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Cultivating Success in the South: Farm Households in the Postbellum Era

Author(s):Ferleger, Louis A.
Metz, John D.
Reviewer(s):Harris, J. William

Published by EH.Net (September 2015)

Louis A. Ferleger and John D. Metz, Cultivating Success in the South: Farm Households in the Postbellum Era. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.  xiii + 206 pp. $90 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-107-05411-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by J. William Harris, Department of History, University of New Hampshire.

Cultivating Success in the South offers an illuminating examination of the South’s post-Civil War cotton economy.  Most of the important scholarship on that subject focuses on the momentous change from slave-based plantations to tenant/sharecropping plantations, and to the place of African Americans on those postwar plantations.  Economic historians have made use of macroeconomic data and samples from the agricultural censuses to analyze, and sometimes argue over, the roles of racial discrimination, credit and debt, technical changes such as fertilizer use, and cotton prices in shaping the postwar cotton regime.

Louis A. Ferleger (Boston University) and John D. Metz (Library of Virginia) address this subject in a study of three agricultural counties in Georgia from 1880 to 1910.  Crawford and Jasper are in the lower Piedmont, where cotton was king and a large majority of white households included slaveholders in 1860.  Franklin, in the upper Piedmont, had a shorter growing season, with smaller farms growing less cotton and more grains, and many fewer slaves; just one out of six households included slaves in 1860.

The authors’ contributions are two-fold.  The first is methodological: their systematic use of probate records to analyze patterns in both production and consumption on farms. The main evidence comes from a sample of 228 estates from the three counties between 1880 and 1910, with data on decedents cross-checked in the records of the 1880, 1900, or 1910 censuses.  Probate records have been used with great profit by economic historians of colonial America, but rarely for more recent times, and never for the postwar South, at least in this systematic fashion.  The authors’ meticulous analysis of the probate inventories supports their contention that their study “calls into question the long-standing notion of an impoverished postbellum South characterized by a stagnating economy, political turmoil, and racial tension” p. (4). (They do not address either politics or racial tension, although one of the counties was stronghold of Populism, and in two of them black men were lynched in these years.)

The second innovation, directly related to the methodology, is in subject matter.  Estates worth less than $500 did not go through probate, and wealthy property owners usually avoided probate by writing wills.  The sample is thus overwhelmingly made up of “yeoman” farmers, 88 percent of them white men, who owned small and medium-sized farms.  While this obviously leaves out much of the farming population, it is arguable that we know less about white small farmers than any other major group in the postwar South, even though most of the increase in cotton production in these years took place on small farms owned by whites.

The key findings come from analysis of 199 probate inventories with enough detail to show, most often with simple cross-tabulations and means, not only general patterns of production and consumption, but also quite specific information on the types of tools used and items purchased for household use.  The findings with respect to production are often interesting but rarely surprising.  Franklin County’s farmers, thanks to fertilizer and improved transportation, moved firmly into cotton monoculture, but in all three counties, production patterns and tool use indicate a cautious, safety-first emphasis on “how to achieve self-sufficiency without assuming a dangerous level of risk” (p. 91). Home production of food, diversification into alternate marketable crops, and the taking up of secondary occupations like blacksmithing helped to reduce risk.  With increasing farm size, farmers purchased specialized plows and cultivators, cotton gins, and even steam engines.  Inventories for African Americans and women are too few in number for a full analysis, but the limited data do suggest that those farm owners were not greatly different in their patterns of purchases.  The authors conclude that, overall, farmers “showed creativity and persistence in trying to improve their lot in life” (p. 180).

The analysis of consumption offers fresh information on a little-studied subject.  The most important conclusion is that yeoman farmer households participated fully in the growing consumer economy, although the authors go too far in claiming that the rural economy was “every bit as dynamic as the urban model characterized by increased consumption” (p. 95). Farmers and their wives were “shrewd if conservative consumers” (p. 175) for whom “the practical superseded the niceties” (p. 179).  Half of the families owned stoves, and many purchased sewing machines, coffee mills, and other labor-saving products.  At higher levels of wealth they owned pianos, organs, clocks, and furniture suitable for a parlor.  The authors point out that estate auctions were alternatives to country stores and mail-order catalogues as a source for purchases, at a discount, of tools and consumer items.

Readers should be aware that there are occasional errors in the text.  For example, the authors write that “blacks comprised one-fifth” of Georgia’s population in 1850, when the actual proportion was more than two-fifths.  Tables on pages 48 and 49 indicate that the Crawford County sample included 51 white males, 4 black males, and 5 females, but only 56 cases in total.  More problematic is the broad claim that “middling farmers who owned their property … accounted for the majority of the population,” and that “owner-operators outnumbered renters by at least two to one” (p. 15). This is simply untrue over the thirty-year period.  According to the Census of Agriculture for 1900, there were in these three counties 1,762 white farm owners or part-owners, and 2,257 white cash or share tenants.  If black farmers are included, tenants outnumbered owners overall by more than two-to-one, not the other way around.  Indeed the presence of so many tenants points to the biggest limitation of the study, in that the analysis of production is mainly limited to mules, tools, and other capital inputs, with no discussion of labor arrangements or of the relationships between labor arrangements and the use of technology.

Still, the authors’ meticulous examination of a new (for this period) source for the study of the rural southern economy deserves praise.  It may be that their demonstration of the value of probate records, more than their specific conclusions, proves to be their most influential contribution.

J. William Harris (jw.harris@unh.edu) is Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire.  He is currently writing a general history of the South since the Civil War.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII