|Author(s):||McClelland, Peter D.|
|Reviewer(s):||Hansen, Mary Eschelbach|
Published by EH.NET (February 2000)
Peter D. McClelland,
Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press, 1997. xii + 348 pp. $45.00
(cloth), ISBN: 0-8014-3326-6.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Mary Eschelbach Hansen, Department of Economics,
American University, Washington, DC.
The Seeds of Agricultural Innovation
Sowing Modernity: America’s First Agricultural Revolution argues that
modern economic growth required discontinuities. The discontinuity that Peter
McClelland seeks is to be found
in everyday life: when did farmers begin to ask routinely, “Is there a better
way?” Professor McClelland finds the discontinuity, or revolution, in attitudes
in the years immediately following the War of 1812.
Not since Leo Rogin wrote his classic The
Introduction of Farm Machinery
(University of California Press, 1931) has an author packed so much information
about farm equipment into such a small space. Professor McClelland gives us a
reference work that should sit atop the desk of any serious scholar of
agriculture. The work goes well beyond tracing the time trend in the number of
new patents issued on farm equipment. McClelland traces the development of farm
equipment from antiquity through the Jacksonian era in order to demonstrate the
of innovation after 1812, which indicates to him that the search for a better
way began in earnest about that time.
The descriptive detail in Sowing Modernity is astounding. Of the
literature on Jethro Tull’s wheat drill, McClelland says: “Although every
history of the British agricultural revolution is sure to include a reference
to Tull’s machine, almost never does that literature make clear how it worked.”
(p. 70) A full page of text and two full-page illustrations do the job.
(Special congratulations are due to McClelland for convincing his publisher
that the purpose of the book could not be met without the many and detailed
illustrations.) Other innovations in equipment to plow, sow, cultivate, and
thresh receive equally detailed treatment. The
work is so thoroughly researched and uses such a wide variety of sources that
the 235 pages of text require 100 pages of notes and bibliography.
McClelland adopts the economist’s stance that farmers were rational, that is,
that farmers only deemed a new
way “better” if benefits were greater than costs. For some innovations an
estimate of costs and benefits is made with respect to initial outlay for
equipment and change in labor and animal requirements. Trends in prices of
output are rarely mentioned (excepting the discussion of reapers). This
omission does not distract from the descriptions of the innovations, but it
does lead the reader to wonder if there are regional stories to be told when
Professor McClelland extends the work, adding the “where” and
“why” questions to this volume’s answer to
The reader would benefit from additional discussion of the sources used,
their merits and demerits, their limitations and biases. For example, might the
very existence of the agricultural papers be a lagged indicator of the
revolution in attitudes of farmers? That is, would there be a market for
information on innovation without the revolution in attitudes? If the
agricultural papers lag the revolution, Professor McClelland’s use of them to
date the revolution in attitudes might lead him to be a few years too late.
But these criticisms are minor compared to the contribution of the work.
Sowing Modernity gives economic historians an interface with the
disciplines of material culture and cultural history. The work should lead
other agricultural and economic historians to consider the 1812-1830 period
with greater interest.
Mary Eschelbach Hansen is author of numerous articles in agricultural history
including “Land Ownership, Farm Size, and Tenancy after the Civil War,”
Journal of Economic History (September 1998).
|Subject(s):||Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries|
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||19th Century|