The Myth Of The Happy Yeoman


The sheer abundance of the land—that very internal empire that had been expected to insure the predominance of the yeoman in American life for centuries—gave the coup de gràce to the yeomanlike way of life. For it made of the farmer a speculator. Cheap land invited extensive and careless cultivation. Rising land values in areas of new settlement tempted early liquidation and frequent moves, frequent and sensational rises in land values bred a boom psychology in the American farmer and caused him to rely for his margin of profit more on the appreciation in the value of his land than on the sale of crops. It took a strong man to resist the temptation to ride skyward on lands that might easily triple or quadruple their value in one decade and then double in the next.

What developed in America, then, was an agricultural society whose real attachment was not, like the yeoman’s, to the land but to land values. The characteristic product of American rural society, as it developed on the prairies and the plains, was not a yeoman or a villager, but a harassed little country businessman who worked very hard, moved all too often, gambled with his land, and made his way alone.

While the farmer had long since ceased to act like a yeoman, he was somewhat slower in ceasing to think like one. He became a businessman in fact long before lie began to regard himself in this light. As the Nineteenth Century drew to a close, however, various things were changing him. He was becoming increasingly an employer of labor, and though he still worked with his hands, he began to look with suspicion upon the working classes of the cities, especially those organized in trade unions, as he had once done upon the urban lops and aristocrats. Moreover, when good times returned alter the Populist revolt of the 1890’s, businessmen and bankers and the agricultural colleges began to woo the farmer, to make efforts to persuade him to take the businesslike view of himself that was warranted by the nature of his farm operations. “The object of farming,” declared a writer in the Cornell Countryman in 1904, “is not primarily to make a living, but it is to make money. To this end it is to be conducted on the same business basis as any other producing industry.”

The final change, which came only with a succession of changes in the Twentieth Century, wiped out the last traces of the yeoman of old, as the coming first of good roads and rural free delivery, and mail order catalogues, then the telephone, the automobile, and the tractor, and at length radio, movies, and television largely eliminated the difference between urban and rural experience in so many important areas of life. The city luxuries, once do derided by farmers, are now what they aspire to give to their wives and daughters.

In 1860 a farm journal satirized the imagined refinements and affectations of a city in the following picture:

Slowly she rises from her couch. … Languidly she gains lier feet, and oh! what vision of human perlcclion appears before us: Skinny, bony, sickly, hipless, thighless, formless, hairless, teethless. What radiant belle! … The ceremony ol enrobing commences. In goes the dentist’s naturalization efforts: next the witching curls are lashioned to her “classically molded head.” Then the womanly proportions are properly adjusted: hoops, bustles, and so forth, follow in succession, then a proluse quantity of whitewash, together with a “permanent rose tint” is applied to a sallow complexion: and lastly the“killing” wrapper is arranged on her systematical and matchless form.

But compare this with these beauty hints for farmers’ wives horn the Idaho Farmer April, 1935:

Hands should be soil enough to Halter the most delicate of the new labrics. They must be carefully manicured, with none of the hot, brilliant shades ol nail polish. The lighter and more delieate tone’s ate in keeping with the spirit of freshness. Keep the tint of your fingertips friendly to the red of your lips, and eheck both your powder and your rouge to see that they best suit the tone ol your skin in the bold light of summer.

Nothing can tell us with greater duality of the passing of the veoman ideal than these light and delicate tones of nail polish.