Elizabeth L. Angeli
Professor Patricia Sullivan
14 December 2008
Toward a Recovery of Nineteenth Century Farming Handbooks
While researching texts written about nineteenth century farming, I found a few
authors who published books about the literature of nineteenth century farming,
particularly agricultural journals, newspapers, pamphlets, and brochures. These authors
often placed the farming literature they were studying into an historical context by
discussing the important events in agriculture of the year in which the literature was
published (see Demaree, for example). However, while these authors discuss journals,
newspapers, pamphlets, and brochures, I could not find much discussion about another
important source of farming knowledge: farming handbooks. My goal in this paper is to
bring this source into the agricultural literature discussion by connecting three
agricultural handbooks from the nineteenth century with nineteenth century agricultural
To achieve this goal, I have organized my paper into four main sections, two of
which have sub-sections. In the first section, I provide an account of three important
events in nineteenth century agricultural history: population and technological changes,
the distribution of scientific new knowledge, and farming’s influence on education. In the
second section, I discuss three nineteenth century farming handbooks in connection with
the important events described in the first section. I end my paper with a third section that
offers research questions that could be answered in future versions of this paper and
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conclude with a fourth section that discusses the importance of expanding this particular
project. I also include an appendix after the Works Cited that contains images of the three
handbooks I examined. Before I can begin the examination of the three handbooks,
however, I need to provide an historical context in which the books were written, and it is
to this that I now turn.
The nineteenth century saw many changes to daily American life with an increase in
population, improved methods of transportation, developments in technology, and the
rise in the importance of science. These events impacted all aspects of nineteenth century
American life, most significantly those involved in slavery and the Civil War, but a large
part of American life was affected, a part that is quite often taken for granted: the life of
the American farmer.
Population and Technological Changes. One of the biggest changes, as seen in
nineteenth century America’s census reports, is the dramatic increase in population. The
1820 census reported that over 10 million people were living in America; of those 10
million, over 2 million were engaged in agriculture. Ten years prior to that, the 1810
census reported over 7 million people were living in the states; there was no category for
people engaged in agriculture. In this ten-year time span, then, agriculture experienced
significant improvements and changes that enhanced its importance in American life.
One of these improvements was the developments of canals and steamboats,
which allowed farmers to “sell what has previously been unsalable [sic]” and resulted in a
“substantial increase in [a farmer’s] ability to earn income” (Danhof 5). This
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improvement allowed the relations between the rural and urban populations to strengthen,
resulting in an increase in trade. The urban population (defined as having over 2,500
inhabitants) in the northern states increased rapidly after 1820.1 This increase
accompanied the decrease in rural populations, as farmers who “preferred trade,
transportation, or ‘tinkering’” to the tasks of tending to crops and animals found great
opportunities in the city (Danhof 7). Trade and transportation thus began to influence
farming life significantly. Before 1820, the rural community accounted for eighty percent
of consumption of farmers’ goods (Hurt 127). With the improvements in transportation,
twenty-five percent of farmers’ products were sold for commercial gain, and by 1825,
farming “became a business rather than a way of life” (128). This business required
farmers to specialize their production and caused most farmers to give “less attention to
the production of surplus commodities like wheat, tobacco, pork, or beef” (128). The
increase in specialization encouraged some farmers to turn to technology to increase their
production and capitalize on commercial markets (172).
The technology farmers used around 1820 was developed from three main
sources: Europe, coastal Indian tribes in America, and domestic modifications made from
the first two sources’ technologies. Through time, technology improved, and while some
farmers clung to their time-tested technologies, others were eager to find alternatives to
these technologies. These farmers often turned to current developments in Great Britain
and received word of their technological improvements through firsthand knowledge by
talking with immigrants and travelers. Farmers also began planning and conducting
experiments, and although they lacked a truly scientific approach, these farmers engaged
in experiments to obtain results and learn from the results.2 Agricultural organizations
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were then formed to “encourage . . . experimentation, hear reports, observe results, and
exchange critical comments” (Danhof 53). Thus, new knowledge was transmitted orally
from farmer to farmer, immigrant to farmer, and traveler to farmer, which could result in
the miscommunication of this new scientific knowledge. Therefore, developments were
made for knowledge to be transmitted and recorded in a more permanent, credible way:
The Distribution of New Knowledge. Before 1820 and prior to the new knowledge
farmers were creating, farmers who wanted print information about agriculture had their
choice of agricultural almanacs and even local newspapers to receive information
(Danhof 54). After 1820, however, agricultural writing took more forms than almanacs
and newspapers. From 1820 to 1870, agricultural periodicals were responsible for
spreading new knowledge among farmers. In his published dissertation The American
Agricultural Press 1819-1860, Albert Lowther Demaree presents a “description of the
general content of [agricultural journals]” (xi). These journals began in 1819 and were
written for farmers, with topics devoted to “farming, stock raising, [and] horticulture”
(12). The suggested “birthdate” of American agricultural journalism is April 2, 1819
when John S. Skinner published his periodical American Farmer in Baltimore. Demaree
writes that Skinner’s periodical was the “first continuous, successful agricultural
periodical in the United States” and “served as a model for hundreds of journals that
succeeded it” (19). In the midst of the development of the journal, farmers began writing
handbooks. Not much has been written on the handbooks’ history, aside from the fact that
C.M. Saxton & Co. in New York was the major handbook publisher. Despite the lack of
information about handbooks, and as can be seen in my discussion below, these
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handbooks played a significant role in distributing knowledge among farmers and in
educating young farmers, as I now discuss.
Farming’s Influence on Education. One result of the newly circulating print information
was the “need for acquiring scientific information upon which could be based a rational
technology” that could “be substituted for the current diverse, empirical practices”
(Danhof 69). In his 1825 book Nature and Reason Harmonized in the Practice of
Husbandry, John Lorain begins his first chapter by stating that “[v]ery erroneous theories
have been propagated” resulting in faulty farming methods (1). His words here create a
framework for the rest of his book, as he offers his readers narratives of his own trials and
errors and even dismisses foreign, time-tested techniques farmers had held on to: “The
knowledge we have of that very ancient and numerous nation the Chinese, as well as the
very located habits and costumes of this very singular people, is in itself insufficient to
teach us . . .” (75). His book captures the call and need for scientific experiments to
develop new knowledge meant to be used in/on/with American soil, which reflects some
farmers’ thinking of the day.
By the 1860s, the need for this knowledge was strong enough to affect education.
John Nicholson anticipated this effect in 1820 in the “Experiments” section of his book
The Farmer’s Assistant; Being a Digest of All That Relates to Agriculture and the
Conducting of Rural Affairs; Alphabetically Arranged and Adapted for the United States:
Perhaps it would be well, if some institution were devised, and supported
at the expense of the State, which would be so organized as would tend
most effectually to produce a due degree of emulation among Farmers, by
rewards and honorary distinctions conferred by those who, by their
Use block quotes when quotations are longer than four- typed lines.
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successful experimental efforts and improvements, should render
themselves duly entitled to them.3 (92)
Part of Nicholson’s hope was realized in 1837 when Michigan established their state
university, specifying that “agriculture was to be an integral part of the curriculum”
(Danhof 71). Not much was accomplished, however, much to the dissatisfaction of
farmers, and in 1855, the state authorized a new college to be “devoted to agriculture and
to be independent of the university” (Danhof 71). The government became more involved
in the creation of agricultural universities in 1862 when President Lincoln passed the
Morrill Land Grant College Act, which begins with this phrase: “AN ACT Donating
Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the
Benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts [sic].” The first agricultural colleges formed
under the act suffered from a lack of trained teachers and “an insufficient base of
knowledge,” and critics claimed that the new colleges did not meet the needs of farmers
Congress addressed these problems with the then newly formed United States
Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA and Morrill Act worked together to form
“. . . State experiment stations and extension services . . . [that] added [to]
. . . localized research and education . . .” (Baker et al. 415). The USDA added to the
scientific and educational areas of the agricultural field in other ways by including
research as one of the organization’s “foundation stone” (367) and by including these
(1) [C]ollecting, arranging, and publishing statistical and other useful
agricultural information; (2) introducing valuable plants and animals; (3)
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answering inquiries of farmers regarding agriculture; (4) testing
agricultural implements; (5) conducting chemical analyses of soils, grains,
fruits, plants, vegetables, and manures; (6) establishing a professorship of
botany and entomology; and (7) establishing an agricultural library and
museum. (Baker et al. 14)
These objectives were a response to farmers’ needs at the time, mainly to the need for
experiments, printed distribution of new farming knowledge, and education. Isaac
Newton, the first Commissioner of Agriculture, ensured these objectives would be
realized by stressing research and education with the ultimate goal of helping farmers
improve their operations (Hurt 190).
Before the USDA assisted in the circulation of knowledge, however, farmers
wrote about their own farming methods. This brings me to my next section in which I
examine three handbooks written by farmers and connect my observations of the texts
with the discussion of agricultural history I have presented above.
Note: Sections of this paper have been deleted to shorten the length of the paper
From examining Drown’s, Allen’s, and Crozier and Henderson’s handbooks in light of
nineteenth century agricultural history, I can say that science and education seem to have
had a strong influence on how and why these handbooks were written. The authors’ ethos
is created by how they align themselves as farmers with science and education either by
supporting or by criticizing them. Regardless of their stance, the authors needed to create
an ethos to gain an audience, and they did this by including tables of information,
illustrations of animals and buildings, reasons for educational reform, and pieces of
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advice to young farmers in their texts. It would be interesting to see if other farming
handbooks of the same century also convey a similar ethos concerning science and
education in agriculture. Recovering more handbooks in this way could lead to a better,
more complete understanding of farming education, science’s role in farming and
education, and perhaps even an understanding of the rhetoric of farming handbooks in the
1. Danhof includes “Delaware, Maryland, all states north of the Potomac and
Ohio rivers, Missouri, and states to its north” when referring to the northern states (11).
2. For the purposes of this paper, “science” is defined as it was in nineteenth
century agriculture: conducting experiments and engaging in research.
3. Please note that any direct quotes from the nineteenth century texts are written
in their original form, which may contain grammar mistakes according to twenty-first
century grammar rules.
Endnotes begin on a new page after the paper but before the Works Cited. Double- space all entries, and indent each entry 0.5” from the margin.
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Allen, R.L. The American Farm Book; or Compend of American Agriculture; Being a
Practical Treatise on Soils, Manures, Draining, Irrigation, Grasses, Grain,
Roots, Fruits, Cotton, Tobacco, Sugar Cane, Rice, and Every Staple Product of
the United States with the Best Methods of Planting, Cultivating, and Preparation
for Market. New York: Saxton, 1849. Print.
Baker, Gladys L., Wayne D. Rasmussen, Vivian Wiser, and Jane M. Porter. Century of
Service: The First 100 Years of the United States Department of Agriculture.
[Federal Government], 1996. Print.
Danhof, Clarence H. Change in Agriculture: The Northern United States, 1820-1870.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1969. Print.
Demaree, Albert Lowther. The American Agricultural Press 1819-1860. New York:
Columbia UP, 1941. Print.
Drown, William and Solomon Drown. Compendium of Agriculture or the Farmer’s
Guide, in the Most Essential Parts of Husbandry and Gardening; Compiled from
the Best American and European Publications, and the Unwritten Opinions of
Experienced Cultivators. Providence, RI: Field, 1824. Print.
“Historical Census Browser.” University of Virginia Library. 2007. Web. 6 Dec. 2008.
Hurt, R. Douglas. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames, IA: Iowa State UP,
Lorain, John. Nature and Reason Harmonized in the Practice of Husbandry.
Philadelphia: Carey, 1825. Print.
Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. Prairie View A&M. 2003. Web. 6 Dec. 2008.
The Works Cited page begins on a new page. Center the title “Works Cited” without underlining, bolding, or italicizing it. If there is only one entry, title this page “Work Cited.”
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Nicholson, John. The Farmer’s Assistant; Being a Digest of All That Relates to
Agriculture and the Conducting of Rural Affairs; Alphabetically Arranged and
Adapted for the United States. [Philadelphia]: Warner, 1820. Print.