Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bread wars and problems of plenty: Lessons from the early market society

An 1805 map of the property that became Van Buren's farm
Chapter Four of the Martin Van Buren NHS Ethnographic Landscape Study report that I'm commenting on in this series of posts dealt with "Farming in an Emerging Market Society (1787-1839)." This chapter, which takes the story of Van Buren's farm up to the time when he purchased it just before losing his bid for Presidential re-election, left me with two big and really important takeaways.

First, thinking through the ways that farming in the northeastern states changed during this period left me firmly convinced that large-scale capitalism and small-scale agriculture are fundamentally at odds. By "large-scale" I mean not just global or corporatized, but pervasive in its adoption of a logic that foregrounds efficiency in search of maximum profitability. In agriculture, that logic has historically taken us down the road toward increasing mechanization, consolidation of small properties into larger and more expensive farms, pricing based on often-distant and often-volatile markets rather than local circumstances or costs of production, and other trends that eventually led to a fully industrial, commoditized food system not accountable to local markets or conditions. The seeds of what some have termed the "paradox of plenty" [1] or "problems of plenty" [2] were sown in this period, with efficiency and consolidation leading to lower prices and greater abundance for consumers, but driving small farmers out of business and leaving the rest chasing an ever-receding threshold of profitability.

It has taken a long time for the full implications of this to become clear, but the signs were there from the beginning.  One wonderful resource for my Ethnographic Landscape Study was Martin Bruegel's Farm, Shop, Landing:  The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson Valley, 1780-1860 (Duke University Press, 2002), which gives a detailed picture of how the growing and selling of food were changing in response to the increasing prevalence of market-based logic.  Bruegel reports (pp. 59-60) that a kind of informal "fair trade" system existed in the region until the early 19th century, with farmers and traders working out deals that spread their profits and risks fairly equitably.  As more fully capital-oriented markets took hold, however, those agreements were challenged.  For example, an 1810 ordinance in the town of Hudson required vendors in the public market to make their goods available to all comers rather than holding back some products for favored or regular customers (pp. 67-68).  This reflected a growing expectation of standardized pricing based on general supply and demand, rather than more flexible relationships between producers, consumers, and intermediaries.

And my second takeaway is the realization that despite some level of early 19th century prescience about the problems inherent in letting those more generalized "laws" of supply and demand determine how food would be grown and sold, no one had enough experience yet with capitalist markets to see where this all might lead.  As the riskiness of those markets became clearer--for example, after the Panic of 1819, one of the first systemic economic crises in the new republic--various efforts to strengthen and improve agriculture in the old northeastern states emerged.  But the irony of these projects is that they often involved pursuing exactly the same kinds of strategies--efficiency, higher yields, open markets--that were undermining the ability of small farmers and other food producers to survive in the longer term.

The New York of 1803, caught in bread wars
One striking example of this that I came across in researching my study is the early 19th century controversy over New York City bread prices.  Regulations known as the "assize of bread," rooted in medieval English law, limited bakers' profits and were resented by early American bakers, just as current limits on the price of milk are resented by dairy farmers unable to cover their own costs of production.  In November of 1801, New York's bakers staged a one-day work stoppage that badly frightened consumers and led the city government to intervene to make sure that bread--a staple food--remained available.

The bakers were trying to assert their right to a fair piece of the emerging market economy, just as small farmers were.  But both groups miscalculated, failing to understand their relative lack of power within a system increasingly dominated by concentrated capital and the unforgiving logic of efficiency.  New York's bakers finally managed to get the assize of bread abolished in 1821, but their organizing had irked a group of New York financiers who saw older artisanal guild networks as a barrier to free trade.  These well-heeled investors responded to the bread crisis by launching a new corporation, the Bread Company, that could provide cheaper bread to consumers.  By helping to create the legal underpinnings for a more wide-open market system, farmers, artisanal producers, and their allies among politicians and reformers actually made small farmers and producers much more vulnerable to large-scale competition and economic volatility.[3]

The really big takeaway here, and the reason why I think this particular period of history is well worth present-day food and farm reformers knowing more about, is that it shows how the attempts to compromise and chase after the new efficiencies demanded by capital-oriented markets in order to keep small-scale food production functional ultimately had exactly the opposite effect.  This history lends weight to contemporary efforts to re-scale our food systems so that they are once again more accountable to regional and local conditions and markets.  The "lessons" of the past aren't usually directly applicable to the present, but there can be a great deal of benefit from being able to say to those who argue for a fully market-oriented food system, "Look, we tried that, and here's why it didn't work."

Next:  Martin Van Buren buys a farm and Cathy struggles with presentism.


[1]  Harvey Levenstein, Paradox of Plenty:  A Social History of Eating in Modern America (Oxford University Press, 1993).
[2]  R. Douglas Hurt, Problems of Plenty:  The American Farmer in the 20th Century (Ivan R. Dee, 2002).
[3]  The assize of bread is discussed in Chapter 7 of Howard Rock's Artisans of the New Republic:  The Tradesmen of New York City in the Age of Jefferson (New York University Press, 1984).

The 1805 map is by William Dickie, "A survey of the lands of John and William Van Ness...on the West Side of the Albany Road in Kinderhook" (from the collection of Martin Van Buren NHS).


  1. I think the important point here is that the small "family" farm was an endangered species from the outset. But you may want to consider that it was endangered well before capitalism was fully articulated. Regional markets--broadly construed--has already revealed the shortcomings of family farming & though money was scarce, farmers had already begun bartering for goods they hadn't produced with merchants deep into a money economy that was a hybrid of older mercantilism and proto-capitalism. Bruce Laurie has a nice explanation of this in "Artisans Into Workers."

  2. The argument I make in the Ethnographic Landscape Study is based more on recent scholarship (eg. by Brian Donahue and Christopher Clarke, as well as older work by Hal Barron) that shows a surprising resilience among small family farms right through the 19th c. and even into the 20th, as well as a surprising integration with regional and global markets going back to the earliest days of colonialism (that's where James McWilliams' "A Revolution in Eating" seems handy). One new strand in farm historiography seems to be to question the dominant narrative about small family farms being quite so endangered, and to argue that it was, in large part, the new expectations of the market society that made them *seem* endangered (and that caused reformers and others to *treat* them as endangered). It's an interesting angle of approach, which has definitely opened up some new ways of thinking about all of this for me.