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

rapid rate

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).