Market and non-market rationality in the rural economy

Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley, 1780-1860 Martin Bruegel, 2002

For Martin Bruegel, the market transition happened when “Commercial transactions...moved from a physical setting to an abstract, intangible sphere where prices mattered more than people and relationships.”  (2)  This description seems consistent with the consensus that has emerged from the “transition” debates, with the caveat that since the Hudson River Valley was settled so early, the same dynamics might not necessarily apply to "second-generation" settlements in places like Western New York or Michigan.  It’s Bruegel’s extensive use of individual accounts, to an almost microhistorical level, that sets this book apart. Bruegel says he’s going to describe the “social and economic processes that underlay the movement from an understanding of the world rooted in concrete and particular experiences to general abstractions.” (3-4)  While he rarely has an opportunity to present “before” and “after” views of an individual’s changing orientation, I think he successfully shows evidence of a changing understanding of relationships and social realities in the Hudson River Valley.

The non-market, neighborhood relations that dominated Hudson Valley culture in the late eighteenth century, Bruegel says, was based on the subsistence basis of the agricultural economy.  Risk of starvation was real, and to mitigate that risk, farmers chose the safest route.  “Rather than adapting to the environment’s average productivity,” for example, “their experience taught them to prepare for bad years.” (16)  “Safety nets...created a community.” (21)  Even when they traded, “the apparent utility of the traded good or service neither structured nor exhausted the meaning of the exchange.  Participation was what mattered.”  Because of the precariousness of rural life, Bruegel suggests the emphasis on self-sufficiency of farm households (vs. communities) is misplaced.  “It is impossible to think about them separately,” he says, “because it was precisely the constant exchange of labor and tools that conditioned the family’s subsistence and held the neighborhood together.” (21)

Interestingly, the transition involved a lot of overlap.  Bruegel says the shift toward a commercial orientation was gradual and was marked by  “the coexistence of nonmarket and market rationality in the rural economy” for much of the early nineteenth century.  (62)  “In practice,” he says, “farmers straddled two worlds that historians and ethnologists have often tended to construe as incompatible.” (42) “Commercial exchange,” Bruegel suggests, was both a “part of the farm families‘ strategy to achieve a competence,” and occurred in a market dominated by “personal relations: these bonds actually predicated trade on the Hudson.” (42-3)  “Trust lowered transaction costs,” and this “privileged bond...helped diminish the farmer’s prejudice against the conniving merchant,” or indeed, any outsider. (42, 59)  But even though the majority of extralocal trading was done by only the most prosperous farmers, “in a world of insecurity, where risk reduction guided the behavior of farm families, the establishment of dependable and durable credit and debt connections lay in the interest of both merchant and farmer;” especially those of humbler means.  Their participation in the markets at the Hudson landings created a two tier system, in which the seller could choose either the local or the “New York price.” As a result, “over long periods of time, prices of locally produced goods in the neighborhood trading center remained constant and unresponsive to metropolitan fluctuations.”  (59)

Bruegel's narrative suggests that this two-tiered market coexistence would have persisted, if external social forces had not changed the game.  “Political interventions in favor of deregulated internal commerce,” he says “show that there was nothing natural about the rise of a market society.”  (66)  Echoing Horwitz, Bruegel says “it was the law’s aim to do away with the favored client status that liberal theory construed as collusion,” but that locals at the landing valued as the relationships that tied commerce to community. (67)  But the biggest factor was clearly the growth of New York City, and its markets.  Demand for hay and dairy products rose.  Soil exhaustion and better transportation helped push farmers into hay and livestock.  By 1852 the president of the state Ag. Society was able to claim that “farming is no longer that uncertain, profitless work, which it once was.” (97)  One Kinderhook resident noted “About 1790 this land was sold for $1 an acre: now it brings $75 or $80.” (95)  Farm productivity “growth relied on the intensification of well-known work practices,” introduction of cast-iron plows, and increasing use of wage labor throughout the season.  “The extension of employment length distinguished a new labor force from the neighbors who still helped each other during the crest of harvest work.” (112)

These new workers, Bruegel suggests, lived separately from the farmers, and bought food and supplies at the local market, for cash.  This is interesting, if true -- I've always found farm workers farther west to be young, single men, who lived with the farm family.  Maybe this varied by region.  Bruegel also suggests the shift to dairying improved the status of women.  He cites an 1820 book called
Dialogues on Domestic and Rural Economy and the Fashionable Follies of the World, by Hannah Barnard, which seems to complicate the traditional view of separate gender spheres.  “The agricultural family, in Barnard’s depiction, was a collective in which men and women joined their forces and talents.”  (115)  Bruegel cites several other contemporary local sources to suggest that Harriet Martineau and other European observes were wrong to conclude that American women had no place in the outdoor work of the farm.

Growth of manufacturing, Bruegel says, followed national events: the Embargo and the War of 1812.  It quickly became “more fashionable and cheaper...to dress in fabricks of our rapidly increasing manufactories,” as Sterling Goodenow observed in 1822. (in
A Brief Topographical and Statistical Manual of the State of New York, 150) But in spite of this, “As late as 1837, Kinderhook grocers J. and P. Bain still carried ‘Home-Made Woolen Cloths, also low prices Broad Cloths.' ” (148)  Based on his sources, Bruegel concludes that rural consumption had not become “rural consumerism...by the 1840s.  Rather, the dissemination of everyday articles projects the image of a world whose demands remained moderate...the quest for necessities, not luxuries, propelled the consumer behavior of the majority of rural dwellers,” Bruegel says. (161-2)