Extended Family in the 19th c.

Donald H. Parkerson
The Agricultural Transition in New York State

“One of the defining characteristics of mid-nineteenth-century New York State,” Parkerson begins, “was the extraordinary mobility of its rural people” (3). Contrary to popular belief and a historiographical tradition that mistakenly pictures a stable, tradition-bound rural world in contrast with the (more thoroughly studied) dynamic, industrializing urban world, Parkerson says that “ordinary farm families...embraced social and economic change” largely through chain migrations that extended the households of farmers trying to enter market production (4, 5). This key factor of the commercial agricultural transition has been missed for several reasons. Earlier studies of migration have tended to focus on household heads (because they are the ones named in the census, especially before 1860). A persistent agrarian myth has prevented generations of historians from even looking at the issue. And, when “new social historians” like
Thernstrom began studying persistence in the 1970s, they used a technique, nominal record linkage, that failed to account for deaths, errors in census enumeration, and common name errors; or that attributed a much lower value to these potential errors than Parkerson does (I seem to recall a discussion of these in one of Thernstrom’s articles -- but he seemed to believe he had corrected for them). The bottom line, says Parkerson, is that the city populations were probably more persistent than we’ve thought; but more importantly, “the countryside was in constant motion, with rural people moving in perhaps even greater numbers than their urban cousins” (146).

This mobility was not a Handlinesque tragedy, though. Rural families who moved were not the passive victims of social dislocation and the collapse of the producer republic. They were agents of change, and frequently they were taking advantage of opportunity, rather than running from trouble. Parkerson notes that “the price of winter wheat on the New York market increased by about 50 percent between 1840 and 1860, and corn and hog prices skyrocketed nearly 70 percent” (7). Rural families saw opportunities to enter the early consumer market, if only to free up women’s time that had been spent producing homespun (recall
Balstad-Miller’s Erie Canal story), as demand for farm products was boosted by the Irish potato blight, the Crimean War, Sutter’s Mill, and ultimately the Civil War (8). If there’s one flaw in this study, it’s that in his effort to highlight how “the investments and production strategies of surplus market farmers...increased their yields and made them wealthier by 1865,” I think Parkerson consistently undervalues the effect of the Civil War on the New York farm economy (102). If not for the Civil War, far fewer farmers might have shifted to market production, and the ones that made the change would not have become so rich. The transition might not have marched all the way to the threshold of agribusiness and a “more consolidated agricultural economy in which wealth increasingly was controlled by fewer and fewer farmers with larger, more productive farms” (147).

But that’s a quibble. This is an important study that shows how “Migrants and host families had specific needs that could be satisfied only through kin cooperation and coresidence. Migrants needed emotional support, a place to live, and knowledge of the emerging marketplace. Host families, especially in their early married years, needed willing workers who could improve their human capital and help them enter the market economy” (140-1). I’d add, both the migrants and the farmers needed the financial support that extended, multi-regional families could lend. And (crucially for the people I’m studying) when doing business over long distances, they needed to deal with people they knew they could trust. Parkerson uses New York Census data, which includes information on the length of time people had been at their current address. He also uses diaries and personal papers very effectively, giving the reader a solid sense of the people he’s talking about. By combining data and voices, Parkerson brings what would otherwise be a useful but sterile economic history to life.
The Agricultural Transition in New York State may be an unfortunate title, if it limits Parkerson’s readership to people interested in upstate New York farmers. This book is full of great detail (I particularly love the description on page 71 of how to make charcoal), and it makes a really important point about rural people, and about families in the 19th century.

Banks and Kinship

Lamoreaux, N. R. (1986). "Banks, Kinship, and Economic Development: The New England Case." The Journal of Economic History 46(3): 647-667.

Lamoreaux challenges “scholars [who] have seen the persistence of traditional social institutions, and especially kinship-oriented business, as major impediments to economic development.” (666) Using an approach that looks somewhat like the Zeitlin/Ratcliff Chilean kinship-network argument of
Landlords and Capitalists (albeit with a positive spin), Lamoreaux argues that “Early banks in New England functioned not as commercial banks in the modern sense but as the financial arms of extended kinship networks.” (647)

“Scholars who have explored the relationship between banks and economic development have assessed the banking system in terms of what theoretically are its two major functions: to provide an adequate money supply and to serve as an intermediary between savers and investors.” I’d add one more function, which I think was behind Rockoff’s approach: as an intermediary to safeguard and insulate urban investors’ wealth (money stock) from direct contact with rural entrepreneur/borrowers (money flow). But I completely buy her argument that it’s the personal connections and kinship groups that are key here.

In 1800 there were 17 state-chartered banks in New England, with capital totaling $5.50 million. By 1850, this number had increased to 300, and the capital available for loan to $62.87 million. Ten years later, 505 New England banks controlled $123.56 million. (chart, 651) Capital during this period came to banks not primarily through deposits, but through investment, as first the founders and later a wider range of local people bought shares. Lamoreaux disagrees with Rockoff: even if initial capital “was largely fictitous...deposited only to satisfy legal requirements and then immediately withdrawn in the form of loans...sales of new shares to outsiders gradually transformed capital stock to a legitimate source of funds. (653-4) This may be true, but does it avoid the point that by getting in cheaply and then controlling subsequent paid-in capital, bank owners gained an incredible degree of economic power?

In the long run, institutional investors like insurance companies, savings associations, and trustees of large estates contributed the majority of bank capital. In many cases, these institutions were part of the same kin networks that initially owned, and continued to run the banks. “Members of kinship groups generally held large blocks of their banks’ stock at the time of formation.” (655) The percentage of bank stock held by the initial owners tended to decrease as the banks grew, but “the groups often retained their dominant positions on the banks’ boards of directors...because other stockholders rarely took an interest in the institutions’ affairs.” (655-6) And these same “kinship groups...often dominated the boards of the institutional investors that purchased their banks’ stock.” (657)

The role of these banks (despite the public-service rhetoric they employed to get their corporate charters during the early period, when incorporation implied quasi-governmental public status) was to “become engines to supply insiders with capital.” (657) “Even a prudent businessman,” Lamoreaux says, “might find himself in financial difficulty.” (658) The panic of 1837 and depression of 1839 had certainly proven that point. An emergency might force him to “convert illiquid assets into cash to pay off debts.” A friendly bank could “prevent distress sales of assets by accepting notes to balance accounts.” (659) After spending so much of his time in New York City, observing this process, is it any surprise that my upstate merchant started his own bank? Especially since, in the words of the 1854
Bankers Magazine, “where business is constantly and rapidly expanding, the younger class of business men who are entitled to bank facilities, equally with their older brethren, cannot have their wants fairly supplied without the occasional establishment of new banks. The old circle of customers use the existing banks to the extent of their capacity, and keep their door shut against the new men.” (663)

This raises questions that were apparently understood by bankers in the 1850s. Lamoreaux answers that “although the system of group-dominated banking doubtless resulted in some degree of favoritism in credit markets, the situation was remarkably fluid. Up-and-coming groups were able to build financial empires that rivaled those of the oldest, most established merchant families in the region.” (664) But even with no barriers to entry, is this what we’d call a “credit market?”

One thing that does seem certain, though, is that these banks facilitated a particular type of economic development. “Could kinship groups have tapped the community’s savings without their aid?” Lamoreaux asks. “The market for securities of manufacturing corporations in early nineteenth-century New England was extremely narrow,” she says. Even the Boston Associates failed to raise enough capital, and were forced to borrow. “The market for bank securities was much wider...because the diversified enterprises of the kinship groups permitted them to pay high and steady dividends and thereby draw out the community’s savings in a way that most individual ventures could never have done.” (665) “Without banks,” she concludes, “kinship groups would have been forced to depend largely on their own resources to finance investment.” (666)

Even if New England’s financial system allowed relatively free entry into banking, and banks allowed a slightly wider public to participate in a diversified portfolio of investments that would otherwise have been restricted to the very rich,
was the concentration of economic activity in the hands of these “kinship groups” a good thing? Lamoreaux mentions in the first few pages of her article that lawsuits across New England challenged the “insider” ways in which these chartered corporations behaved. Even banking commissioners admitted “an almost uniform departure from the original design of banks in this respect.” (651) Although it involves counterhistorical speculation, it might be useful to ask what alternatives there may have been to simply accepting the inevitability that “kinship groups” should gain access to the “community’s savings” to finance business ventures for their individual benefit. To what degree is this a free choice, made by empowered individuals (investors and later depositors) acting in their own best interests, and to what degree is the public’s range of choices limited by laws and social conventions that allow incorporation, interlocking control, and that regulate the terms and conditions of credit? (along these lines, do usury laws actually benefit established banks, by lowering the incentive for individuals to loan money to each other at higher -- risk-appropriate -- rates of interest?)