The lost tools of living: the family economy

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.


8 thoughts on “The lost tools of living: the family economy

  1. Excellent post Rick. If I could say one thing to all the folks out there who are planning to farm, it would be this, work first on filling your own needs and worry less on making cash. The more you provide yourselves the less cash you need in the end anyway. Most of the organic/alternative ag books and articles still encourage selling lots of pastured this or that. Don’t get cought up in organic cash crops, in the end they are just as enslaving as conventional cash crops. The folks just starting out, like you Rick, have a great opportunity to start out right and not get caught up in the mess. I’m sure that I’ve learned much more from you than you have from me. I think you’ve got a good plan. Those of us who have been farming for years find it very difficult to break out of the system. We are doing it here, but I envy(in a good way) you folks just starting out. Learn from the mistakes of farmers past, mistakes that I’ve inherited. Read Henry and the Great Society at least once a year, I do. I think that Henry was the first book that I ever read that made me cry. You see, in many ways our farm is like Henry’s old life and in many ways its tetering on the way that killed him. My job is to reestablish true family economy and hold tight to the real family economy that we still have. My other job is to teach my boys to guard it with their lives. Thanks again for all you do here at Dry Creek Chronicles.

  2. To Mr. Terry’s comment “work first on filling your own needs and worry less on making cash”

    This concept is so foreign to many today and to many (if not most) sounds quite radical. I think it is great advice!

  3. I’m wondering how you balance “school” time with work for your children. We have such a hard time making every thing fit in a day. By the time we putin the time we need in the garden, canning, cutting wood, bread making… and we dont even have much to speak of as far as animals go, there just isnt much left for the books. You obviously have even more of a farm than we do, how do you fit it all in? I really like the Charlotte Mason style of doing school but we just don’t have all day to play at learning when there’s so much good work to be done. My childern know a good amount of how to live and run a household but am I selling them short by not giving them a better understanding of, say, art, or music, or science not related to growing things? I’ve never run across any homeschooling advice that really incorporates school and the family economy together.

  4. Angela,

    There is a point that gets thrown around alot that doesn’t seem to get all the credit it deserves. The point being that home life – family life – is school. Family life is *true* education. What they attempt to pass off as education in “schools” – isn’t. I think one of the major problems with the homeschooling movement is that homeschoolers tend to try to “do school” as something separate from family life. They get all the subject books, set aside certain times to do certain subjects, try to “get all the subjects in”, grade papers, still use terms like “first grade, second grade”, some even use school desks, etc. In other words, many homeschoolers have only shifted the government school philosophy from the government facility to their home. I think that if this type of thinking continues, homeschooling will ultimately fail to accomplish its purpose. We need to deprogram ourselves from thinking that unless our children receive several hours per day of formal book learning, they are not receiving a proper education. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if our children are spending several hours per day in formal book learning, then they are not receiving a true education. The one fact relating to homeschooling that we need to reprogram ourselves with is this: family life *is* education.

    My advice, for what it’s worth, is to teach and encourage your kids to read and write (as I’m sure you already have done and are doing) and continue to do what you’re doing – and stop worrying about “fitting school in”. You’re already giving your children so much more than they could ever hope to get in “school.”

  5. Angela,

    Your question deserves more than a comment-length answer. I’ll try to address it somewhere in this series; if I don’t, please ask me again.

  6. Interesting link on displaced farmers in China. Happily Intel is going to turn them into chip manufacturers.

    In the Chengdu area, home for one of Intel’s Assembly Test plants, more than 30,000 farmers were displaced to make way for urbanization plans in the last few years. And while the government has been successful reemploying the majority of them, more than 4,000 farmers this year find themselves sitting idle in high-rise apartments, with nothing to do for the first time in their lives.

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