I was there routinely, and this profoundly transformed my relationship to state and local government. I felt empowered and listened to before I even approached my assemblyperson’s door.

The images of protesters being turned out of the capitol, of citizens barred from entering, of members of the legislature accosted by police, are therefore heartbreaking to me both personally and politically. The capitol lockdown that unfolded in Madison last week has brought me to angry fist-shaking over the morning paper, loud shouting at the radio, and, last night, tears as I watched footage of police tackling a Wisconsin assemblyman on the way to his office. Every photograph, every video of the protests depicts a place I know and recognize, a place I have walked and biked and driven, a place I have sat and listened to music, or enjoyed laughter and a meal with friends. And yet the thought of a locked-up capitol in broad daylight on a Madison weekday is so unfamiliar, so deeply foreign and wrong, that it breaks my heart. And it makes me angry, angry at those who would move to shut down an orderly, respectful, and peaceful protest in a place Wisconsinites rightly thought of as theirs, a place that was woven deeply into their everyday lives: their capitol.

What we need in this country is more proximity to one another and to our elected representatives, not less; more responsible citizenship, less disconnection. Capitol buildings can and should fill this role by becoming or continuing to be a constant and vital part of the everyday activity of a state’s entire citizenry, not just its politicians and activists. I urge officials in Madison to lift the restrictions on the capitol, to restore the building to the people, who have shown the utmost respect for the edifice and all that it represents. Because I believe—and the events in Wisconsin attest—that routine free and open access to our halls of government, and the comfort and familiarity this fosters, makes each citizen a willing and able recipient of the responsibilities of self-government and democracy. If the events in the Midwest are any indication, we will surely need them all.

III. University

Walk down State Street from the Capitol one mile, and you hit the foot of Bascom Hill. On your right are two important libraries: the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library, and the Library and Archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The latter houses the largest collection in the entire world on the history of North America.

Walk the campus and your are surrounded by the pantheon of Progressivism. Bascom. Ely. Commons. Henry. Van Hise. Chamberlin. Go to the top of the hill and run your fingers over the plaque that upholds academic freedom. Believe that there are still principles and possibilities, no matter how dark things look. Believe in the ability of citizens to stand up, to discuss, to share, to be heard; to listen.

Sifting and winnowing.

IV. Idea

If there are any books that deserve a second look today, of all days, they are Charles McCarthy’s The Wisconsin Idea and Frederic C. Howe’s Wisconsin: Experiment in Democracy. I read them recently for my research, and was struck by their deep resonance with current events, their continued relevance today. For anyone who believes that the divisive partisanship we see today is unprecedented, that the corrupting influence of huge sums of money in politics is merely a modern phenomenon, I urge you to read these books. Our state capitol is beautiful and lovely and open for another reason, a political one, an economic one: the will to say that a corporation has power that must, in a democratic society, be met with equal power, collective power, organized power. McCarthy calls it “Force,” and “unequal conditions of contract” (pp. 1–2), but it is the same thing.

The books read as both timely and out-of-date. They are infused with evolutionary theories about the progress of races, nations, and civilizations, and eugenicist ideas that will strike the modern reader as quite repellent. They evince a faith in government and the state that seems perhaps naive and horribly old-fashioned today. They are, in other words, documents from another era, another time, when people looked at the world differently. What is worthwhile about them today is the sense of possibility they contain, and the belief in the ability of citizens, policymakers, and experts to come together in a reasonable fashion and, using the best available information from all parties, create reform: not partisan reform, but reform that makes life better for the people of the state.

V. Forward

This image, from page 8 of McCarthy’s book, is one of the resonances that make you stop and say, woah. The Wisconsin Idea (written by a librarian, by the way) is a jeremiad, an appeal to the rest of the country to recognize the forces that are preventing America from achieving its promise. Growing inequality, as depicted in this diagram, is at the root of it for McCarthy, and legislative interventions are needed to help prevent Stage 2 from becoming Stage 3.

Social strata.

Forward, then, is not forward to Stage 3 (where he fears we are heading), but forward to a future where Stage 3 is foreclosed, where the commonwealth (a word that shows up often in McCarthy and Howe) is safeguarded willingly by all. In a state with so rich a tradition, today I have great hope.