Digital History

The Roots of American Economic Growth

The Transformation of the Rural Countryside Previous Next
Digital History ID 3516



In 1828 Dexter Whittemore, the owner of a small country store in rural Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, discovered a new way to make money. Braided hats were the rage, and the New Hampshire shopkeeper knew that he could sell as many hats as he could acquire. So he arranged for local farm families to pick up palm leaves from his store, braid the leaves into hats, and return them to the store, in exchange for credits on the store's ledgers. By the early 1830s Whittemore was marketing about 23,000 hats annually, and by the 1850s the figure had climbed to 80,000.

For cash-poor farm families, the opportunity to earn cash was a godsend. Roxanna Bowker Stowell, one of Whittemore's hatmakers, begged the storekeeper for a chance to work. "Money is so very scarce and we must have some," she pleaded. Each month she earned a dollar by braiding five hats, money that could be used to pay off debts, finance farm improvements, purchase household goods, or send a child to school.

Beginning in the late 18th century, household industries provided work for thousands of men, women, and children in rural areas. Shopkeepers or master craftspeople supplied farm families with raw materials, paid piece rates, and marketed the products. Among the goods produced were towels, sheets, table linens, coverlets, socks, gloves, carpets, thread, nails, and farm utensils. The quantity of goods produced was staggering. In New Hampshire 40 families produced 13,000 pounds of maple sugar annually. In 1809 farm families near Philadelphia produced more than 230,000 yards of cloth for sale, four times the amount of cloth produced by the area's textile factories. In Massachusetts, farm households produced more than 100,000 pairs of shoes a year--more than all the nation's professional shoemakers made. As early as 1791, Alexander Hamilton reported that the rural areas surrounding America's cities had become "a vast scene of household manufacturing ... in many instances to an extent not only sufficient for the supply of the families in which they are made, but for sale, and even for export."

At the same time, commercial agriculture replaced subsistence farming. Farm families raised their standard of living by producing goods for sale and using the earnings to buy candles, medicines, soap, and other necessities previously made by farm wives. In New Hampshire farmers raised sheep for wool; in western Massachusetts they began to fatten cattle and pigs for sale to Boston; in eastern Pennsylvania, they specialized in dairy products.

After 1820, the household industries that had employed thousands of women and children began to decline. They were replaced by manufacturing in city shops and factories. New England farm families began to buy their shoes, furniture, cloth, and sometimes even their clothes ready-made. Small rural factories closed their doors, and village artisans who produced for local markets found themselves unable to compete against cheaper city-made goods. As local opportunities declined, many long-settled farm areas suffered sharp population losses. Convinced that "agriculture is not the road to wealth, nor honor, nor to happiness," thousands of young people left the fields for the cities.

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