Sowing the American Dream: How Consumer Culture Took Root in the Rural Midwest

By Nordstrom, Justin | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Sowing the American Dream: How Consumer Culture Took Root in the Rural Midwest


Nordstrom, Justin, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Sowing the American Dream: How Consumer Culture Took Root in the Rural Midwest. By David Blanke. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. Pp. xiii, 282. Tables, index. Cloth $59.95; Paper, $21.95)

Amid contemporary discussion of the transformative power of online commerce, e-business, and the so-called "new economy," David Blanke's Sowing the American Dream does well to remind us that changes in marketing, distribution, and purchasing of consumer goods has been an ongoing feature of American life, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Focusing on Midwestern states of the "Old Northwest," Blanke suggests that historians have generally stressed rural America's production (primarily cultivation of agricultural goods) while virtually ignoring farmers' consumption. In his introduction, Blanke wisely sets aside facile dichotomies of rural capitalism which characterize early Midwesterners as either naive simpletons "ensnared" by luxuries of consumption, or, worse still, as calculating, austere, and isolated individuals who saw the farm as nothing more than a "balance sheet" of profit and loss (pp. 9-10). Blanke suggests that both observations overlook an essential sense of place and camaraderie that motivated farmer consumers.

Blanke's discussion explores farmers' feelings of attachment to the land and one another, a Jeffersonian-styled yeomen mentality which Blanke terms "the agrarian ideal." A powerful, though often inconsistent, aspect of rural culture, "the agrarian ideal" was not mutually exclusive from consumerism; instead, newly arrived Midwesterners and their descendants developed a strong market orientation that soon "established itself as a distinguishing feature of the region's culture" (p. 22). High start-up, supply, and equipment costs forced Midwesterners to be savvy consumers from the outset, a trend that only continued as the nineteenth century wore on, with the advent of agricultural mechanization and "scientific" farming. Blanke further illustrates this point by exploring the popularity of mail order catalogs, which provided a trove of products unavailable in local markets to eager farmers.

This investigation affords Blanke an invaluable opportunity to explore the daily activities of Midwestern families, notably women who were actively involved in shaping household finances and regulating consumer purchases. Yet Blanke shrewdly points out that such "domestic" consumption had important commercial and productive features as well, since women's labor (and their access to ready-made household products and foods) was essential to housing, feeding, and supplying not only the family's everyday needs, but the bands of temporary laborers and "threshing crews" that swelled the household's ranks at key planting and harvest times. …

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