Before the advent of wage labor, subsistence living was the norm. Here’s how Allan Carlson describes it in From Cottage to Workstation:
The introduction of machine technology and the factory system of production forced the reordering of Western social life beginning during the nineteenth century. Prior to their appearance, the daily flow of events for the vast majority of the European peoples had been surprisingly stable. For over a millennium, householding had been the dominant economic pattern, with production for trade a relatively minor feature. Residence and workplace were normally one and the same, whether in the form of a farmer’s cottage or a craftsman’s shop. Household production, ranging from tool making and weaving to the keeping of livestock and the garden patch, bound each family together as a basic economic unit, a “community of work.” Production complemented consumption and made the family largely self-sufficient, albeit at a relatively mean level of existence. Wives and children stood beside husbands and fathers as coworkers in the family enterprise, with no debate over issues of work and dependency. Indeed, family living was so central to life itself that it was largely taken for granted, being the social equivalent of breathing. Well into the nineteenth century, markets and money were of limited importance to the average farmer, cottager, or craftsman. In the European countryside, a varied mix of feudal obligations, payments-in-kind, barter, subsistence agriculture, and market production dominated. In towns, labor was governed by an elaborate series of customs designed, in part, to preserve the dignity of workers and the autonomy of households.
Carlson notes elsewhere that in 1800 more than ninety percent of Americans lived and worked on family farms. As industrialization set it, the factories were able to lure many away from this life, but not enough; by 1900 half of the population still lived and worked on family farms. Moreover, most of the folks who thought about such things recognized this movement away from the countryside for what it was, namely a social crisis, and much was said and some was even done to try to reverse the trend. But even with the resistance of farmers to giving up farming, and the awareness of what dire consequences would follow if the trend continued, by 1990 the percentage of people living on family farms had dropped so low (less than 2%) that the Census Bureau no longer counts them separately. What lured the rest of the farmers away?
Those farmers who resisted the lure of factory wages were lured by another industrial concept—the cash crop. Those who could not be persuaded to trade their labor for cash were enticed to trade a crop instead; it worked the same industrial magic, as farmers got accustomed to the idea that cash could supply their needs better than the fruits of their labors.
Soon enough farmers were concerned less with supplying their own needs and more with increasing yields, working more efficiently, and growing crops which the markets wanted most. And as they turned their attention to these things, children and women and grandparents on the family farm became superfluous, supplanted by specialized machinery and artificial fertilizers and store-bought food and clothing. No longer able to contribute to the family economy, family members found other ways to occupy their time, and the family began to erode. Meanwhile, the farmer was now at the mercy of the market, no longer able to supply his own needs directly, and did whatever was necessary to continue generating cash from his crop.
I know of no single book that tells this story. A good portion of it can be found in Andrew Lytle’s essay in the book I’ll Take My Stand. And much of the story is told in the form of a parable in H.L. Roush’s Henry and the Great Society.
Of all the reasons it was a bad idea for farmers to switch from subsistence farming to cash cropping, the most important is that it destroyed the family economy. When a family was focused primarily on supplying its own needs and selling only from its surplus, there was a place for every family member young and old to contribute to the enterprise. Pa Wilder was able to spend winter days making shingles for market, and Ma Wilder weaving cloth and churning butter for sale, in large part because ten-year-old Almanzo was able to do work that contributed significantly to the everyday operation of the farm.
But when cash cropping became the emphasis, the everyday work that had been needed to run a diverse farm rapidly disappeared, and children, women, and elders could not work efficiently enough on the few remaining tasks to make a real contribution. No longer able to contribute to the family enterprise, they began to live separate lives, often outside the home.
In our family we’ve always thought that our children should be obligated to work, for many reasons—to teach diligence, to instill an appreciation of and even love for physical labor, to equip them with skills, to spread the burden of work around and thereby increase our capacity for work as a family. But until recently it was very difficult for us to come up with work that was both within the abilities of a child and a tangible contribution rather than makework.
This changed quickly once we began to farm. Suddenly there were meaningful chores everywhere—animals to feed and water and move, eggs to collect, chickens to slaughter and gut, a garden to plant and weed and pick, food to prepare and preserve, wood to stack, repairs to make, tools to improvise. The level of work rose to the point where there was no way we could get it done without the full participation of the children. We knew it, and they knew it, and they rose to the occasion, and they have grown in stature and wisdom as a result. They are now partners in our family operation. They are living a real life, right here at home, and understand that the work they do now will bless them in the years to come when they take over this multi-generational enterprise.
To reclaim the family, we need to reclaim the idea of a family economy. But doing so in the context of a modern society may be the hardest task facing us. It may not require that we all become farmers, but it will require that we create family enterprises that are as diverse and satisfying and life-sustaining as a family farm. At the end of his essay in I’ll Take My Stand, Andrew Lytle spells out what it will take to reclaim the independent and full lives that our forefathers knew. Let us each search for our own way of throwing off the shackles he describes.
The small farmer must deny himself the articles the industrialists offer for sale. It is not so impossible as it may seem at first, for, after all, the necessities they machine-facture were once manufactured on the land, and as for the bric-a-brac, let it rot on their hands. Do what we did after the war and the Reconstruction: return to our looms, our handcrafts, our reproducing stock. Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall. Forsake the movies for the play-parties and the square dances. And turn away from the liberal capons who fill the pulpits as preachers. Seek a priesthood that may manifest the will and intelligence to renounce science and search out the Word in the authorities.
So long as the industrialist remains in the saddle there must be a money crop to pay him taxes, but let it occupy second place. Any man who grows his own food, kills his own meat, takes wool from his lambs and cotton from his stalks and makes them into clothes, plants corn and hay for his stock, shoes them at the crossroads blacksmith shop, draws milk and butter from his cows, eggs from his pullets, water from the ground, and fuel from the woodlot, can live in an industrial world without a great deal of cash. Let him diversify, but diversify so that he may live rather than that he may grow rich. In this way he wi
ll escape by far the heaviest form of taxation, and if the direct levies grow too exorbitant, refuse to pay them. Make those who rule the country bear the burden of government.