Economic History of the United States

By Chester W. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXXI
AGRICULTURE SINCE 1860

Introduction. In 1860 agriculture was by far the most important economic activity of the country. The continuation of the process of opening up and settling the West after that date helped this activity to retain such a position for nearly a generation longer. But the practical disappearance of the supply of free fertile land greatly altered the situation; thereafter, expansion through extension to new farming land was slower and growth depended to a greater degree upon more intensive methods of cultivation and success in counteracting the effects of soil depletion. Meanwhile manufacturing was expanding with great rapidity. By 1890 the net value of manufactured products exceeded the value of agricultural products and by 1920 the number of people engaged in manufacturing exceeded the number engaged in agriculture. In short, the second half of this period is marked by agriculture's losing its position as the predominant economic activity of the country; manufacturing took its place. It can no longer be said that we are primarily a nation of farmers.

The period was also marked by important developments affecting both technological methods and the economic organization of agriculture. During the first half of the period, the chief changes arose from the development of the railroad system or other means of transportation and the rapid increase in the use of agricultural machinery. The changes in the economic organization of agriculture that followed therefrom had begun some time before 1860, but they were particularly marked thereafter and are seen in the greater tendency toward commercial agriculture and, mainly in the trans-Mississippi region, the growth of one-crop, large-scale farming. Since about 1890 the most significant developments have been connected with the introduction of more scientific methods of agriculture, which went along with the tendency toward intensive farming, and with efforts to improve the economic position of the farmer.

Among the other extractive industries this period is marked by a very rapid expansion of mining and lumbering, particularly favored by the opening up of the Far West. In mining the introduction of more scientific methods helped to lessen some of the speculative risks and in both mining and lumbering there was a decided tendency toward large-scale operations. These industries, however, still held only a minor position among the economic activities of the country.

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