Social Life: Rural Life

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Throughout rural America, as the New Englander Lyndon Freeman recalled, families "found occasions to meet together." At the level of detail, these ways of socializing differed substantially by region and cultural tradition. But there are broader patterns that can be distinguished, rooted in an ox- and horse-drawn world of pre-telegraphic communications, unmechanized agricultural and household labor, and an only partially commercialized rural economy.

Beyond the limits of each family's house or farmstead was a village or a country neighborhood, a small community that set the bounds for daily social experience. However, the meanings of "neighborhoods" and "neighboring" differed importantly across the United States. Much depended on the density of settlement and the difficulties of local travel.

the north

The villages and neighborhoods of the settled northern countryside had comparatively dense social webs. "It was a uniform custom," wrote Freeman of his Massachusetts boyhood, "for the women to visit … from house to house, to take tea and enjoy a social afternoon." Men were brought together by frequent exchanges of work and goods and by trips to tavern and store. Children knew each other from attending school.

The densest rural settlements were central place villages—small hubs for commerce, transportation, professional services, worship, and local government. A growing number were mill villages, small settlements built around waterpowered textile factories. More dispersed country neighborhoods had vaguer borders but were named and thoroughly known by their inhabitants. In some places they were roughly defined by the boundaries of rural school districts. A sizable minority of families never stayed long enough in any community to become deeply enmeshed in its life. But those who remained for any length of time in well-established settlements visited and traded with their neighbors weekly, if not daily.

Although the reach of rural sociability was broad, it did not transcend class and race. Elite rural families sometimes socialized widely with their neighbors and sometimes held aloof. The poorest and most transient, along with free people of color generally, were for the most part excluded.

the west and south

In the more geographically dispersed settlements of the West and South, the structure of social life was inevitably different. Migrating families often felt it intensely. To move from New Jersey to Kentucky around 1800, wrote Daniel Drake, was to leave "the village and public roadside, with its cavalcade of travellers, for the loneliness of the wood, a solitude which was deeply felt by all of us." In response, widely scattered families sought to create a social web across the distances that separated them. Their "desire for society," Drake recalled, was like "the desire of a hungry family for food."

These families defined their neighborhoods more widely in space than those living in denser settlements, and they built their social networks on more intermittent contact. This desire for society was shared by the masters and mistresses of great plantations as well as yeoman farmers. A Southern planter's "notions of space" were "so liberal," the Universal Traveler noted in 1835, "that he will readily ride a dozen miles to dine." If less frequent, sociability was often more intense. Southern and western families embraced customs of open hospitality to strangers as well as acquaintances that surprised northern observers.

In these more thinly settled parts of America, the problems of distance bore most heavily on women. They were tied to children and a daily round of domestic tasks and were constrained by custom from traveling far on their own. Men spent much of their time in solitary labor in the fields but could find intermittent occasions to leave the farm while hunting, trading, or attending public gatherings.

On the plantations, enslaved communities had a social life that was only partially known to their masters. After their day's work, families passed their evening hours in visiting, moving freely in and out of each other's cabins on the street, or talking and singing outdoors. Young men going courting and those bent on seeing separated kinfolk often took to the road to visit other plantations.

Although some masters tried to curtail evening socializing and off-plantation travel, enslaved Americans showed great tenacity in maintaining an autonomous social life. Even when cabins were locked to keep out late-night callers and patrols guarded the roads, young black men climbed down chimneys and walked across the fields.

places and occasions of sociability

Across the regions of America, weddings and funerals, held at home and usually marked by both drinking and rituals of hospitality, involved community as well as kinfolk. Critical locations of rural sociability were the church, the tavern, the country store, and the county courthouse. For millions of churchgoers in the countryside, Sunday meetings offered not only worship but abundant opportunities for visiting, courtship, and quarreling. Because economic transactions and social relations were deeply intertwined in rural life, stores offered similar opportunities for men and women to meet; purchases could be long, conversational transactions.

Taverns were perhaps the most widespread rural institutions of all, the centers of an almost exclusively male sociability. They brought men together for heavy drinking, smoking, and alcohol-fueled talk—and often gambling and fighting. The rural calendar was punctuated by militia training days, yearly state and local elections, and the periodic sessions of circuit-riding courts. On court days, training days, and election days, men—and some women—poured in from the countryside to township centers and county seats, as much to socialize as to do public business.

Rural Americans came together for many occasions of cooperative labor: corn huskings, house and barn raisings, "logrollings" for clearing timber, "stone bees" for ridding fields of rocks, even "dunging frolics" for spreading manure on the fields. There were also all-female gatherings: spinning frolics, quiltings, apple-paring bees. Farm families usually kept these gatherings outside the explicit web of the rural economy; even farmers and artisans who carefully recorded the most minute transactions with neighbors in their account books almost never charged the time spent in "mutual assistance."

The social patterning of these cooperative activities varied from region to region, but overall they gave American rural life a distinctive texture. Everywhere they allowed neighbors to accomplish a large task quickly and to mark its completion with a kind of festival. In varying degrees they emphasized competition and courtship. Male corn husking teams in Kentucky contested, sometimes violently, for first place; in New England's mixed husking parties, the men sought to find the occasional "red ear" that would earn them a kiss from the women.

the seasons

Sociability in the American countryside moved inversely with the seasons of agricultural work. This occurred most dramatically in the rural Northeast. In July, during the exhausting labor of getting in the hay crop, most other activities were suspended. Stores, shops, and taverns stood almost empty, visits sharply declined, few couples married, and few children were conceived. Cutting against the grain was the one universally observed American holiday, the Fourth of July. Independence Day came at a remarkably awkward time for a nation of farmers, in the midst of the heaviest work of the summer. Probably it was all the more valued by country people on that account.

The end of the growing season marked the beginning of greater leisure. Winter was the courting season, a time often pleasantly remembered for its parties and frolics, singing schools and dances. It was also "marrying time" in most communities. The months just after harvest or just before spring planting showed the highest number of marriages. Yet in the North it was also a time of growing discomfort. Family life contracted into a room or two, and even routine outdoor chores grew increasingly difficult as the temperature dropped. In severe cold and storm, households could spend weeks in isolation. At times the leisure could be enjoyed; when traveling was good, on sleighs over frozen roads, "alternating visiting through a neighborhood in the evening was quite common," as Lyndon Freeman remembered. At times it could only be endured: "tavern haunting, tippling, and gaming," Samuel Goodrich declared, "were the chief resources of men in the dead and dreary winter months."

changes over time

Well-established as they were, these patterns were not permanent. By the 1820s there were clear signs of change, particularly in the rural Northeast. Temperance reform was not only diminishing tavern clienteles but changing the character of socializing for many men. Huskings and frolics were beginning to disappear under the pressure of more instrumental and progressive ways of organizing farm work, although house and barn raisings—whose economic logic could not be assailed—endured for many decades. Traditional forms of neighborhood sociability were now competing with the claims of the new voluntary organizations—lyceums and debating societies; charitable, missionary, and maternal associations; and groups devoted to temperance, antislavery, and other reform causes. For some rural families, weddings and funerals were becoming more private occasions, focused more narrowly on immediate family and close friends and excluding wider community participation.

A few decades later, there was a sense that the old world of rural sociability had disappeared entirely in some parts of America. In the communities of his Vermont boyhood, wrote Horace Greeley in 1859, there had been "more humor, more fun, more play, more merriment … than can be found anywhere in this anxious, plodding age."

See alsoFrontier; Frontiersmen; Work: Agricultural Labor; Work: Women's Work .


Brown, Richard D. "The Emergence of Urban Society in Rural Massachusetts, 1760–1820." Journal of American History 61 (1974): 29–51.

Drake, Daniel. Pioneer Life in Kentucky. Cincinnati, Ohio: R. Clarke, 1870.

Faragher, John Mack. Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

Larkin, Jack. The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790–1840. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic, an American Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Underwood, Francis H. Quabbin: The Story of a Small Town with Outlooks upon Puritan Life. Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1893.

Jack Larkin