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Social Science History 25.4 (2001) 609-613

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Book Review

When the Cows Come Home: Barn Architecture and Changes in Bovine Public Space

When the Cows Come Home: Barn Architecture and Changes in Bovine Public Space by Philinda Blank, UC–Santa Mio. (Itsabook, NY: Pub Pubs, 2001.) 3,126 paragraphs, lots of white space, many pictures, cover.*

When the Cows Come Home traces changes in the design of barns from the eighteenth century forward, paying special attention to ethnicity (both of barn builders and cows) and how design of the interior space of barns affected bovine sociability (the interactions among cows, both inside and outside barns), the control of cows by their human “owners,” and the interaction of cows and other non-human animals (cats, horses, flies). Yet the book does much more than the title suggests. The great strength of this innovative book [End Page 609] is its ability to trample the boundaries of urban and rural bovine public culture, of ethnic and gender differences, and of naturalized “species” differentiations.

Blank begins with the pre-history of bovine space—the period of “spacelessness” before barns and enclosures. Cows lived in the homes of their “owners” as equals and respected members of families. Indeed, intimate relations between cows and humans were not unusual, remarkable, or proscribed. Cows grazed in open fields on the mixed grasses of their choice; they created a cow cuisine and famous cow “chefs” (the ensilage of “Emril”). They developed rituals (pitchfork jumping), athletic contests (leaping troughs), and festivals, such as barn dances, that celebrated freedom and expressed the dream of a world without flies. While the concept of spacelessness is somewhat problematic and undertheorized—Does enclosure make space?—and perhaps borrows too uncritically from Katie Mice’s Making Fences, Blank captures the heady days before the enclosure movement.

Enclosure meant not only fences and a restricted diet but also a new assertion of “ownership” (rather than family relation) between humans and cattle. Cows were branded and forced to wear bells, marks of their new, degraded status. Yet, the memory of spacelessness lingered, even after enclosure was accomplished, and was captured in songs, poetry, and skits. Memory was both transmitted and transformed by bovine public displays and festivals, especially in cities, during the early nineteenth century.

Blank deftly shows the ways in which cows inverted the apparent symbols of degradation that marked them as “Other” and elaborated a vibrant public culture in early-nineteenth-century cities. She analyzes the tradition of cow (worker) resistance, especially in the workers’ world of cow cafes and steer saloons with their free-flowing conversation under the influence of intoxicating liquids (made from fermented silage and hop-hay concoctions) in resistance to the constant demands of industrial milking. Blank restores meaning to the stirring (slurring?) slogan of the movement, “Twenty-three hours for what we will.” She reinterprets the tales of the “Maze the Moo Cows Made,” with Old Lize and the B’hoy Bovines, who strolled down the boulevards of the Bowry, at ease with themselves and at odds with the human world. Most cows were and are chapel, not church; there is a link between cow religion and resistance to Protestant capitalism, which gave not an inch to their traditional religious practices, not even allowing them ritual release on the cattle sabbath. [End Page 610]

In perhaps her most creative chapter, Blank shows that cows actually turned bells and brands to their own purposes. Cows avidly competed with each other to wear the loudest bells, some so burdened that they could scarcely lift their heads. The noise of the bells annoyed urban human residents, especially the Irish, who complained to city authorities in mid-nineteenth-century New York to no avail. When some took the law into their own hands and attempted to strip the cows of their bells, a riot ensued. Led by Herefords, the cows stampeded, making stalls and glue factories their special targets. Blank also brings to light the now-forgotten tradition of cowpunching, which has been confused with the western habit...


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