February 5, 1887

artist unknown


Agriculture; Rural-Urban Contrast;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

"These ere things air good enough ter heat houses, but they ain't wuth er dogorn to heat cities with."

This unsigned Harper's Weekly cartoon pokes fun at a rural visitor or migrant to the city, who mistakes an exhaust vent in the sidewalk for a heating vent.  It is a revealing glimpse at how the dominant perception of farmers and other rural folk changed significantly over the decades of the late-nineteenth century.  

In the early years of the newspaper's publication, beginning in 1857, the rural-urban contrast was a source of much humor in cartoons, verse, and short stories.  The brunt of the jokes were almost always at the expense of urban dwellers, who, when placed in a rural setting, were unable to understand or cope with country ways.  In this 1887 cartoon, the opposite holds true.  It is a traveler from the countryside (identified by his rural accent), who finds himself in the middle of a city and unable to fathom the correct purpose of a structural innovation.  He mistakenly assumes that the city's residents are ineffectively attempting to heat the entire metropolis.

In 1790, about 95% of Americans lived in rural areas, and the small farmer (or yeoman) was hailed by Thomas Jefferson as the virtuous ideal of the new republic.  A major trend for the next 200 years was the transition from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrialized one.  This process was most acute in the final three decades of the nineteenth century.  

During that period, most Americans still lived in rural areas, and agriculture remained vital to the American economy, being responsible for over half of the entire gross national product and the vast majority of American exports--84% in 1880 and never below 74% into the early 1890s.  The three largest industries--flour mills, cotton textile plants, and meatpacking plants--were directly related to agriculture.  Thus, farm production financed the growth of much of the rest of the economy.

Agriculture was also expanding during the late-nineteenth century.  More acreage was under cultivation, not only in newly-settled Western regions, but on land previously considered marginal, such as in central Illinois.  Mechanization and other improvements greatly boosted production.  Farms became more closely tied to larger markets and market fluctuations.  Farms and regions began to specialize, with the Northeast providing perishable goods--dairy products, fruits and vegetables--for nearby urban markets, and the Midwest growing grain crops.  

The rural population continued to grow, but these and other agricultural changes (in addition to farm failures during depression years) meant that fewer people were needed to work on the more productive farms.  The surplus rural population headed for the cities, making up half of the new city residents in the late-19th century.  They moved for the economic opportunities, but also recognized that cities offered more choices in recreation, education, culture, and other realms of life.

While agriculture was expanding and the rural population was growing, both were declining relative to industrial expansion and urban population growth.  More people still lived in rural areas, but the shift to the city was rapid and noticeable, especially in the 1880s.  During that decade, the urban population in the United States increased 56%, while the rural population grew only 13%.  The bar for being considered urban was low (2500), but cities of all sizes grew, including cities over 100,000--in 1860, there were nine, by 1900 there were 38.  In the 1880s, Minneapolis grew from 47,000 to 164,000, and Birmingham, Alabama, from 3,000 to 26,000.  In 1880, New York became the first American city to reach a population of 1,000,000.

Cities also began to change qualitatively, beginning to look and be more identifiably "urban" and "modern."  Streetcars and commuter railroads expanded the old "walking city" by encouraging suburbanization and the notion of a geographically-integrated metropolitan area.  In 1888, the first electric streetcars were used in Richmond, Virginia, and quickly adapted by other cities.  (In the background of this cartoon, a horse-drawn streetcar passes by.)  The development of steel-frame construction and a relatively safe and efficient elevator allowed the erection of taller buildings.  In the 1870s, the tallest buildings in New York City were only five stories high, but in the 1880s they reached 10 stories, and would soon become skyscrapers.

The farmer's own perception of himself altered only gradually over time.  Like most, he did not fully comprehend the ramifications of the changes occurring around him.  He still considered himself to be an independent yeoman, not an agribusinessman.  This cartoon indicates that others' perception of him, however, had already changed.

Robert C. Kennedy

October 27, 2021

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