The Fine Role of Farm Wife

by on May 10, 2010
in Farm Life

A stack of "Farm Knowledge"

My husband William and I have a set of books entitled “Farm Knowledge” published by Sears and Roebuck in 1918. There are four volumes, each dealing with a different part of farm life. We’re really grateful to have them, they are quite rare these days and expensive to purchase and I’m the kind of person who would much rather own a book and be able to touch the pages than to simply read it online. I’m a very tactile reader.

The volumes make for fascinating reading. It’s interesting to me that though we are now a full decade into the 21st century, the messages from the first two decades of the 20th century are so familiar in content. How often have we heard from poets, authors, and politicians the urging to return to “simpler values, simpler times” and hearken America back to a more bucolic day of peace and plenty? I know I’ve read it, and written it many times. I think there must be some kind of human hard-wiring that makes us see a green field and breathe deeply and say “aah, how peaceful.” And yet as we peruse the pages of these antique volumes of farm methods, tips, and suggestions I keep reading the same thing. What??? An editor in 1918 was pleading with his readers to return to a more peaceful, prosperous time?

Actually, yes. The books, while presented as an encyclopedia of farm knowledge were as much a plea for what they wanted to exist in American communities as they were a repository of what did exist. They didn’t request that the farm families live like they did 100 years ago (well, let’s face it, life in 1818 was not a walk in the park, and no one would buy that bridge if they tried to sell it.) Mostly they tried to paint a picture of the American farm life that we romanticize now; hard working families, communities knit together in a common goal of success, peaceful neighborhoods, clean yards, and happy children. Each volume has suggestions of ways to improve farm income, to further education in rural settings, to inspire youth to not only work the fields but to cultivate their minds as well. It sounds like a chapter meeting for the modern FFA.

I love reading these books. I love knowing that the world wasn’t perfect and we’ve since misplaced perfection somewhere along our path to technological advancement. I love knowing that progress is an ever-changing thing; that society has the ability to choose, to grow, to discard and change whatever isn’t working. And I love that the basic elements of what makes a family and a community successful haven’t changed. In fact I can go back even further to Virgil’s “Georgic” poems and Hesiod’s “Works and Days” and find bits of wisdom that haven’t changed in the nearly three-thousand years since they were penned. Who can argue with sage advice like “Build barns; it will not be Summer forever”?

I think that my favorite part of the “Farm Knowledge” books is the section on the farm house and yard. They actually spend quite a bit of time expounding on the importance of a neat and well-kept farmhouse, where the farm wife, who keeps everything running, can work effectively and efficiently towards the goal of a happy, healthy, farm family. Now there’s a bit of romanticizing that I can get behind. There are tips on decorating, adjusting the height of the kitchen work tables so you don’t injure your back, using a vacuum, finding clever storage areas for all of the “things” you need on a farm but might not have extra room for. It’s great, it reads almost like a modern copy of Good Housekeeping or the latest Martha Stewart book.

I like knowing that I am not alone in the drama of keeping a farm-house clean. Keeping any house clean requires skills of organization and good habits, but have you ever considered what keeping a farm-house clean entails? Do you know what comes in on the bottom of a farmer’s shoes? I have an intimate knowledge of what gets tracked into the farmhouse; it’s not pretty, and it doesn’t smell good. But after reading about the struggles with dirty boots and wash day of the early 20th century farm-wife, I feel decidedly blessed to be her counterpart in the 21st century. I get to look out at my green fields and sigh over how peaceful they are, call Jezebel in from that field, milk her and send her on her way again, cluck at my sweet little biddies, gather their eggs with my daughter Marilla and head back in to the house to begin the daily house chores. Often as I am wiping off the bottoms of my own boots I pause and look around at the farm I enjoy. I can see why poets and politicians tell everyone we should get back to this, it’s hard to beat.


4 Responses to “The Fine Role of Farm Wife”
  1. 1
    Kim says:

    Well, I do believe your a farmlosipher -or- philosifarmer? I love it! I just tried your milk for the first time today – AMBROSIA!!!! Surely my kids and I have never had so much fun with veggies as we did with the adorable baby carrots. They were muddy and glorious, some with legs, some plump, some skinny and all sweet, fresh and delicious. Made me revisit some of the best parts of my childhood. Thanks SOOOOOOOO much from “our doorstep to your farm”!! I hope we can come visit one day. Your hard work is greatly appreciated!

  2. 2
    sue gaither says:

    yes,indeed I have a set of four farm knowledge books and am trying to put a value to them any help?

    • 2.1
      Vernie says:

      Hi Sue, my first inclination is to say “Priceless!” which they absolutely are. We feel incredibly blessed to have all four books as they are becoming harder and harder to find. The last set I saw on ebay went for about $250 but there is one currently listed at $800. I don’t know if they will get their price, but as someone who has read the books I can say the information contained therein is absolutely worth it. I hope that helps!

  3. 3

    La di da. I am posting on each of your post because I must. Of late I have been ingesting the entire series of Farm Wive Bulletins published between 1902-1910. They are held in the archives of OSU and I am lucky to be good friends with a woman who had access to them given her tenure as a Home Economist with the same. They are fascinating and I am now convinced we need to meet to discuss this and that. I live in Portland.

    What is most interesting to these bulletins, or one of the interesting things, is the way you occasionally hear the voice of an actual farmer’s wive who takes umbrage on the advice being given by Martha Van Rensselar, an early advocate for creating systems and “science” in the farm home. Without a doubt there was advice to be given but my research is leading me to the polemic between the academic “advice” and the country wisdom of the time. It is helpful to frame those conversations in the farm-as-producer-for-a-national economy debate that was going on in the day. Well, was always going on — farming for self reliance or farming for markets.

    Occasionally I read of a farm wife who says….if my husband was not so busy dealing with the crops (for market) I might have more help. If I did not have to cook for all the hired hands and have them at my table disrupting the sanctity of our home, if my husband did not agree to leverage the farm for equipment……. Really, those are the voices that occasionally come through but I suspect they (Cornell and the early agricultural science movement) did not publish many.

    I have been reading these bulletins for a reason. I am curious about how the farm wives managed their days. I am interested in the role extension (the early role) played in disseminating information to these women. I am trying to decipher if it was all a campaign to shift these farming lives from ones of self reliance to ones in service to the national economy. Not that I think there is a clear line between them but I do think about this a lot. Did not the farm wives of the time know exactly how to handle their business?

    Oh, this is a conversation. This is part of the next book. This is part of what I am endlessly interested in….the system or life of the householder.

    Talk soon I know. A few of my friends get milk on the farm.