- Sowing the American Dream: How Consumer Culture Took Root in the Rural Midwest
In Sowing the American Dream, David Blanke argues that rural Midwesterners developed a distinctive consumer ethos during the nineteenth century. At the heart of the book is the contention that the consumer behavior of farmers was shaped by their communal outlook and commitments. By using a variety of rural institutions, most notably farmers’ clubs, the purchasing arm of the Patrons of Husbandry, and, for a period, the Montgomery Ward’s catalog, farmers were able to fill their material needs through cooperative purchasing. Such pooled resources gave farmers more power over commercial exchange and reinforced communal bonds, at least for a time. Rural Midwesterners’ allegiances gradually shifted over the course of the nineteenth century, and the communally oriented consumer practices of farm families eventually gave way to more individualistic behavior.
In presenting this important and overlooked tale, Sowing the American Dream explores the ways that Midwestern farmers dealt with the expanding market economy of which they were an integral part. Blanke describes how the scientific farming movement of the mid-nineteenth century promoted a consumer ethic among agriculturalists, and how the mass production of goods during the Civil War made the attractions of consumerism all the more apparent. Farmers’ needs were met first by local retailers and the agents who supplied them. Commercial agents and middlemen, while often reviled by farmers in later years, were, in mid-century, able to exert pressure over local retailers and make them more responsive to the demands and desires of rural consumers. During the late 1860s and 1870s, members of the nascent Grange movement attempted to gain further power in their consumer transactions by forming purchasing cooperatives. When these purchasing organizations eventually proved impractical and unwieldy, farmers were forced to turn to more commercially oriented institutions to meet their consumer needs. For some years after the failure of the purchasing cooperatives they patronized Montgomery Ward’s catalog, believing it to be a reliable, inexpensive, and direct source for the “necessaries of life,” which eliminated the need for middlemen. Blanke maintains that Ward’s eventually lost its rural focus and sense of mission as the farmers’ supplier, and this change also lessened the power and leverage which farmers had in the consumer economy. Instead of purchasing communally and gaining recognition as a distinct group with particular demands, farmers became atomized consumers, relatively powerless in their encounters with expanding commercial institutions. Blanke has made a thorough study of his subject. He examines merchants’ and commercial agents’ records, the proceedings of farmers’ clubs, newspaper [End Page 181] accounts and advertisements, Grange records, mail-order catalogs, editorials, and some first-person recollections. He has unearthed a trove of new materials and has also used more familiar sources in ingenious ways. For instance, the book examines advertisements of the Gilded Age from a new perspective, attempting to discern from the ads whether manufacturers were willing to deal directly with rural consumers or instead were relying on middlemen to distribute their wares. Blanke likewise brings new insight to the well-studied subject of mail-order catalogs, making fruitful contrasts between the marketing techniques of Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck.
There are, however, some areas which call for more evidence and more attention. For example, Blanke argues that there was a distinctively communal mode of consuming among rural Midwesterners, yet offers very few examples of actual consumers expressing this perspective themselves. There are a fair number of Grange officials who express their views on the importance of communal consumerism, but not much is heard from actual members or from non-members. How the members of the Grange regarded the group purchasing efforts, and why some farmers avoided Grange membership and group purchasing altogether, is important information, particularly given the eventual failure of the purchasing movement. At times, Blanke also runs the risk of conflating the membership of the Grange with the rural population as a whole, and claiming Grange ideals as representative of the values of the entire rural society.