Bidwells' Rural Economy, a century later

I mentioned a couple of days ago that when he lectured in front of popular audiences, Hugh Raup was channeling the ideas of academics such as Percy Bidwell. Bidwell's work is part of the historiography of Agricultural History, and is interesting in spite of the challenges that it has faced over the years. So I thought I'd say something about Bidwell.

Percy Wells Bidwell
Rural Economy in New England at the Beginning of the 19th Century, 1916
"The Agricultural Revolution in New England," The American Historical Review, July, 1921

Percy W. Bidwell (1888-1970) had a wide range of interests. He wrote over a dozen articles between 1930 and 1960 for
Foreign Affairs, mostly on raw materials, tariffs, and international trade. Early in his career, he wrote one of the central books of Agricultural History. Bidwell based Rural Economy on the 1810 Census and related documents. So he was writing about what Southern New England had been like 100 years earlier, and another century has passed since he wrote. Bidwell began with a description of the inland town and the types of people found there. He was careful to note that in 1810, proto-businessmen like the “taverner or innkeeper, the country trader, the proprietors of the saw-mills, the grist-mills, the fulling-mills, the tanneries; the village artisans or mechanics, the blacksmiths, the carpenters and joiners, and the cobblers” were usually only able to ply their trades part time. Like everyone else, farming was their primary occupation and the source of family security. (256-7)

Bidwell attributed the “union of all trades, businesses, and professions with agriculture,” and the lack of an effective, full-time division of labor to the lack of robust markets. Quoting
The Wealth of Nations, he said “No better illustration than this could be desired of the famous dictum of Adam Smith that ‘the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market’” (267, n. 1). Bidwell implies that agricultural markets were a precondition for economic activity -- that businessmen and professionals would not be able to thrive until people had money to spend. And that depended on farmers selling surpluses and, over time, producing for markets rather than home (or village) use. The outside markets available to New England farmers in 1810 were New York (population nearly 100,000), the Southern states, and the West Indies (we often forget this lucrative market, 294). The problem, Bidwell said, was getting products to the coast.

“The Connecticut River furnished the only means of cheap transportation through the central region of New England. Although originally navigable only as far as the falls at Enfield, Connecticut, some sixty-five miles above its mouth, a series of canals constructed in the years 1790-1810 had made possible the passage of small boats to the village of Barnet in northern Vermont, about 180 miles further” (309). Since transportation initially limited access to markets, Bidwell expected early farmers to be less interested in “improvement” and production for market than their counterparts in England and Europe. This was the case, in the opinions of both foreign visitors and domestic critics like Timothy Dwight of Yale. Bidwell didn't inquire whether this characterization of New England agriculture was factual or a just a distinguished prejudice, and the image of sloppy farmers working rocky hillsides remained unchallenged until recently (in works like Brian Donahue's
Great Meadow, 2004).

Bidwell said “Contemporary criticisms were deserved,” but suggests that there were reasonable excuses for the poor state of farming (345). “Inefficiency in Agriculture was not due to ignorance,” he insisted (346). “Land was cheap and labor dear,” Bidwell said, echoing George “Washington’s explanation” (349). Bidwell agreed that emigration to the frontier drained New England’s population and postponed intensive agriculture (351-2), but he insisted that the “real cause of inefficient agriculture was the lack of a market for farm products.”

“The expense of labor was at this time a hindrance to the growth of manufactures also,” Bidwell reminded, “but when the market was opened through the failure of European competition, during the period of the Embargoes and the War of 1812, manufacturers found it profitable to employ workers even at the high wages demanded” (353). “All other stimuli to agricultural improvement,” Bidwell insisted, “were futile as long as a market was lacking." This argument seems valid in an intuitive, theoretical sense, but it ignores the markets created by earlier events like the Seven Years War (1754-63) and especially the English Civil War (1642-51), which cut off Barbados from supplies from home and provided a West Indian market for New England farm products at the very beginning of colonial history.

"Between the years 1810 and 1860," Bidwell continued, "such a population arose in the manufacturing cities and towns of New England, and the market thus created brought changes which opened up a new era to the farmers of the inland towns” (353). He expanded this train of thought five years later, attributing change in agriculture to the growth of "factory villages…[with] a new demand for foodstuffs and raw materials," and ultimately cities ("Agricultural Revolution," 683). Between 1810 and 1860, the population of the southern New England states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) more than doubled. In 1810 only Boston, Providence, and New Haven had more than 10,000 people. "Taken together their population was only 56,000, less than seven per cent. of the total population. In 1860 the towns of over 10,000 numbered 26, containing in all 682,000 persons, or 36.5 per cent. of the total of southern New England" (685). This is a significant social change. In 1860, Boston was home to over 177,000 people and over a third of New Englanders were urban. Although these urban populations were mobile, other evidence (Like the work of Thernstrom and Knights, which I'll cover another time) suggests that transient city folk tended to move from city to city, not from the city back to countryside. So it's easy to imagine these two distinct populations beginning to grow apart from each other in interests and perspective.

Another interesting observation Bidwell made in the last few pages of the 1921 article concerned farm families' transition from homespun to commercial textiles. "The rapidity of the change from homespun to factory-made textiles," he said, "bears eloquent testimony to the hardship which the household industries had imposed upon the farm women" (694). Bidwell quotes Litchfield minister Horace Bushnell, who told his rural parishioners in 1851, "This transition from mother- and daughter-power to water- and steam-power is a great one…one that is to carry with it a complete revolution of domestic life and social manners" (from
Work and Play, 1881). We don't have to accept contemporary anxieties about the "evil work the Devil might find for idle hands" or the conclusion that moving to Lowell and Lawrence to work in the mills was the inevitable consequence, to recognize that contemporary commentators were right: a monumental change was underway.