Published by EH.Net (October 2002)
Bruegel, Martin., Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of Market Society in the
Hudson Valley, 1780-1860. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press,
2002. xiii + 305 pp. $21.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8223-2849-6.
Reviewed for EH.Net by Laurence J. Malone, Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York.
Three words separated by two commas — farm, shop, landing — comprise a novel
title that provokes immediate curiosity and interest. Martin Bruegel’s new book
pays homage to Fernand Braudel’s “tripartite structure in which a local world
of barter and an international network of trade, each with its own rules and
imperatives, surround a market economy” (p. 5). The method brings the European
Annales School emphases on rural transformation over a long duree to the
mid-Hudson Valley region of New York State. Detail abounds throughout this
masterfully researched book on the social dimensions of the accelerating
commercial development of rural society in the early eighteen century.
Labor plays the leading role in Bruegel’s story; not the rise of waged labor,
per se, but the more informal collaborations that provided the raison-d’etre
for more tightly woven community relations. Transactions and dealings among
neighbors, told through the documented experiences of a compelling cast of
local characters, are decisive in pointing the people of the mid-Hudson toward
commercialization. From this vantage point the impetus to change has its roots
in the social fabric of life, rather than springing from the desires of
individuals seeking to exploit comparative advantages.
Well written, the text is laden with the categorical schematic concepts of the
proto-industrialization literature. Readers who expect highly refined
definitions of such general terms may be put off. Others may object to the way
historical evidence and specific episodes mentioned within paragraphs often
cited dates several decades apart, leaving the impression that social,
political, and commercial change was slow in the region. But the heart of the
argument succeeds in juxtaposing an emphasis on social considerations in the
rise of commercial society to the so-called Rothenberg thesis on rural American
development. Bruegel writes:
“The struggle to eke out the family’s subsistence explains the farmers’
aloofness from the opportunities of the long-distance trade. Winifred
Rothenberg argued that Massachusetts farmers responded to the incentives of
urban demand and began to specialize their production and increase the number
of trips to sell goods in market towns in the middle of the eighteenth century.
The Hudson Valley suggests another experience, one in which farm families lived
by a social rather than an economic imperative. In response to an insecure
environment and resources whose exploitation proved to be a formidable task,
circumspection and diversification mapped out the behavior of rural people.
Relationships, not the abstract forces of the free market, channeled the
allocation of labor and the flow of goods first in, and then beyond, the
neighborhood (p. 61).”
With a formidable array of primary sources consulted, the book does much to
deepen our understanding of rural transformation in this locale and period. But
the choice of the particular period surveyed is not explained, leaving open the
possibility that the suggested social processes that brought about economic
change could have been underway much earlier in time. This possibility looms
large given that the navigable Hudson River region extending from New York to
Albany is one of the oldest settled interior regions in the nation. Moreover,
our understanding of this locale and period would be more complete with an
assessment of patterns of exchange between this region and adjoining areas,
especially since the upriver and downriver city-towns of Albany, Kingston, and
Troy had significant roles in rural transformation along the river and within
the delineated mid-Hudson region.
Regardless of our particular persuasions, Bruegel is to be commended especially
for the contribution he has made to our knowledge of rural consumption
patterns, and Farm, Shop, Landing gives us much to ponder in the
evolution of commercial relations in the antebellum American Republic.
Laurence J. Malone is Chair of the Board of the Economic and Business
Historical Society. His most recent book is Opening the West: Federal
Internal Improvements Before 1860, Greenwood Press, 1998.