The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917

By Jon Gjerde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Farming Is a Hard Life Household and the Agricultural Workplace

When Sarah Morse sat down to pen a letter to her sisters in Massachusetts from her Iowa farm home in the autumn of 1862, she asked their indulgence for her short note. Since her time was "almost wholly occupied with my house work," she found occasion for "little or no leisure for any thing else." The situation was hardly different for her husband, who was "most worn out with hard work" and "gets little or no time rest [sic] of body and mind." "Hope he will not always have to work so hard," she concluded, "but farming is a hard life to lead." 1 Morse's message suggests central aspects of middle western rural life in the nineteenth century: farm work was relentlessly burdensome, and as a result, the burden was shouldered by members of a family who lived together and worked as a unit. As such, the institution of the family and its constituent members bore the responsibilities of reproduction and production on the farm, a complex system of relationships that rarely operated without conflict. Despite her never-ending "house work," Morse remarked to her sisters, she had to tolerate her floors being dirtied with newly threshed wheat recently harvested by her husband in the fields. The divisions between home and work, both literally and figuratively, were indistinct.

Morse's work-filled world is illustrative of what scholars have labeled the "household mode of production" that characterized early American farms. 2 Out of necessity or inclination, farm families early in the settlement process focused on production both for home use and for exchange. The labor that grew the crops for food or to generate cash, moreover,

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