Farm, Shop, Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson River Valley, 1780-1860

The period from 1780 to 1860 was one of profound change in the social, economic,  and cultural life of the northeastern United States. In the late eighteenth century, most families lived on small farms located in rural agricultural communities. Families produced much of what they wore and ate, and traded with neighbors for goods they needed but could not produce because of limitations in labor and capital. Although farmers regularly sent surplus to commercial markets, much of the farm production in northeastern households was neither market directed nor coordinated, but was attuned to the local needs of families and communities.

The first several decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the beginnings of the so-called “market revolution,” during which formerly isolated regions of the nation were linked in an increasingly complex national market system. New developments in transportation—especially superior roads, turnpikes, and canals —and the growth in commercial markets allowed goods to move both faster and less expensively than was possible earlier. These new transportation networks brought manufactured goods, produced primarily in New England and at a price significantly less than what it cost to produce in the home, into the Hudson River Valley.

Martin Bruegel’s richly researched and tightly written book, Farm, Shop, and Landing: The Rise of a Market Society in the Hudson River Valley, 1780-1860, explores the changes and continuity in rural life by examining the region during this period of dynamic change. Based on thorough research in local archives and historical societies, and drawing on analytical theory from a variety of academic disciplines, Bruegel succeeds in describing the impact of the “market revolution” on this important region. However, the book is more than an economic history: Bruegel also examines the implications these changes had on household and community life, gender relations, and even the environment.

For many years, scholars of the early national period have engaged in a lively debate concerning this economic transformation. Although there is much disagreement among the various participants, studies reveal the extraordinary distances some farmers traveled to receive the most profitable returns for the sale of their produce and their enthusiastic response to the thriving market economy. However, the implications of these developments for families varied from region to region, and the response of these households to new economic demands varied depending upon a variety of factors: the household’s relationship to the market, whether one owned or leased land (the latter was very common in the Hudson  Valley), and the types of production a family employed.

According to Bruegel, the implications of these economic changes for the region were profound. Hudson Valley residents in the eighteenth century lived in communities that emphasized neighborliness and interdependence. Bruegel argues that the “precariousness of existence...gave rise to relational strategies that ensured production and the distribution of losses among neighbors” (217). Strong bonds of community and social relations defined by interdependence were the results of an economy bordering on scarcity and insecurity. Although Hudson Valley residents participated in commercial relations, their economic decisions were just as often shaped by family and community concerns. Mutual obligations and reciprocal duties connected farmers, shopkeepers, and craftsmen in bonds of interdependence. Little cash exchanged hands between these families where “labor operated as the currency” (39). Further, their work habits and attitudes were shaped by a distinctly pre-industrial sense of time, labor, and leisure.

Major transportation and economic developments in the nineteenth century challenged the existing economic order while offering opportunities for the more entrepreneurial residents. The building of the Erie Canal brought grain and flour from the Genesee Valley and beyond into direct competition with mid-Valley farmers who had previously dominated that trade. The needs of the growing New York City market, coupled with the willingness of Hudson Valley farms to “modernize” their agricultural methods, encouraged many farm families (particularly the more affluent) to increase production and adopt more commercially oriented methods of sale and production. Artisans followed suit, “rationalizing” production and distribution methods.

The increased role of an activist state, particularly in chartering and promoting new transportation systems, also accelerated these commercial developments, allowing for the construction and maintenance of turnpikes and canals that might not have been built otherwise. The growing reliance on cash also impacted traditional community economic relations, as did the conscious cessation of traditional economic practices (such as assizes) that had limited unrestrained economic activities (67-68).

All of these developments had substantial implications for the mid-Hudson Valley. Many families enthusiastically responded to the growing demand for agricultural goods and increased their production. Many others altered their production and began producing market-oriented agricultural crops or manufactured goods in order to make ends meet. New England manufactured goods began entering the Valley. As families purchased more items from shopkeepers, they bartered less with neighbors, decreasing the importance of the local trade systems that had once tied neighboring households into intricate webs of economic exchange.

Families entered the growing market more willingly in the 1830’s and after. First and foremost was the increasing material benefits offered by market participation. The traditional limiting factor—the scarce resources of the insecure eighteenth century—was being replaced by the new economic opportunities of a market-based economy (125). Nevertheless, families continued to rely on traditional forms of community-based trade and productive systems even as market relations advanced. In this way, Bruegel argues that the new commercial productive systems existed alongside traditional family and community economic structures.

This is a strong contribution to the growing literature on the implications of the “market revolution” for northeastern communities. Bruegel’s research is deep, and his analysis and writing rich. He has culled an enormous amount of historical information from a wide array of sources, including account books, daybooks, personal correspondence, newspapers, and tax and census records. His argument is well developed and clear. On occasion, this reader felt that the author might be trying to accomplish too much in a relatively limited amount of space. Not only does he focus on social and economic relations, but also changing conceptions of time and work, gender relations, tenant-landlord struggles, and political ideology, and he is not as successful in each of these areas. Although always interesting, such a wide-ranging study is sometimes choppy. Nevertheless, this is a minor criticism of an important contribution to New York’s rural history.  

-- Thomas S. Wermuth