|Title||Accounting for Change: Exchange in the Rural Economy of Central New England|
|Type||Papers and Articles: OSV Research Paper|
There has been enough debate about how rural society and economy in the American Northeast was changing between the mid-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century to remind me of John Stuart Mill's observation that in any controversy the participants are likely to be right in what they affirm, yet wrong in what they deny. In that spirit, I will be trying to further that discussion not by wrangling with other scholars' views but by making some affirmations about change in rural New England from 1790 to 1840, drawn in large measure from the work that my colleagues and I have done on central Massachusetts, but of course heavily depending on much excellent work by many others.1
As a visually and materially-minded museum historian who writes about everyday life, I'd like to begin with a description, taking a panoramic aerial view. A decade after the American Revolution, Worcester County in central Massachusetts, with its 52 towns, was a landscape of dispersed agricultural settlement. Each had centrally located meetinghouses and commons, but there were only a few small clusters of settlement; farms were, as the Reverend Peter Whitney wrote in 1796, "scattered all over the place without much order." A good deal of that landscape was still in the process of being opened up, cleared for agricultural use. A visitor returning every year would see more of the woods cleared away, more fields tamed. Even where that landscape was cleared, its texture was rough. Unpainted houses, "dusky with weatherstain," were set on barren, slovenly lots. Most dwellings were small; the Federal Direct Tax List of 1798 discloses that two-thirds of them were of one story.2
Across that landscape farmers shared the patterns and practices of southern New England's "mixed" agriculture. Rye and corn, hay and pasture, cattle and sheep, butter and cheese, the household production of textiles based on wool and flax. Although there was relatively little variation in types of production between communities, there were considerable differences, primarily based on land quality, in prosperity and productivity; the average wealth of communities and neighborhoods could vary substantially. This was highly visible in the varying proportions of larger, two-story houses in the landscape.3
Scattered around the countryside, sharing most of the common routines of farming, were country artisans who interwove their "mechanics'" work with the rhythms of agriculture. Farmers and mechanic's together participated in dense networks of local exchange - crystallized for study in the large number of account books that have survived for this region. These were long-term rhythms of exchange between households that enfolded both social and economic relationships.
Undergirding all this was the technological basis of 18th-century rural life — small-scale, low-powered, slow and heavy. Transportation proceeded by oxcart or horse and sled on exceedingly difficult roads. The tools of agriculture epitomized by massive wooden ploughs shod with iron. Artisanal production was on the smallest of scales, and small water-powered service mills of a few horsepower were widely scattered on streams.
Taking the same aerial perspective view of the region that would let us see its settlement landscape and its local exchange, we would see slow-moving but important flows of goods from every community and virtually every household. Moving directly from farms, or by way of country stores, there would be streams of goods - butter, cheese, livestock, some hay and grain going east, to Boston and surrounding towns. Worcester county farmers were attuned sufficiently to comparatively distant markets for these commodities that their account books registered their price shifts with considerable precision and speed. The smallest farmers traded to survive, for food and clothing; larger farmers could trade for comfort and display. While larger farmers produced goods that found their way to more distant markets, smaller ones exchanged while remaining more closely tied to the local economic world, trading labor to their better-endowed neighbors to make up their deficits, and keeping the products of their own land for their own consumption needs.4
We could see other trickles of goods, "assortments for the country trade," returning in a westerly direction by the same conveyances. The goods were not enormous in quantity but they were vitally important because they were a critical part of the consumption standards rural households had adopted - sugar and tea, spices, teapots, teacups and sugar bowls, matched sets of cutlery and crockery, window glass, some of the accoutrements of fashionable dress.
Focusing in to look more closely at the small but crowded houses, we would see that just after the Revolution - as detailed demographic studies of central Massachusetts communities have shown families were still very large. Childbearing patterns had just begun to shift with an increase in age at marriage. Premarital pregnancy - that event which ended courtship and began family formation for one couple in three - was at its peak.5
Central Massachusetts, like other parts of rural America, was producing far more children than its agricultural economy and ecology could accommodate; in most of its communities, the number of farms grew only slowly.
Returning again to our aerial perspective, this time to catch the slower rhythms of migration, we could see families and young men moving North, and then West to reproduce the familiar patterns of farming in new environments. The dismission records of the Baptist and Congregational churches of Sturbridge, for example, disclose some of these characteristics destinations in Vermont and Maine, in western New York, Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Many others, the records reveal, went cityward to very different lives, to Boston, Providence, Hartford or Worcester, the county's emerging metropolis). Yet still others - enough for the county's rural population almost to double in five decades - remained to farm, or to find different economic niches for themselves in the country towns. These are the people with whose lives we are primarily concerned.6 For these country people the story of change was not one of the rise of the cities and factories and the abandonment of agriculture, but something much more complicated and interesting. For to shift our panoramic perspective a few decades ahead in time would be to see this rural world transformed. By 1840, the landscape itself had been strikingly reshaped. Almost all of the county's usable agricultural land had been "improved" for cultivation and farmed often to its ecological limits. Almost everywhere, farm families could see the lights in their neighbors' windows. There was not only an opening but a building and rebuilding of houses, an ordering of the rural landscape with dooryards and white paint, the evolution of a landscape aesthetic of improvement.7
Many of the tools of agricultural work had become lighter, easier. Vehicles were far more abundant and a denser and much more sharply defined network of roads cut across the region. Even more dramatically, at their principal intersections had arisen new settlements - central place commercial villages in every town, and manufacturing villages on virtually every exploitable waterpower site, concentrated in the county's southern and northern tiers of towns.8
These new places were outposts of commerce and small-scale urbanization, settlements of merchants and increasingly full-time artisans growing up as centers of trade and service for the farming populations, or clusters of transient families drawn from the most marginal rural folk to tend the water-powered, mechanized production of cloth and furniture. The outlying neighborhoods of the countryside themselves were becoming dense with small-scale production - ten foot shoe shops, agricultural implement and edge tool makers, a rich diversity of outwork in farm households.9
What had been a relatively thin, but important stream of goods into and out of the countryside in 1790 was now a flood, moving in heavily loaded horse -drawn wagons over far better roads. Butter, cheese and livestock, hay, oats moved in much larger quantities and on far more complex paths of exchange, into the conurbations of eastern Massachusetts, but also into the new villages, what the writer Samuel Goodrich called "home markets in every valley."
The town of Worcester, although an ever-larger proportion of its total area was taken up by its urban growth, had after 1820 the highest agricultural output in the county - a thriving "green belt" of dairy, market garden and livestock production around a consuming urban core. Smaller versions surrounded commercial and manufacturing villages.
Shoes and machine-produced cloth, chairs and ploughs, axes and scythes, palm leaf hats, braided straw, even printed books, moved from villages and scattered shops into centralized urban channels of distribution — out from there to wider markets, and sometimes back into the countryside that produced them. The stores of country merchants had expanded in size, and their shelves were weighed down with a plenitude of consumer goods. 10
More restrained, prudential and calculated ways of childbearing and courtship took shape as well for the region's people. The people of central Massachusetts were not only marrying later each decade, but had begun to practice conscious family limitation within their marriages. In some communities the rates of premarital pregnancy had fallen below 5% by 1840. 11
Cleared acreage and total output continued to rise over time, in the "opening of the countryside." But the patterns of production changed, reflecting alterations in markets and transportation. The county's production of rye, southern New England's traditional bread grain, sharply declined after 1820. In contrast, total yields of both hay and oats rose dramatically. Butter and cheese production was becoming specialized at the eastern and western ends of the county. Sheep were disappearing while horses multiplied. The region's mixed farming paradigm - with its mix of crops, its balance between tillage, mowing and meadow, between oxen, cattle, sheep and swine, was here coming under powerful change. Once enormously important forms of household production, cloth and breadstuffs, were leaving the orbit of farm and household as flax, wool and rye disappeared, to be replaced by factory-made cottons and woolen, and New York wheat flour. 12
These trends are abstractions which summarize the choices made within thousands of rural families - decisions to plant different quantities of a given crop, to change patterns of land use or livestock keeping, based on perceptions or hopes of changing demands or new markets.
To better comprehend that transformation, to get at the experience of the men and women who encountered and enacted it, we will have to look beyond these dramatic patterns on the landscape, in the county valuation returns or the vital records.
One potential path to such understanding is to study the changing strategies of individual farmers' adaptations to the market where evidence is available - as my colleagues Andrew Baker and Holly Izard Paterson have done.13 Another is to turn to the world of local exchange and attempt to decipher it.
The most common surviving personal record of central Massachusetts' ordinary people, as for most New Englanders were account books. Kept according to the rudiments of bookkeeping learned at home or in the shop, in rural district schools, or from elementary treatises, they are single-entry ledgers, sometimes written in a rough scrawl, occasionally in a copperplate hand, they record exchanges of goods and services, sometimes for a few years, sometimes for 30 or more. At first glance either trivial or formidably opaque, these documents can in fact bring the scholar closer than any other source to actual networks of economic interactions in rural communities, and sometimes beyond them. Like tax lists or vital registers, they can be analyzed to reconstruct - partially at least — relationships and patterns of behavior.
Artifacts of a literate rural society, account books were more common in New England than anywhere else in America; their proportions - currently unknown with any precision - seem roughly to follow the north/south and east/west gradients of schooling, literacy and numeracy.
In central Massachusetts, account keeping was remarkably common. At its outermost limit were those who, Robert Thomas's Farmer's Almanack complained, were content to use "a shingle or an oven lid, with marks or scratches upon it," or the "loose and uncertain scrawls" of "a few chalks upon the buttery door," which "a little brush of the hand may obliterate...in a moment." Most appear to have done more than this. Francis Underwood, whose book Quabbin on the central Massachusetts town of Enfield is a classic of rural ethnography, maintained that most of the community's outlying hill farmers, a poor, rough-hewn and economically marginal lot, could "keep what would pass for accounts, to be fiercely disputed over at every reckoning with the storekeeper." 14
Underwood's assertion is strikingly confirmed in the voluminous account books of Thomas W. Ward I and II of Shrewsbury from 1786 through 1850 there are clear references to how each account was settled. The great majority of the Wards' trading partners - merchants and artisans, farmers and even farm laborers -are consistently credited with entries "from your book." The great current rarity of farm laborer's accounts - almost certainly small, inexpensive volumes with paper covers - seems to be testimony to the highly selective nature of preservation. 15
This pervasive account keeping was a formalized, quantified version of the unwritten neighborhood exchange practices found in other parts of rural America - the "changing" that Francis Trollope found in southern Ohio, or the "sharing system" described for Illinois. Where Yankee migrants mixed with upland Southerners, as in early-19th-century Indiana, Southerners found the New England preference for written accounts not only unfamiliar but often personally insulting, suggesting that a man's word and memory about his obligations was not trusted. 16
For most of the men who kept them, account book exchange was part of the world of central Massachusetts' little communities, the hamlets and scattered neighborhoods of the countryside that were the fundamental units of rural society, usually focused around a district school. It existed alongside and intertwined with patterns of visiting as well as the huskings, barn and house-raisings, quiltings, and "changing works," the directly reciprocal exchanges of labor that were rarely if ever quantified or recorded. Country folk long retained a customary and cumbersome way of reckoning, figuring their prices in the traditional pounds, shillings and pence of Massachusetts colonial currency long after the money of account had become United State dollars and cents. 17
Single-entry account book also embodied a particular form and conceptualization of economic life. To read an account book is to feel the strength of a web of economic obligations between individuals and households. The rural account book tracked obligations and the histories of relationships, and consequently mirrored the face-to-face reality of life in rural communities, where trade was inextricably intertwined with family ties, everyday social interactions and community relationships. Most account entry recorded interaction which probably would have been difficult to characterize as either "social chats," as central Massachusetts autobiographers called them, or exchanges.
A study of exchange patterns in the town of Brookfield, Massachusetts, 1760-1820, found that farm families had characteristically relationships that were symmetrical and unspecialized; families exchanged similar kinds of goods and services, items which they could, and at other times often did, produce themselves. In some account books there are entries which suggest that goods or services not needed or particularly desired were accepted by one household in order to make an exchange with a needier neighbor possible. 18
Settling accounts was both a social ritual and a hard-eyed weighing of the balance. Account-balancing, with its comparing of accounts and its signing off, may have been in part a way of affirming or reestablishing social equilibrium. One systematic form of incompleteness may offer useful testimony. Many, perhaps the majority of central Massachusetts account keepers scanted the "Credit" side of the account, assuming that the trading partner would keep a careful record of what he had supplied suggest an important degree of trust in economic relationships.
But it is clearly possible to overemphasize the mutuality implicit in the account book world, the account book was primarily an economic record, and community exchange moved to some of the rhythms of the larger marketplace. Account book prices for items saleable in the marketplace were not set by community custom and consensus but were linked with those of the Boston markets, and fluctuated with them over time. 19
And in fact the analysis of central Massachusetts account books reveals something more complicated than symmetrical mutuality: a complex variety of networks of economic exchange, a churning activity determined by the structures of kinship, household age and sex composition, communal ties, the unequal distribution of land, livestock and farming implements, and different niches in the rural economy based on specialized skills and products. 20
In the account books of ordinary farmers, like those of Philemon Shepherd and Timothy Allen of Sturbridge, or Nathan Flagg of Boylston, William Williams of Shrewsbury, economic life was most intimately enmeshed in the webs of kinship and the "little community". All their networks were tightly centered in their school districts. For Shepherd and Allen many of their most significant trading partners were relatives. Shepherd traded almost exclusively with fellow members of his Baptist congregation. 21
The account books of large-scale and prosperous farmers like the Wards of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, extended much farther beyond kin and neighborhood encompassing the town as a whole and contact well beyond it. They displayed deep economic stratification rather than rough equality; they reveal highly asymmetrical, "unequal" patterns of exchange with many households, with the one-sided trading of work for foodstuffs, firewood, the use of vehicles, implements, and draft animals, and the rental of land. 22
Artisans' accounts, of course, tell us much more about the character, technology and seasonality of their work. Their networks ranged considerably in scale. Some were confined to a few overlapping neighborhoods, while others spread more widely through a town or even two or three contiguous ones. The scope of their exchange systems was determined by the thresholds of market size and frequency of demand for their individual goods and services. 23
Country merchants functioned both within local networks of exchange and in the orbit of a larger commerce, as the most important intermediaries between the countryside and the wider trade patterns of New England, the nation, and the Atlantic world. Rural merchants like Jason Mixter moved goods in and out of the countryside, organized rural exchange and production, and mediated between the economic ways of countryside and city.
Like a series of interlocking cogs turning at different speeds, account book worlds differed in their forgivingness or velocity, or how they monetized time. Ordinary farmers and mechanics rarely charged interest on balances owing them, no matter how long they went. Storekeepers usually charged interest only on accounts overdue for a full year or more; they dealt, usually on six-month credits, with Boston wholesale merchants, who operated with much less forgiving rules about interest accumulation. 24
From 1780 to 1850 accounts were increasingly "better" and more neatly kept, with progressively fewer crossings-out, grammatical "errors" and mistakes in arithmetic. Traditional reckoning in pounds, shillings and pence lingered until around 1820 and then swiftly disappeared. In one sense this may represent a modest increment of numeracy and "statistical thinking" among 19th century Americans; the curriculums of rural New England schools from the 1770s to the 1830s show an increase in the number and prevalence of arithmetic texts, and a greater emphasis on instruction in arithmetical skills. But better bookkeeping was also one with white-painted houses, tree-lined and mown commons, parlor carpets, cookstoves and more frequent washing - it was not only increasingly rational and calculating but increasingly genteel. In fact, one of the more popular bookkeeping manuals of the 1830s, Preston's, overtly characterized neat and precise account-keeping as doing things "genteelly." 25
But the nature of the books as accounting instruments did not change. Storekeepers took yearly inventories of their stock and reckoned their accounts due and accounts payable. But farmers and artisans knew neither their costs nor their profits. In the rural vernacular of New England single-entry bookkeeping and ciphering, there were accounts only for exchange partners by name.
Accounts were settled at irregular intervals and never at the same time. It would have been extremely difficult for them to discover what the totals of their credits and debits were at any one time, and there is no evidence that they ever attempted to.
As an economic instrument the account book reflected a world where goods and credit moved slowly, but not simply.. The student of these patterns is likely to be struck by the relevance of an observation made by Lawrence Wylie, the ethnographer of mid-twentieth-century French rural life, on "Peyrane", a community he had come to know intimately: "The economy of Peyrane is not simple; It is infinitely complicated. It does not confront them [the Peyrannais] in abstract terms of income and expenditure; it is composed of an infinite number of concrete situations."26Account books present us with economic life not seen as awhole, to be measured by a single number, but as a mosaic ofgoods, actions and relationships.
The purveyors of advice to farmers and country mechanics who wrote for Thomas Fessenden's New England Farmer understood this and continually urged a different sort of account keeping on their readers. Progressive agricultural advisors wanted "real" accounts, the powerful economic calculus that the textile mills, banks and successful merchants were using. — not simple systems for keeping track of obligations to trading partners, but conceptual accounts for stock, labor, and profit and loss. They argued for account-keeping as a managerial tool, by which farmers could control their costs and make decisions about what to produce, and mechanics could determine the most profitable parts of their business, but found painfully few converts. 27 Ordinary rural people kept accounts pervasively, but never saw a need to go beyond keeping track of reciprocal obligations, of looking at economic life in terms of one-to-one relationships of debit and credit, until they abandoned accounts entirely.
But even expanded production for the market could for a time be woven into this web of rural exchange. The Merriams of Brookfield, for example, sustained their country publishing and printing enterprise primarily through an intricately interlocking system of concrete exchanges "in the country manner," beginning with the nationwide web of the book trade and moving downward in scale through networks of country storekeepers, country bookstore customers, artisans and farmers, employees and kin. 28
In conducting this complex business, the Merriams had little more knowledge or control of their affairs than their Brookfield neighbors. The Merriam partners never knew precisely what their wage expenses were, how much they spent on paper, or the total dollar volume of their business. Their account books were still devices for keeping track of obligations between individual trading partners, rather than for measuring the success of the business as a whole.
The Merriam accounts showed the account book world bursting at the seams, Clearly as rational men in a commercial economy they knew that success was dependent on income overbalancing outgo, yet there was no practical way for them to calculate either quantity. They faced a dramatic gulf between the emerging scale and pace of production and exchange and a conceptualization of economic life appropriate to little communities of farmers and craftsmen. In fact it brought them near to financial disaster more than once.
Well before mid-century that universal solvent, cash, was in various ways eroding the account book world.
The Merriams, for example, first saw the signs of change in the 1820s, when their papermakers, who supplied the most important raw material of printing, began to demand cash payments, refusing any longer to participate in commodity exchanges. In order to keep country publishing and their multifarious trading relationships intact, they undertook large-scale job printing of books, payable in cash, for some of the large publishers of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The cash went almost exclusively to pay for paper, leaving the concrete, commodity-based core of the printing office's life essentially unchanged for a couple of decades. But by the mid-1840s, their edifices structure of urban-rural exchange, rooted in the countryside but extending into the main channels of American commerce, came finally apart. City publishers, like papermakers earlier, began to refuse to take part in the system of commodity exchange that had made country publishing possible. Once-reliable urban trading partners began to demand that exchange accounts be settled in cash, and "instead of ordering our books", as one of the Merriam brothers recalled, "accumulated cash balances against us." Book publishing in Brookfield, as elsewhere in the rural North ground to a halt, heralding the increasing centralization of publishing in a few large cities.29
For smaller country craftsmen the world of the account book less dramatically crumbled away. The blacksmithing accounts of Emerson Bixby of Barre Four Corners shrank markedly to a small core of close neighbors in the late 1840s — not, as my colleague Myron Stachiw has shown, because he was leaving the trade, but because he was shifting to wage work and the practice of his craft on a cash basis, leaving only a few long-time trading partners set in the old ways. 30
Not only did cash began to appear in account book transactions with ever-growing frequency, but some of the rural people of Worcester County began to keep their records in a new way. John D. Goddard of Shrewsbury was one. Goddard was a shoemaker and orchardman who after keeping an account book in the standard country manner for 15 years or so, began in the mid-1840s, to keep what he called a "cash book" instead as his only economic record. Although still involved in Shrewsbury's agricultural life -he intensively cultivated his small village holding for plums, peaches, quinces and apples, cut wood and hay on a 5-acre plot further out, kept cows and chickens and sold butter and eggs round the village - he began to apply a different conceptualization to his economic life.31
Goddard's cash book contrasted strikingly in form and substance with the traditional rural account book. It provided no accounts with individual trading partners, simply left-hand pages marked "income" and right-hand pages marked "expense". Goods and services bought and sold were simply entered with their date and amount. The entries were merely parts of two ongoing columnar sums rather than components of dyadic relationships between households. Cash was disbursed for goods and services or received for them. Commodity and service exchange was clearly secondary; where it did occur the monetary amount received special notation, as "$.25 in wood" or "$.50 in work". We can construct a marvelously detailed portrait of the Goddard family's household economy from this document, systematically analyzing expenditure patterns and the type and seasonality of income, but we can learn nothing at all of their neighbors or their wider community.
The Wards also adopted cash books in the 1840s, and their account book network shrank radically until it became little more than a short payroll roster.32
The expansion of the banking system, with widely circulating banknotes that were functionally equivalent to specie and the enormous growth of the shoe manufacture, which paid its workers primarily in cash appears to have vastly altered the exchange system in central Massachusetts. Far larger flows of cash and then checks made account book exchange increasingly unimportant to households as well as marginal to the primary flow of commerce.
Cash books emerged for the more meticulous, but many others seem to have found that participating in the cash economy required few records, no memory, no extensive network of obligations.
Cash exchange depended on no structure of reciprocal obligations to which families, for the maintenance of their household economies, had to be attentive. Those who gave up their account books were freer to buy and sell where they wished; they were not bound up in a web of local history. In this sense their economic life had been significantly disentangled from the life of neighborhood and town.
A roughly coordinate transition took place in farmers' marketing patterns as well, as my colleagues Baker and Paterson have demonstrated. Broadly, as large-scale institutions of finance, marketing and distribution matured toward the middle of the nineteenth century, the economic practices of the countryside lost much of their "infinite complexity."
The world of the account book declined along with the webs of the little community it so often pictured. Rural people, claimed the New England Farmer in 1843, were seriously neglecting their local mechanics and coming dangerously close to breaking down neighborhood solidarity. What the Farmer did not note or perhaps realize was that this was simply a logical consequence of its recent urgings (perhaps despairing of ever getting farmers to keep decent accounts!) that farmers should put their affairs as much as possible on a cash basis. 33 Along with local exchange, huskings, frolics, quiltings began to disappear from country neighborhoods; partly as social life was pulled toward the center of each town, and partly because the engines of respectable opinion — the Almanack, the New England Farmer among them — had come to condemn their noisy, economically inefficient solidarity. 34
Account-keeping in the old style gradually disappeared in the decades after 1840, remaining longest in the most out-of-the-way corners, and becoming, like beehive ovens, well sweeps, and ox teams, symbols of a dying past. Thus Edith Wharton pictured Ethan Frome, still vainly poring over his farm and sawmill account books in the most rustic corner of the central Massachusetts town of Starkfield, while all around him the Commonwealth were moving to the far more rapid rhythms of cash and steam. 35
The view of economic life revealed in the form and notation of account books, the varied networks of farmers, artisans and merchants, their varied strategies for accommodating, initiating or resisting change, and the role of economic interaction in cementing or unravelling the bonds of family and community, are issues which we must take into account when trying to understand the history of rural America before the Civil War.