Emily Pawley. The Nature of the Future: Agriculture, Science, and Capitalism in the Antebellum North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 312 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-69383-5.
Reviewed by Joshua Specht (University of Notre Dame)
Published on H-Environment (November, 2020)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
America was nearly the land of silk. During the 1830s, almost a million mulberry trees were listed for sale in New York City. Nurseries up and down the East Coast and as far west as Illinois were selling stems of one variety of white mulberry, known as Morus multicaulus. The tree was a home for silkworms, whose tiny cocoons could be processed into silk. People who pushed mulberry cultivation hoped to remake rural landscapes across the United States in a way that blended agriculture (mulberry cultivation) and industry (silk production). Easy reproduction and distribution of mulberry trees from grafts—saplings could be cut into multiple cultivable pieces—along with fantastic tales of silk’s Chinese origins and subsequent theft by European traders, made Morus multicaulus perfect fuel for a speculative bubble.
You can probably guess how the story ends. Distributing saplings is relatively easy, but making silk is enormously complicated. One needs favorable agricultural conditions, the knowledge to grow trees profitably, and then even more specialized knowledge about how to process millions of tiny cocoons into saleable silk. Once every curious farmer in the country (or so it seemed) had tried and failed to produce silk, the bubble burst. Nurseries were left with hundreds of thousands of trees and nobody to buy them. Landowners and businesses had sunk fortunes into orchards that would never go anywhere.
Bubbles highlight the undercurrent of irrationality beneath the surface of every market. What makes this story so fascinating, however, is what it says about the history of American agriculture. Agriculture does not seem to lend itself to irrational exuberance. There is an appealing story that agricultural knowledge has accreted over centuries and gradually tames nature and remakes landscapes. When we look at the history of some successful American crops, like wheat or soybeans, the story seemingly fits. But Emily Pawley shows us that when we consider the possibilities that never came to pass—how self-evident it seemed to 1830s Americans that silk production would eventually dominate the American countryside—the story of American agriculture becomes much messier and more contingent than we might have assumed.
The Nature of the Future examines agricultural improvement in New York during the nineteenth century. Improvement is essentially an ideology (and set of associated institutions and practices) that emphasizes the application of knowledge about, and investment in, agriculture in the interest of increased production and profit. Improvers tested new fertilizers, experimented with novel crops, bred ever-larger livestock, promoted the use of agricultural machinery, and advocated the expansion of industries like silk production. Looking at improvement allows Pawley to push back against a vision of antebellum northern agriculture as static and simplistic as opposed to the dynamism of industrial capitalism or plantation slavery. Pawley finds an active world of northern agriculture at the intersection of market capitalism and scientific research. This is, however, a messy story. As the mulberry bubble suggests, it is not a simple story of agricultural science and rationalization. It is a story of experiment, uncertainty, contested understandings of value, and economic turmoil.
Improvement and, by extension, antebellum northern agriculture were fundamentally future-oriented. Pawley examines various kinds of “improvers”: tenant farmers, patroons, middling farmers, retired industrialists, and more. Inseparable from their varied visions of improvement were their beliefs about what an improved rural landscape (and society) would look like: “landlords had dreamt of a British-style landscape of deferential, profitable tenants; tenants dreamed of a republic of free soil and free white labor. Bankers retired to the country to nurse political ambitions, but also envisioned sheep farms on a ‘capitalist scale’” (p. 13). In this sense improvement fit within a broader settler-colonial context—producing the nation was about taking land and remaking it.
This emphasis on the future has relevance today. We take for granted not only the current structure of American agriculture, but also the nature of rural landscapes. By situating improvement processes historically, Pawley shows how certain agricultural landscapes—once sharply contested—came to seem inevitable or natural, such as nineteenth-century New York’s butter districts or Wisconsin dairy country today. The messiness of nineteenth-century improvement meant that “antebellum New Yorkers, with their many agricultural systems, their deep experience of rural landscapes, and their sense of landscape politics had more ways to imagine what possible agricultural futures might look like than most Americans do now” (p. 229). While we might be tempted to view today’s industrial agriculture as the logical endpoint of improvement ideology, Pawley suggests we need to embrace the bygone diversity of agriculture ideas and, like improvers, consider a multiplicity of agricultural futures.
Once we start to examine improvement in practice, we find it at the intersection of science and capitalism, at the intersection of authority and markets. Improvement was founded on a participatory experimental culture. Improvers circulated information in local newspapers and agricultural journals as well as tried their own tests of what worked and reported results far and wide. This was the collective pursuit of knowledge about the natural world, but it was also the pursuit of profit.
Because the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century lacked the scientific institutions to mediate and evaluate this knowledge, most improvement research and experiment was happening in the market, communicated through the agricultural press or as part of business demonstrations to attract customers. For example, in Britain the study of fruit was centered in institutions like botanical gardens, but in the US it was centered in places like for-profit nurseries. That said, these were not entirely separate worlds. One of the most successful American nurserymen, William Prince, owed his success in part to the fact that he was “a corresponding member of the London Horticultural Society” and used his membership to gain access to specimens he could sell in the United States (p. 170).
In the United States, agricultural journals, nurseries, and supply warehouses were all sites of dissemination of agricultural expertise. By looking at these sources, which are understudied relative to state institutions, we recover the dynamic and heterogeneous picture of antebellum northern agriculture. Public demonstrations of the wonders of agricultural equipment echoed public scientific experiments and revealed a bustling and creative commercial world, sometimes with humorous results. In 1852, a demonstration in upstate New York was so catastrophic—a mechanical reaper essentially fell apart before everyone’s eyes—that word of the embarrassment reached London.
Starting in the 1860s, agricultural research institutions, especially state-funded “experiment stations,” would change improvement’s dynamics. Scientific authority collided with the for-profit institutions that had once anchored improvement. But this was no simple linear story of scientific authority displacing markets. For instance, James Mapes, a widely criticized quack fertilizer manufacturer, remained enormously popular with consumers. Improvement ultimately functioned through scientific institutions as well as capitalist ones. At times these institutions reinforced each other and at other times they collided, a tension that remains today.
This interaction between market institutions and scientific ones is a fascinating element of the book. I wonder if the chaotic, market-based expansion of improvement was incredibly effective during a raucous early phase of American agriculture. During the first half of the nineteenth century, when people had minimal capital and little preexisting investment in the land, the flexibility and scalability of market institutions was likely very effective. But later, during the second half of the century, once the landscape and the land regime was relatively stable, state-funded scientific institutions became crucial for adjudicating multiple concepts of value and preventing fraud. Market institutions remained central, but agricultural experiment stations checked the freewheeling agricultural capitalism that once spurred (and justified) American settler colonialism. American agriculture in the first half of the nineteenth century did not look like agriculture in Britain. But the American approach might have been what made the rapid expansion of American agriculture possible. In that case, perhaps the tension between market and scientific institutions was an enormously generative one (though it is important to remember this was all predicated on, as well as drove, settler-colonial violence and dispossession).
The Nature of the Future is a fascinating analysis of antebellum northern agriculture. Pawley writes in an engaging voice—a few bits had me laughing out loud and my partner asking what I was reading—and has an eye for the interesting and unexpected. I never thought an account of a mulberry bubble would give me new insights on both American capitalism and American agriculture. Agricultural history is a field everybody should be paying attention to, something historians of capitalism and historians of science are increasingly realizing in light of books like this one.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-environment.
Joshua Specht. Review of Pawley, Emily, The Nature of the Future: Agriculture, Science, and Capitalism in the Antebellum North.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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