The Northern Farm Household and
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
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
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
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.
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