"A recourse that could be depended upon": Picking Blackberries and Getting By after the Civil War
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"A recourse that could be depended upon":
Picking Blackberries and Getting By after the Civil War
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"Along with any number of childhood blackberrying expeditions with my grandparents in the mountains of Western North Carolina, picking blackberries always reminds me of summers in upstate South Carolina in the early 1980s when I was eleven or twelve. My brother and I would go through the woods and across the creek to Mr. Jamison's pasture and pick several buckets of blackberries in the mornings." Seventy years earlier: Homer Hunt, picking blackberries in Maretburg, Kentucky, photographed by Lewis Hine, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

One day last year, at the end of July, I walked down to Runnymede, alongside the River Thames, and picked a mess of blackberries. Since I had no one to please but myself, I made a cobbler and had just that for supper, at a cost of maybe fifty pence all told. Along with any number of childhood blackberrying expeditions with my grandparents in the mountains of Western North Carolina, picking blackberries always reminds me of summers in upstate South Carolina in the early 1980s when I was eleven or twelve. My brother and I would go through the woods and across the creek to Mr. Jamison's pasture and pick several buckets of blackberries in the mornings, spend a couple hours cleaning the leaves and twigs out of them and pouring them up into our mother's one-quart plastic containers, and then haul them around the mill hill in the afternoon to sell. I think we got about fifty cents a quart. Some people bought a pint to eat fresh, some bought a quart for a pie or cobbler, and some bought ten or fifteen quarts to can or make jam with. We rolled home for supper with the empty Tupperware containers and pockets full of cash.

I would like to suggest that these two activities—picking blackberries for home consumption and also for sale on a small-scale, informal basis—can provide insights on how working people in the South tried to get by after the Civil War. For generations now, economic historians have wrestled with the large questions of how the aftermath of the Civil War affected the South. In the process of understanding these structural shifts—how many thousand bales of cotton produced, the proportion of corn grown, the kaleidoscopic patterns of land tenure, and so on—it has sometimes been more difficult to catch sight of the working people, white and black, in the South as they experienced these changes and found their way through a transformed terrain. It is all too easy for them to appear as ciphers, ghosts materializing only when the man writing down the figures for the agricultural census came around, or when they climbed the steps into a crossroads store, "hands in their pockets and head hanging down," as one song has it, to add a line to a ledger. The smaller bits and pieces by which people made a living, especially in rural areas—what the economic anthropologist Rhoda Halperin termed "multiple livelihood strategies," the multifaceted and quickly shifting combinations of activities carried out by kin networks—leave less obvious traces in the historical record. To discern those patterns we require the sort of deep familiarity with a place and a way of life that close observation provides, the sort of fieldwork approach of folklorists or ethnohistorians. The results are likely never to be decisive—we will not know with any great certainty, for instance, just how many gallons of blackberries people consumed in any given county in the year 1880—but we will have added an important piece to the puzzle of how people lived.1

Blackberries are, of course, but one of a number of products from the commons [End Page 22]

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Blackberries are but one of a number of products from the commons that might be gathered or caught to provide sustenance and income. Some of these were available only in parts of the South. Oystering played a similar role in coastal...


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