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Rural Life


RURAL LIFE. Rural life has been a central and defining aspect of the history of the United States, which has transformed from an agrarian-based society to a largely urban and industrial one. The term "rural life" broadly describes the lifestyle of residents of nonurban areas, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as small towns and country areas with populations less than 2,500. Many changes have occurred in the day-to-day activities of rural residents from the colonial period, when virtually everyone in the United States either lived in rural areas or had a rural background. In the early twenty-first century, less than 25 percent of the American population lived in rural areas.

The Colonies and the Early United States

Colonists in North America spent their earliest years strictly as subsistence farmers, growing or making every thing they might need—food, clothing, houses and furnishings, and farm implements. Water usually had to be hauled by hand from a nearby spring, well, or stream. As they became established, some rural residents had surplus production they were able to sell or use to barter in nearby towns.

By the time of the American Revolution there was more profit-oriented, commercial agriculture. Most rural residents lived in river areas to facilitate the movement of commodities and people, since roads and overland transportation were poor. To make a profit farmers had to be innovative, reducing labor needs and simplifying routine farming tasks. Where labor costs were high and market prices low, rural farmers used slave labor. The result was a caste system in which blacks were at the bottom of the social strata.

Distinctive regional customs quickly developed in rural life, partly due to differences in growing seasons and climatic conditions. For example, tobacco farmers in New England harvested their crops in late summer, while those in the South waited until fall. Southern colonists could do more chores and work outdoors than their Northern counterparts. Regardless of location, though, rural life was very isolated. The only regular break in the monotony was attending church services.

Life for rural women during this period was very difficult and physical. Women were called upon not only to keep the home and rear children, but also to help in the fields and to process the raw commodities of the farm. Theirs was a narrow focus, largely limited to domestic chores and making products such as cider and butter to provide additional income. Women had few rights by law and custom, and could not own property if married. Enslaved women led even more difficult lives and were often expected to carryout the same kind of work as male slaves.

As Americans spread across the Appalachian Mountains and along the Gulf Coast, settlers extended these characteristics of rural life into new areas. They increasingly came into contact, and sometimes conflict, with Indian groups. Many Indians were themselves rural farmers, and oftentimes showed the newly arrived farmers what seeds grew well in which areas and under which conditions. The settlers, however, very much wanted Indian lands for themselves. The result was decades of mixed federal policy involving purchase or seizure of Indian lands and relocation of whole tribes. This produced an unstable and sometimes fearful existence for both the settlers and the Indians in rural areas.

Influences of the Spanish

At its peak, Spain's reach included large portions of what would become Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and California. Spain's missions of exploration from Mexico and the Caribbean islands have been described by some historians as the search for "God, gold, and glory." Conquistadors sought wealth and honor for the Spanish crown. Accompanying them, or following close behind, were small groups of missionaries. These men, most often either members of the Franciscan or Jesuit religious orders of the Roman Catholic Church, established churches and missions where they could gather local Indians in an attempt to create an agrarian lifestyle and to convert them to the Catholic faith. The work of missionaries had only mixed success.

To encourage settlement in outlying areas of the Spanish Empire, the monarchy authorized large land grants. These tracts, often located along rivers, were in turn divided into areas for farms, homes, and communal uses, and became the centers of new colonial communities. Once established, rural life in and near these Spanish villages was not unlike the early subsistence existence of rural residents of the British colonies and the early United States.

In more developed communities, Spanish families slowly modified their surroundings to reflect their traditional culture, which was largely patriarchal and hierarchical. In households, men held authority over wives and children, but married Spanish women could own and maintain separate property and pass it on to their heirs. Most families followed Catholic custom and practice, faithfully attending mass and other church services.

Another critical element of Spanish rural life, particularly in the central and western colonies, was the building of dams and acequias (irrigation ditches) to divert river water for fields and the community. The presence and influence of these irrigation systems, and the accompanying system of water rights, remain a critical part of modern rural life in those communities.

The Spanish also brought with them a rigid caste system. This created strict separation of groups of people in a community based on their wealth and racial background. Spaniards (españoles) born in Spain (peninsulares) were at the apex of the social strata, followed by their children born in the Americas (criollos). Mestizos, those persons who were part Spanish and part Indian, were the largest group, particularly in rural colonial villages. Below them were Hispanicized Indians, freed or enslaved blacks, and other Indians. Only españoles enjoyed the privileges extended to colonists by the Spanish Crown. The further a community was from the formal rule of law in Spanish cities in Mexico or the Caribbean, though, the easier it was for settlers to transcend social barriers. Many rural villagers and farmers were unconcerned about social status or the legitimacy of relationships with each other, either as viewed by the Spanish Crown or by the church.

As early as the sixteenth century, the influence of the Spanish reached well beyond their explorations and settlements to affect other Indians of North America. A multitude of European plants, animals, and diseases spread well ahead of the physical presence of any European, creating major and long-lasting changes in Indian rural life. Both British and Spanish explorers "discovered" European watermelons and peaches under Indian cultivation. Cattle, horses, and sheep brought by European settlers spread throughout North America, especially in the arid Southwest, creating ecological changes to streams and grasslands. Several Indian tribes took advantage of these animals. The Comanche became accomplished horseback riders, while the Navaho began managing herds of churro sheep for their wool and their meat. These changes created lasting cultural influences among Indians, many of which are still reflected in their modern culture.

The Nineteenth Century

Rural life and agriculture in the nineteenth century remained very different from one region of the country to another and were still very much influenced by the seasons of the year. Families rejected subsistence agriculture, choosing to produce crops for economic gain in an effort to improve their standard of living. However, many rural families suffered from a combination of poverty and poor health. The supply of food was generally abundant, but included little variety or nutritious value. The introduction of various summer and winter vegetables, often tended in small gardens by women, offered some dietary improvements.

Numerous home remedies for illness developed throughout the rural United States.

The church was an important center for spiritual nourishment and social interaction. Families made regular trips to town to trade at the country store. Socializing often decreased from spring to fall because of the work that needed to be done at home and on the farm. It was important to many rural residents to live close to other family members, creating networks of kinship in communities. These provided support in hard times and help at peak times of labor. A family's "good name" was even good for credit in business transactions.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, rural residents had gained other venues for social interaction and education. Organized adult education programs like the lyceum and the Chautauqua movements offered programs and opportunities for rural residents to learn more about culture, the arts, and self-education. Similar activities were later organized through political-based organizations like the Grange and the Farmers' Alliance.

Through the nineteenth century, rural women's major roles were as housewife, mother, and helpmate. Women were responsible for making most domestic goods, such as clothing, and helping process farm products, such as butter and cheese. They were also called upon to work in the fields at crucial times such as the harvest. Slave women, found mostly in the cotton and tobacco-growing areas of the South, were expected to perform domestic tasks in addition to working in the fields.

Getting an education in a rural community was a great challenge. Most farm children attended school regularly only during the winter; fieldwork was more important during the growing season. Most children learned what they could from their parents, focusing on domestic and farm chores they would use when they were older. In most areas of the country, rural children often received no more than three or four years of formal education. An exception was in the New England states, where religious groups influenced the creation of public, tax-supported schools to teach basic writing, reading, and arithmetic to all children.

The U.S. Civil War ended slavery in the South and caused fundamental economic and social changes throughout the country. A system of sharecropping evolved to replace slavery in the South. Sharecropping often trapped families in an unending cycle of debt. The offer of free land in the West under the Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged many families to relocate from the Midwest and South in an effort to improve their economic standing. Rural life on the frontier, though, was often as difficult or worse than it had been in their former homes. Families worked hard to improve their new land so they could have extra income to purchase goods and services from nearby towns.

By the 1880s, the federal government had resettled much of the native Indian population on reservations in modern-day Oklahoma or remote corners of the West. The government forced Indians to "civilize" and adopt the American lifestyle. The Dawes Act of 1887 mandated that parts of reservations be divided into private property to aid efforts to turn Indians into modern, self-sufficient farmers. In most instances, reservation lands proved unsuitable for agriculture. The result was collective impoverishment that extended through Indian rural life, education, and employment. This continued to be a problem for Indians until the mid-1980s, when the development of reservation gambling and federal support for industrial and commercial development resulted in some improvements on reservations around the United States.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw concern about rural life growing among urban-based educators, religious leaders, and public figures. The Country Life Movement sought ways to improve rural lifestyles, education, and agricultural practices. These efforts received a boost in 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt created a commission to study the situation and recommend solutions. Rural people were wary of these outsiders, and change and reform came slowly.

New Conveniences in Rural Living

As the twentieth century began, a series of important developments and technologies relieved some of the isolation of rural life in the United States. In 1896 Congress instituted rural free delivery(RFD) mail service. This was

a convenience long sought by farm organizations, and something that eager politicians were willing to provide to curry favor with voters. Some years later, in 1913, the parcel post system was introduced. RFD and parcel post opened the way for catalog services, such as those provided by Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck, and Co. Now, families could order virtually anything from a catalog—farm equipment, clothing, household goods, and toys—and have it delivered to the farm without having to go to town. This resulted in lost business for merchants, who saw some families less frequently than before, but created an entire new industry—one that saw a resurgence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. RFD also literally brought the world to the doors of rural families, through correspondence, newspapers, and farm magazines.

Rural delivery and increasing numbers of automobiles and trucks, which were replacing farm wagons by the 1920s, brought rural support for the "good roads" movement. Farmers volunteered their time and equipment to help local road boards maintain and improve rural roads, and Congress began funding projects for federal roads and highways, starting with post roads for RFD routes.

The introduction of radio and movies in the early twentieth century brought the sounds of the world to rural families. Radio programs helped lessen the isolation of rural life, breaking the monotony of daily activities by providing a companion to help pass the time while chores and farm work were done. The radio also was a critical source of information: it provided timely market and weather reports. Farmers could better plan their work schedule for the next day and decide for themselves when to sell or hold their commodities. The number of farms with (mostly battery-powered) radios increased rapidly in the 1920s. Once acquired, the radio was one of the last things a rural family would part with, even during the hard times of the Great Depression. Movie houses came even to rural towns, and motion pictures provided rural residents entertainment and glimpses of what other parts of the world were like. The introduction of television in the 1950s had a similar effect in their homes. The popularity of movies, radio, and later television brought nineteenth-century-era educational and entertainment programs such as the Chautauqua to an end by the mid-twentieth century.

Another service long sought by farmers was electricity and its accompanying equipment and conveniences. Though electric service was becoming more common in cities in the early 1900s, electric lines were not being extended into rural areas. Companies felt that it cost too much to build lines to farms and small towns with little promise of financial return. This changed only with the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935. Subsidized by the federal government, local cooperatives were organized to build rural distribution systems. Though some farmers and power companies feared the REA as a socialistic enterprise, it brought electrical power to nearly every part of the United States by 1950. Some families used electric-powered pumps to establish indoor plumbing. Dietary habits and health improved as families began storing food in refrigerators. Some households acquired "labor-saving" devices, like vacuums and washing machines. Historians today debate whether these machines actually made home life easier or more complicated: because women were able to do chores more quickly, they did them more frequently.

Telephone service for rural areas followed a similar course as electrification. The Great Depression and a lack of interest from phone companies slowed the spread of telephone lines, leaving two out of three rural families without this new service. The Hill-Poage Act of 1949 authorized the REA to extend telephone service into rural areas. Initially introduced with party lines, where several households shared a single phone line, telephones quickly became a crucial part of rural life in the 1950s and 1960s.

The new technologies and services did not come to everyone, nor did the changes come uniformly. Rural residents of the South, because of their poverty and isolation, tended to be among the last to see any of these services or technologies. Families also could acquire these conveniences only if their finances permitted.

Despite these changes in rural life, many aspects remained the same for women and children. Many women still tended their butter and eggs for extra income and continued to be the housewife, mother, and extra farm hand. Child rearing, domestic chores, and food processing occupied most of their time. Some women received enough education to qualify for teaching positions. Many farm daughters took up teaching while still living at home so they could contribute to family earnings. Once married, though, women were often forced to give up teaching by school boards that believed husbands should provide for their wives, and wives should not be working so they could keep a home. The constant turnover of teachers, as well as financial difficulties due to increased tax delinquencies because of the poor economy, contributed to problems in rural education. As a result rural children, particularly African Americans in the racially segregated South, could get only the most basic education.

The problems with education and the shift away from sharecropper systems began to change the fabric of rural residency. Government crop subsidies introduced in the 1930s to support farmers offered the most benefit to landowners and large producers. Small farms increasingly were sold and consolidated into larger enterprises. Rural residents, particularly the poor and minorities, increasingly left the country behind and drifted into towns and cities looking for jobs and a different way of life. The increased industrial activity just before and during World War II further accelerated these migrations, resulting in a manpower shortage that further accelerated the mechanization of agricultural production. After the war, rural youth were more likely to leave for the appeal and grandeur of the cities than to stay and help with the farm or ranch and take it over when their parents died. This trend continued through the rest of the twentieth century.

No longer a large part of the population after the Korean War, rural families had little political influence and even less certainty about their lives. By 1990, farm families composed only 1.9 percent of the total population of the United States. Increasingly, farm families experienced an economic pinch because farming was more expensive and the returns smaller. Farm bankruptcies were numerous in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Rural women increasingly took on outside employment to provide needed extra income. Many families, though, stayed in the country because they believed the values of rural living were far better than what could be found in the city. However, in many areas of the country, school districts consolidated to combat high costs of building maintenance, teacher salaries, and administration, leaving some children to spend long hours of their day on a bus riding to school and back.

Rural Life Today

Rural life in the early twenty-first century is increasingly difficult to differentiate from urban life. Rural families make frequent trips to town to shop, attend church, and go to school. Many states have sponsored initiatives to extend Internet services into the country. With the proliferation of household goods and appliances, cable TV, and satellite dishes, there is little distinction between an urban home and a country home among families of similar economic standing. Rural residents wear the same clothes and eat the same foods as urbanites. Interestingly, some affluent families and retirees have begun acquiring country homes to escape the big city and to rediscover the slower pace and quieter way of life that they associate with America's rural past.


Barron, Hal S. Those Who Stayed Behind: Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Cotton, Barbara R., ed. Symposium on the History of Rural Life in America. Washington, D.C.: Agricultural History Society, 1986.

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Danbom, David B. Born in the Country: A History of Rural America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Goreham, Gary A., ed. Encyclopedia of Rural America: The Land and People. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Hurt, R. Douglas. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

Jensen, Joan M. Promise to the Land: Essays on Rural Women. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991.

Osterud, Nancy Grey. Bonds of Community: The Lives of Farm Women in Nineteenth-Century New York. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Shover, John L. First Majority—Last Minority: The Transformation of Rural Life in America. DeKalb: University of Northern Illinois Press, 1976.

Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Cameron L.Saffell

See also vol. 9:The New American Poverty .

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Farm Life

Farm Life


A New World. Beginning with the first English settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth, settlers relied on the natives for food and knowledge of agricultural methods. The Pilgrims learned to fertilize the soil with small fish. The land was so plentiful, however, that many farmers did not bother to fertilize; when the soil gave out, they would clear more land. The first colonists did not use plows, but hoes, spades, and sturdy sticks. After 1650 more farmers used wooden plows with an iron plowshare, a blade that cut deep into the soil. Plowing depended on the soil and surrounding vegetation. Hard and stony soil where the white oak grew required plowing. Land dominated by beech, maple, and birch denoted a rich soil that would grow corn without plowing. Pine grew in a sandy soil that, though often not needing the plow, lost its fertility within a few years. Plowed soil required a harrow (a large tree branch dragged by a team of horses or oxen) to break up clods of dirt. Colonists used iron sickles to harvest crops.


Successful living in early America depended on harnessing the environment to ones benefit. A necessity in the colonial community for grinding grain or cutting wood was the water mill. Wind powered some early mills, but the most efficient mills were driven by the force of a falling stream or river. Some colonists built horizontal mills, where the waterwheel lay parallel to the water. This was a quick and inexpensive way to build a mill. More efficient were mills where the water-wheel was perpendicular to the water. Undershot waterwheels rotated clockwise as water rushed onto the blades; overshot waterwheels rotated counterclockwise as water fell from above, hitting the blades and turning the wheel. As the wheel turned, it transferred power to a shaft that rotated gears connected to another shaft that rotated the millstone. Since the water rarely ceased, the mill could operate indefinitely, except during prolonged drought. Farmers from the surrounding region brought their grain or lumber to the mill. There they talked to neighbors and turned the produce of the land into flour for baking bread or boards for building shelters.

Sources: Alan Marcus and Howard Segal, Technology in America: A Brief History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989);

Edwin Tunis, Colonial Craftsmen and the Beginnings of American Industry (Cleveland: World, 1965).

Girdling. Before one could farm, trees had to be removed. Some farmers chose to cut them down during June after the planting was done. Later in the summer the farmer burned the dead branches. Stump and root removal required the combined effort of animal and human strength. The easiest method of clearing trees was girdling, which colonists learned from the Indians. The prospective farmer could girdle dozens of trees in one day. All that he required was a sharp knife or ax. The farmer cut a deep incision that penetrated the bark into the wood. The incision encircled the trunk near the base. In time the vegetation of the tree died, and its branches

became brittle. Eventually the tree would fall in a windstorm. Girdling was best on land that did not need plowing. The farmer walked in and about the dead trees, digging small holes into which he dropped corn seeds. What had been a forest became a cornfield.

Sap to Syrup. It was rare in early America to find a farmer not wearing a homespun item of clothing, using an ax handle that was not carved from local ash, eating a dinner that was not the product of ones own land, or living in a house not made of wood cut into boards at a local sawmill. The colonist relied on neighbors as much as possible, but often farm life required self-sufficiency. In some cases what was homemade was superior to products imported from anywhere in the world. Early each year New England farmers placed wooden troughs around the maple trees of the forest. Farmers made these troughs by hand, using an ax; an experienced individual could make three dozen troughs in a day. In March, when the winter nights were cold but the days were sometimes mild, the farmer cut a circular incision an inch or two in diameter in the maple tree to allow the sap to drip into the trough. Some maples gave two to three gallons of sap per day. After the farmer collected the sap in barrels, he brought it to a large outdoor fire over which hung large kettles. Women tended the kettles and boiled the liquid to a heavy maple syrup; repeated boiling produced sugar for candies and cakes.


Jeremy Belknap, The History of New-Hampshire (Boston: Belknap & Young, 1792);

Alan Marcus and Howard Segal, Technology in America: A Brief History (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989).

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