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 Extended  American agricultural history bibliography
 Extended  European agricultural history bibliography
We extend a warm thank you to the Iowa State University Center for On-Line Learning and the Iowa State University Department of History for their support of this project.
The Northern Farm Household and Agricultural Labor
Throughout American history, the most common unit operating a farm has been a family, including a husband, a wife, and their dependent children. The reasons for this are economic. Labor in the U.S. has generally been scarce and expensive, and few farming families could afford to hire many workers. Instead, families made use of all of their available workers, sending not only husbands and sons, but mothers and daughters to work in order to meet the labor needs of the farm.

Adult men played an integral role in field labor. Many farm tasks required a great deal of strength. Before the era of the internal combustion engine, breaking sod, clearing timber, plowing and harvesting generally demanded a man's labor. Because of the strength involved in handling large animals, men would also maintain livestock operations. Because of concerns about propriety, men generally also assumed responsibility for making contracts, taking crops to market, and interacting with salespeople. Field work was generally considered to be men's work, and men assumed responsibility for that part of the farming operation.

Farm women had their own roles. Women maintained responsibility for the farm household, doing the vast majority of the cooking, cleaning, sewing, food preservation and other indoor chores. If a family was able to hire laborers, farm women were expected to cook and clean for those laborers as well. They often did these chores without the newest in household equipment, since available funds went first to purchases that facilitated the production of field crops. A plow generated income, whereas a washing machine usually did not. Women also raised chickens and gathered eggs, both for home use and for sale. They were often responsible for caring for dairy cattle, milking, and processing milk. Women made butter and separated cream for use in cooking and for sale. Women also often took part in field labor, even though many defined it as men's work. At busy times, such as planting and harvesting, men viewed women as surplus labor, available to go into the fields as needed. On new farms, where there were heavy field work responsibilities, or on farms with few or no children of a sufficient age, women worked in the fields. Additionally, within some immigrant groups, such as Scandinavians and Germans, field work was considered women's work as well as men's work, and there was no stigma attached to women's field labor.

Bearing and raising children was an important part of farm women's work. Pregnancy, childbirth and nursing significantly complicated the daily chores, but were an ongoing part of most women's lives. Farm women generally bore more children than those in urban areas. Child care had to be integrated into women's work as well, with child training being perhaps the most important part of that care. Young children generally remained with their mothers during the day, helping them with small chores, such as gathering kindling and eggs, watering the chickens, and washing dishes. Mothers trained their children to be useful.

Children contributed in many ways to the farming enterprise. Small children helped around the house, and boys and girls generally did the same types of chores until they were seven or eight. As boys matured, they moved into their fathers' orbits, beginning to learn the work of crop and livestock production. Boys might be expected to take a man's place in the fields as early as age ten. They would be expected to continue to work for their fathers until they turned twenty-one, the legal age of adulthood. Girls generally worked for their mothers, helping in the household, and with poultry, dairy and garden work. These gender divisions, however, were not rigid. Boys sometimes remained at home to help their mothers with heavy chores, such as laundry. Girls served as surplus field labor in times of heavy work, and if family composition demanded it. Oldest girls in families with much younger brothers, or girls with no brothers at all, often found themselves acting as their father's "right hand men."

If a family found itself with surplus young workers, or if they needed cash more than a son's or daughter's labor, a child might go to work for another family, and bring wages home to the family. Many older sons or daughters with an eighth grade education, but particularly daughters, taught school in order to provide the family a ready source of cash. Most families did not consider children's wages to be their own until that child turned twenty-one, or married. Sons and daughters worked for the benefit of the family farm.

Over time, mandatory education laws required that farm children spend more and more time in school, and less time working for their parents. Interestingly, child labor laws never restricted children's labor on their parents' farms. What increasingly liberated children from long hours of labor was the development of newer and better machines that reduced the need for unskilled labor. While youngsters continued to work on their parents' farms, the hours necessary fell greatly, particularly after World War II.

Changes in technology also changed women's work, with women increasingly able to do what had been physically challenging tasks. Women, however, have not generally become their families' primary farmers, even with machines taking the muscle out of much farm labor. Instead, women have become farm managers and errand runners. Cars and better roads have meant that women could increasingly support the farm through jobs in town. Men, too, have balanced outside employment with their work on the farm, in order to boost family incomes. Maintaining a farm today often still requires the labors of more than one person, but in different ways than one hundred years ago.

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg

Further Reading

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

Faragher, John Mack.
Women and Men on the Overland Trail. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1979.

Fink, Deborah.
Open Country, Iowa: Rural Women, Tradition and Change. Albany:State University of New York Press, 1986.

Jellison, Katherine.
Entitled to Power: Farm Women and Technology, 1913-1963.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Jensen, Joan.
Loosening the Bonds: Mid-Atlantic Farm Women, 1750-1850. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

McMurry, Sally.
Transforming Rural Life: Dairying, Families and Agricultural Change, 1820-1885. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Neth, Mary.
Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of Agribusiness in the Midwest, 1900-1940. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

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

Pederson, Jane Marie.
Between Memory and Reality: Family and Community in Rural Wisconsin, 1870-1970. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Riney-Kehrberg, Pamela. "`But What Kind of Work Do the Rest of You Do?' Child Labor on Nebraska's Farms, 1870-1920."
Nebraska History 82, 1 (Spring 2001): 2-10.

Childhood on the Farm: Work, Play and Coming of Age in the Midwest.
Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005.

_____. "Helping Ma and Helping Pa: Iowa's Turn-of-the-Century Farm Children."
Annals of Iowa 59, 2 (Spring 2000): 115-140.

_____. "Women in Wheat Country." Kansas History:
A Journal of the Central Plains 23, 1-2 (Spring-Summer 2000): 56-71.

Rosenfeld, Rachel.
Farm Women: Work, Farm, and Family in the United States.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Schob, David E.
Hired Hands and Plowboys: Farm Labor in the Midwest, 1815-1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher.
A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.