Tuesday, August 24, 2010

24 August 1956 “The invention of Ant Farms, The Demise of Real Farms, and Refrigerators Here and Abroad”

antfarm2 At a Fourth of July family picnic this year,1956, Milton Levine came up with the idea for the Ant Farm.antfarm

You can actually buy the reproduction of this ant farm today. I put it in the corner store under vintage child  HERE. I know I don’t have a child, but I might actually get one for my desk. Have any of you had an ant farm before?

farmersdaughter Now, for real farms. There is a very definite downward trend in number of actual farmers:

In 1940 18% of American labor force was farmers. By the end of the 1950’s that had dropped to 8%. However the size of the farm and the amount of irrigated acreage increased. 1940 it was Number of farms: 6,102,000; average acres: 175; irrigated acres: 17,942,968 while in 1959 Number of farms: 3,711,000; average acres: 303; irrigated acres: 33,829,000.

In 1933, American Historian Louis M. Hacker wrote an article the title of which has been much quoted: The Farmer is Doomed. He concluded that article with the following remark:

‘American commercial agriculture is doomed. No gifts of clairvoyance are required to foretell that the future of the American farmer is the characteristic one of all peasants for whom, in our present system of society, there is no hope.’

This bit from an article on agriculture I read from this year (1956) is interesting in its predictions:

CERTAINLY, the commercial family-farm group will continue to decrease. At the very moment when the Census Bureau was releasing its figures showing the depth of the drop as of 1954, the farm pundits strongly influential in federal policy were pointing out that the number of farmers in 1955 is far too great. And the bulging warehouses holding $7.5 billion in surplus farm products – in spite of the Eisenhower administration’s reduction of price levels at which it would buy these products – seemed to prove the point. It is estimated that the nation needs, instead of its present three and one-third million commercial farms, only two, or even one and one-half, million.

50sfarm However, then they did not know or even comprehend the immense amount of food grown outside the US and shipped in. Such a concept was not conceivable yet, and still they could see the ‘writing on the wall’ for the small farmer. The exodus from the farm to the city or the suburbs was on. The ‘future’ it was told was to those with college education and mental power over physical. It is interesting to note, I think, that today we see many people wanting a return to the simplicity of small local farms to try and undo what has been done by the large corporation farm and industry. Yet, I sometimes worry, that we have let the behemoth go too far on its lead and we cannot control it any longer. We are not longer in control and hopefully can look to little David and recall how he felled Goliath. We must remember this when we shop or even when we plant our flower beds, maybe opting for some tomatoes or lettuce in lieu of daisies.

Now, after we buy our garden fresh food, we need to keep it fresh. The Refrigerator, of course! In 1956 80% of American homes had refrigerators while in the UK it was only 8%!

We American’s must remember that rationing was still going on in the UK into the 1950’s. While we were dreaming or actually buying such mammoths as these56fridgeOr innovative solutions such as this56wallfridge or this56philco, Most likely the UK icebox was more than likely the small models from the 20’s and 30’s.1930sfridgefridgeoldAnd while we were learning to fill our fridges to the brimfull50sfridge Europe was happy to have enough food to fill the few shelves of their actual Ice Boxes. I wonder if these early days of Madison Avenue advertising were the beginning of our present day America of over-indulgence. Before the War we were not likely to ‘stuff our faces or our pantries’, but the fear of the war rationing and the sudden over abundance coupled with lovely ads in magazines and TV sponsors changed that.

Of course, those of you in 2010 know full well the result of this abundance and increased corporate world: The diabetic child with the shorter lifespan than those here in 1956. We must, I feel, learn moderation. We have allowed our American identity to be packaged and resold to us as we now see it, but it was not always this way. We were once frugal people who were in touch with the land and our families. Let us, again, not forget David and Goliath.davidngoliath


  1. Oh my gosh! I HAD one of those ant farms! The very same one! We had to send off to, I believe, California, for some red ants that came in a little plastic tube! They died very shortly after we put them in the ant farm, so then I got some ordinary ants from the back yard. They didn't live very long, either. I think we fed them sugar water, or something, I can't remember. You didn't use real dirt in the ant farm, but some white material, (although brown dirt is shown on the picture on the box) which helped you to see the ants better (which may be why the ants didn't live long, who knows?).

    We also had a Philco refrigerator like that one shown.

    I think stockpiling food came from the pioneer days when "provisions" were not as easily come by. People here in the midwest still do that, many of them still having a "downstairs store," with their basements loaded with food. Of course, when they get snowed in on these isolated farms for several days, a downstairs store comes in mighty handy. Pioneers had to stockpile their home-preserved food over the winter.

    I've lived in Europe, and no, they don't stockpile food. They want fresher food than we care about; plus -- not as many of them have automobiles in which to take all that food home with them: many walk or ride a bike, even to this day.

    I found that out when I went on my first grocery shopping trip when we moved to Germany (I was 17 and a newlywed). I bought four big paper bags of groceries, and then realized that I didn't have a car in which to transport them to my apartment like back in the States. Somehow I managed to stagger home with the four bags, leaving three of them in the foyer and going down the four flights of stairs to retrieve them one by one. I never did that again, but shopped like the Europeans after that: a few needed items at a time, until we got a car to take us to the American commissary.

  2. When I lived in Paris I noticed how the French housewives shopped daily. You bought fresh and for that day. I would like to, if ever able to live in the city again, do this, but now I shop for the week.
    It is true that we did conserve and can, I think I was thinking more about stockpiling store bought goodies and such. If one slaughtered farm animals and canned, they certainly had a good store, but someone not on a farm in the 1920s, say, may not have had such a stocked surplus as her 1950's counterpart ESPECIALLY as they had no freezers.
    Interesting points, though.

  3. Hey! I just wanted to introduce myself and say that I just discovered your blog via Destination 1940s.

    I grew up in Vermont and summered in the Cape! You're bringing me back, way back. I will be checking out this blog regularly... I know you like comments!

  4. Yes, it's really interesting to think why we Americans stockpile while our European counterparts don't. I know Europeans really demand fresh food. That's more important to them than to us. Like I said, fewer have cars to transport all that food home; also little food shops, grocery stores, and bakeries are within easy walking distance even in little European villages (we have lived in Germany, England, and South Korea), making it easier to shop every day. Here, distances are greater, and a once-a-week grocery shopping makes much more sense.

    Also, I don't remember Europe having as severe weather conditions as we do here: heavy snows, floods tornados, hurricanes, etc., which shut down powerlines, stores, and roads. I remember my father, who stockpiled food, saying (along with the neighbors, who did the same), "Well...at least we'll eat!" I think people here stockpile for emergencies like that.

    Also, Americans like to have food in the house to offer impromptu hospitality (Let's have the Smiths over for dinner tonight!), whereas Europeans are not ones for doing things like that, ordinarily, but tend to entertain in restaurants, or really plan a home cooked dinner for friends or relatives. Fewer drop-in guests there.

    Back in the days when people just had those little ice-boxes, I wonder if most of their stored food was home-canned and on the shelf?

  5. My Grandma Irene and my grandfather Charles were what one would call general farmers, they tilled the land and grew vegetables, raised cows, horses, pigs, goats etc........they never had two nickels to rub together but they always seemed to make it through whether it meant my grandfather would work on the side installing roofs, or my grandmother cleaned houses.

    My grandparents retired to a small one acre piece of land but on it my grandmother managed to grow apples on three trees, grow pumpkins, corn etc., in her small garden to feed people when they came over, she also raised ducks, rabbits/calves for butchering, and milked goats to feed the calves. I even remember her picking eggs in the coop, sterilizing them on a little conveyer belt and then putting them in egg cartons to deliver to people.

    They were entrepeneurs before their time and didn't realize it. My grandparents farmed from 1940 (their marriage), till my Grandma left the acre land back in 1986, so 46 years of taking care of land, maintaining a home, and did I mention she had a green thumb too, her star gardens were filled with all sorts of growing flowers.

    She also had the biggest willow tree I had seen in my life, I really do miss going there, it was a simpler time and place that will forever be forged in my heart.

    She would also make her own pickles, make her own jam etc........

    Funny thing about the 1950's article, my grandparents maintained their living up until 23 years ago, where there is a will, there is a way.

    I just wish my children could have experienced the fun we had........

    Mom in Canada

  6. Mom in Canada-I am sure there are some small farmers here still eking it out, but you were also in Canada which developed very differently from the 1950's onward the USA did. It sounds a wonderful memory and it is too bad that 'visiting grandma on the farm' seems to not be as prevalent as it once was.


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