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The Nature of the Future

Agriculture, Science, and Capitalism in the Antebellum North

The Nature of the Future

Agriculture, Science, and Capitalism in the Antebellum North

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

The Nature of the Future plumbs the innovative, far-ranging, and sometimes downright strange agricultural schemes of nineteenth-century farms in the northern US.

The nostalgic mist surrounding farms can make it hard to write their history, encrusting them with stereotypical rural virtues and unrealistically separating them from markets, capitalism, and urban influences. The Nature of the Future dispels this mist, focusing on a place and period of enormous agricultural vitality—antebellum New York State—to examine the largest, most diverse, and most active scientific community in nineteenth-century America. Emily Pawley shows how “improving” farmers practiced a science where conflicting visions of the future landscape appeared and evaporated in quick succession. Drawing from US history, environmental history, and the history of science, and extensively mining a wealth of antebellum agricultural publications, The Nature of the Future reveals how improvers transformed American landscapes and American ideas of expertise, success, and exploitation from the ground up.

312 pages | 16 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Economics and Business: Economics--Agriculture and Natural Resources, Economics--History

History: American History, Environmental History

History of Science



History of Science Society 2021 Philip Pauly Prize

"Pawley has written a powerful book that should shatter popular myths that portray antebellum rural New York as a “virtuous, sentimental, unchanging” bastion of the family farm. . . . This is an important story that should be foundational reading for anyone interested in the roots of our modern food system. . . . Scholars of capitalism and the environment will find much to mine in Pawley’s book."

Environmental History

"Readers will discover an important idea and a fascinating detail on every page of this remarkable book."

Business History Review

"An important work, deeply researched, strikingly incisive, and stunningly original. . . . Pawley adds depth and nuance to our understanding of antebellum culture and society. . . . And because Pawley approaches her subject matter with both a discerning eye and a sense of delight, her prose, for all its erudition, is laced with charm and wit. . . . If The Nature of the Future whets our intellectual appetites for more, it is because Pawley’s scholarship has yielded a bumper crop of food for thought. Dig in."

Agricultural History

"Provocative and engaging. . . This concise and elegantly written monograph makes an excellent contribution to the social, cultural, and economic historiography of New England as well as antebellum America more broadly."

New England Quarterly

The Nature of the Future is a crisply written and lively account of agricultural improvement in the antebellum Northeast. Come for the mammoth squashes, drunken plants, and butter battles; stay for the incisive and illuminating history, brilliantly told.”

Wendy A. Woloson, author of Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America

“In this book, Pawley deftly hands us invention, experimentation, evidence, truth . . . and mulberries. In nineteenth-century bookkeeping of field nutrients, raucous debates over apple varieties, and Thoreau’s sarcasm, she discovers the science, economics, and commercial imagination that shaped American farming and our modern meals. The writing is a delight—insightful, sure, and often funny. The Nature of the Future will be of keen interest to historians of capitalism, place, and food—and to anyone helping chart our environmental present.”

Conevery Bolton Valencius, author of The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes

“Pawley shatters historians’ preconceptions about who and what belong in the histories of science and capitalism. Even the animals, plants, and soils have captivating pasts. Vivid and witty, this book rewrites the history of the early US from the perspective of those who fed it.”

Jessica M. Lepler, author of The Many Panics of 1837

Table of Contents

Introduction: Bending Reality with Large Strawberries

Part 1 Performances

1 Capitalist Aristocracy
2 No Ordinary Farmers

Part 2 Experiments

3 Experiments All for Worldly Gain
4 Trying Machines

Part 3 Futures
5 Coining Foliage into Gold
6 Divining Adaptation

Part 4 Values

7 Truth in Fruit
8 The Balance-Sheet of Nature


List of Abbreviations


Forum for the History of Science in America: Philip J. Pauly Book Prize

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