Barns of New York a Lesson in Material Culture

Barns of New York: Rural Architecture of the Empire State. By Cynthia G. Falk. Ithaca: Cornell Paperbacks, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8014-7780-5.


Falk Cover

Until the new social history of the 1960s, the field of study known as material culture was relatively underdeveloped and largely confined to archaeology. Then came the popular works of landscape painter/amateur folklorist Eric Sloane and the Foxfire magazines and books from the University of Georgia. Like many budding historians, my eyes were opened wide by James Deetz’s In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life (1977), a work that taught an entire generation of scholars that they could extract as much information from an object as from a document. By the late 1970s, material culture studies were white hot, a condition that seasoned scholars recognize as the prelude for a fall from fashion. These days material culture studies are less trendy, but more professional.

All this build up is by way of saying how delightful I found Cynthia Falk’s Barns of New York. What could be more prosaic than a barn, a structure built for utility, not drama? In the best spirit of popularizers such as Sloane and Foxfire, and scholars such as Deetz, Falk asks us to consider barns–and sheds, pens, silos, cribs, and various outbuildings–from both a design and a rural history point of view. If such buildings lack glamour, rural history and the patterns of work are nonetheless embedded in each stud, peg, and board. As anyone who has admired the roundbarn at Hancock Shaker Village knows, some barns have the architectural grandeur of estates and castles. By the time you finish Falk’s first chapter you will be able to differentiate an English barn from a German, Dutch, or American balloon frame design. You may even be able to tell at a glance whether the building was used primarily for dairy or mixed agriculture purposes. And, if you pay close attention, you’ll be able to date it by its materials, style, and building methods. Why should you care? Because barns and other farm buildings have etched (or painted) upon them the changes in the land, cultural preferences, and how New Yorkers made their livelihood. For instance, many of us have observed fading Mail Pouch Tobacco signs on the ends of sagging barns. Let’s assume these are not aesthetic choices on the part of New York farmers. Do not advertising slogans in such unlikely places speak to the decline of agriculture and the need of farmers to generate off-the-land income?

In subsequent chapters Falk applies similar analysis to other kinds of farm buildings. Nineteenth century sheepfolds, for instance, are a reminder of the boom and dramatic bust of New England’s wool industry. What sheepfolds were in mid-19th century is analogous to what hop kilns became in the later part of it. Falk reminds us that no matter the structure–pigpens, corncribs, chick incubators, cider mills, grape arbors, tool shed, or windmill–the drive for efficiency ruled rural America. Ironically, each leap in efficiency presaged a decline in agriculture. In contemporary America farming has become so thoroughly rationalized that just 1.8% of Americans farm, but they feed 314 million with plenty left over for export.

Falk’s book is richly illustrated with photographs and handsomely designed. It’s well worth perusing so that small things can be remembered and appreciated. Falk will make you believe that one of the best social history lessons you can have is to avoid the fast food joints, get off the interstate, drive the slower routes, and contemplate those increasingly forlorn farm buildings that played a dramatic role in making the nation prosperous.

Robert E. Weir

University of Massachusetts Amherst

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