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An archaeology of improvement in rural New England: Capitalism, landscape change, and rural life in the early 19th century

Quentin Lewis, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines the materiality of agricultural Improvement in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts. Improvement was a social movement with a history in Europe, and which largely operated to rationalize agriculture when it appeared in New England in the early 19th century. Alongside this modernization, Improvement also served to re-shape rural landscapes in keeping with particular social and economic processes of capitalism. This was because Improvement emerged at a time of great social instability in rural Massachusetts, and served to ameliorate the growing tensions between urban and rural socio-economic life. Utilizing both archaeological and documentary data, I deploy a dialectical method that situates landscapes as materializations of larger social processes, properly analyzed through a process of abstraction. Using this method, I explore two landscapes. First, I examine the literature written by the Improvers, particularly the journal New England Farmer, published after 1822. I investigate keywords in the journal to reveal the symbolic landscape articulated by the Improvers, and show that they envisioned a homogeneous New England landscape that was populated by free, White laborers, contrary to the demographic and social history of the region. The second landscape is the built environment of the E.H. and Anna Williams house in Deerfield, Massachusetts. I explore the materiality of the Williams house and its relationship to Improvement in two ways. First, I examine how the Williamses' management of manure was integrated with practices of capitalist farming, and how proper manure management was seen to arrest rural New England's perceived economic and social decline. Secondly, I examine the trash scatters excavated from the Williams yard to reveal continuities and discontinuities with the Improvers' emphasis on clean, ordered spaces. The Williamses actively manipulated space by enhancing the size of the front yard, and moving work activities behind this visible area. This ameliorated the tensions inherent in Improvement between visibility and productivity, and is reflected in the changing distribution of trash at the site. I conclude by suggesting that archaeological studies of rural life take moments of landscape change like Improvement into account, as a way of countering historical narratives of rural timelessness.

Subject Area

Archaeology|American history|Agriculture

Recommended Citation

Lewis, Quentin, "An archaeology of improvement in rural New England: Capitalism, landscape change, and rural life in the early 19th century" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3556265.