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During the latter half of the nineteenth century, people moved from rural to urban areas in the North. Growing industrialization relocated jobs to cities, and new technologies made farming less labor-intensive. In 1850, farmers made up 64 percent of the labor force; by 1890, that figure had shrunk to 43 percent. Many of this new generation were engaged in large-scale agriculture that had developed on the Great Plains as a consequence of westward migration, the rise of the railroad, mechanical inventions, and scientific research that increased farming efficiency and produced hardier crops.

In the popular imagination, however, northerners preferred to think of farming nostalgically, idealizing the remembered experience of their and their parents’ youth. Fine art and printed images often featured solitary farmers or farm families in beautiful and serene New England landscapes. The figures practiced traditional methods of farming without struggle and were rewarded with bountiful harvests. These images served people who were adjusting to their new urban lifestyles, which were often considered unsettling and stressful. Pictures offered a stable vision of the past that helped people retain values important to them.

Illustrations in trade catalogues sent a different message, yet one that Americans were equally eager to embrace: the modernization of agricultural practice that led to a seemingly inexhaustible food supply. After the Civil War, inventors made the greatest advances with implements used for harvesting grains, allowing wheat production to quadruple between 1860 and 1900. Catalogues for reapers and threshers boasted that their products were increasingly better at generating higher yields, while saving more time as well. Full-page pictures showcased machines by detailing their intricate parts and their performance in the field and on the road.



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