JULIE BOTNICK interned with the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in the Summer of 2012. She is a student at Yale University.
There’s nothing like a fresh summer tomato. Seconds, the tomatoes overlooked by farmers market shoppers who want the perfect round red ones of coloring books, are sold by the basket, cheap, and I impulse-buy them every week. But there are only so many sliced tomatoes I can eat. I end up staring at my three-dozen tomatoes, completely daunted. I have visions of jars of salsas and tomato sauces, but I have only one jar in my apartment, and I wouldn’t even know what to do with more. I turn on the oven, wondering where I would be without a freezer and a shelf full of Tupperware.
The Louisiana Home Demonstration force in 1925 comprised a State agent, three District Agents, two Specialists, 26 White Home Demonstration agents, six Negro Home Demonstration agents, and a clerical staff. Agents reported 9,387 completed demonstrations in food work, and that 3,511 different homes “had been influenced to use better methods in food preparation.” An additional 6,501 food preservation demonstrations, 2,180 nutrition demonstrations, 4,402 home garden demonstrations, 3,657 poultry demonstrations, and 1,019 home dairying demonstrations were completed. All of this showed the state agency that there was a growing demand for these home management demonstrations, and that more agents should be hired in the coming years.
The 1925 report is the culmination of a decade of extension work under the Smith-Lever Act of May 18, 1914, which provided for cooperative extension work in agriculture and home economics, as well as the previous decade’s work known as the Farmers’ Cooperative Demonstration Work, supported and supervised by the federal government. The idea of home demonstrations began forming in the 1880’s with the introduction of the boll weevil in Texas cotton crops. The best way to combat the pest was by showing people how to fight it with their own hands on their own soil, and this method soon spread to other crops and states.
The boys’ and girls’ clubs established through the program were seen as some of its biggest successes. Girls’ club work began in Louisiana in 1912, and two years later, home demonstrations were taken up with adult women.
We actually have a wealth of firsthand accounts of girls’ “tomato clubs” and such through the reports that all the girls had to write. We learn that Vanner Neece joined a tomato club in 1914 “with the hope of making country life more attractive, and to learn more scientific ways of farming, and to make a little pin [spending] money.” Girls were devoted to their plants, “carrying water about one quarter of a mile” when drought set in and transplanting them many times. The booklets shed a light on the difficulties of farm life. Vanner got a poor yield “because of the continuous drought” and “owing to the fact that I was the housekeeper and cook for a family of eight.” Even so, she was able to provide tomatoes all summer for her family of eight, and prepared almost 150 gallons of canned fruits. Though her profit was small, “this thing pays because it teaches girls a better way of farming and canning and gets them interested in the things that are worthwhile.” The girls show an awareness of their contexts. They know the soil, and they know how to work it, and they see the demonstrations and the canning clubs as useful learning tools. Most of them, too, cite the potential to make a little spending money as one of the most important consequences of the programs. Working during vacations to make a few extra dollars was a step towards independence on the farm.
Canning clubs eventually turned into full-fledged home economics programs at universities. It was a natural progression; through their experiences in 4-H and girls’ clubs, the girls learned not just about how to preserve food, but also valuable business and consumer skills. For Margaret Pendleton, marketing her 1915 tomato crop “was a pleasure.” Her exhibits won blue ribbons and honors at the county and state fairs, and she was chosen to participate in a marketing campaign for canning jars at a neighborhood store, selling jars and her canned goods while she and a few other girls demonstrated canning techniques. Her ability to engage “a few dozens” at the fairs and at the store attests to her teaching and speaking abilities, and all the while she was learning how to make and manage her own income. The college curricula that grew out of the home demonstration programs taught these same skills in a university setting, and have since broadened their scope to include coursework in areas like human health and nutrition as skills like sewing and canning, housewives’ work, became unnecessary.
But a new group has come to recognize the value in work that has been eschewed for the past few decades as anti-feminist and anti-industrial: urban homesteaders. A century after the first tomato clubs were established, young people in cities are learning and sharing the skills that many of our parents didn’t even grow up learning. Keeping chickens in the backyard, preserving food, making one’s own clothes—in other words, things that were necessary and ubiquitous in rural areas a century ago—are now in vogue. Even Williams-Sonoma, the high-end kitchen products company, has come out with an “Agrarian Line” of goods, from which you can get things like backyard chicken coops, bee boxes, DIY cheese kits, and canning jars.
It’s difficult to say if something like the “Agrarian Line” is entirely good or bad. Getting eggs from your backyard is never a bad thing, even if you are going to spend $900 dollars on a designer coop frame to get to that point. I do not think that the market is going to fill with so many wealthy urban homesteaders that the price of canning jars is going to skyrocket. If it encourages people to preserve summer tomatoes grown in their own gardens rather than buying barn-ripened tomatoes in the winter, a DIY farm-to-pantry kit can’t be bad.
However, we are blind to the real agrarian heritage of homesteading if we make complete parallels between the urban homesteaders and the tomato clubs. For one, the sheer scope of the home demonstration movement is almost impossibly nonreplicable. More importantly, the goals of the century-apart movements are completely different; urban homesteaders are nostalgic, artisanal, and skeptical of what the agricultural industry has become, while the tomato club girls were looking for independence and ways to turn the work they were already doing into something valuable for themselves and their families, and they had an awareness of their contexts that is unmatched. Urban homesteaders want the government out of their stomachs, while the tomato club girls saw the government as an ally, coming to meet them in the form of jar-toting women. The context has changed so drastically and rapidly that the forms and functions of the home demonstration units are practically unrecognizable 100 years later.
Perhaps urban homesteaders are looking for a little more dependence: dependence on and an awareness of weather cycles, on others for goods to trade and skills to share, even on themselves to provide something they had to work to make rather than buy.
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