The Transformation of Rural Life

Southern Illinois, 1890-1990

By Jane Adams

352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 43 illus., 4 maps

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4479-3
    Published: December 1994
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6004-5
    Published: November 2000

Studies in Rural Culture

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Awards & distinctions

1995 Award of Superior Achievement, Illinois State Historical Society

Jane Adams focuses on the transformation of rural life in Union County, Illinois, as she explores the ways in which American farming has been experienced and understood in the twentieth century. Reconstructing the histories of seven farms, she places the details of daily life within the context of political and economic change. Adams identifies contradictions that, on a personal level, influenced relations between children and parents, men and women, and bosses and laborers, and that, more generally, changed structures of power within the larger rural community. In this historical ethnography, Adams traces two contradictory narratives: one stresses plenitude--rich networks of neighbors and kin, the ability to supply families from the farm, the generosity shown to those in need--while the other stresses the acute hardships and oppressive class, gender, and age inequities that characterized farm life. The New Deal and World War II disrupted both patterns, as the increased capital necessary for successful farming forced many to move from agriculture to higher-paid nonfarm work. This shift also changed the structure of the farm household, as homes modernized and women found work off the farm. Adams concludes that large-scale bureaucracies leveled existing class distinctions and that community networks eroded as farmers came to realize an improved standard of living.

About the Author

Jane Adams is associate professor of anthropology and associate professor of history at Southern Illinois University.
For more information about Jane Adams, visit the Author Page.


"Adams translates economic and anthropological theory into jargon-free prose. Her ability to tell a story in accessible language means the book can be easily read by undergraduates or farmers themselves. . . . Adams shows breadth-taking scholarship and a richness of data . . . and communicates a love of place and an empathy with people that is captivating."--Anthropological Quarterly

"A significant case study and a well-written and attractively produced book. The Transformation of Rural Life is a major contribution to our field."--Agricultural History

" [A] strong and important contribution to the history of rural life in the United States."--Journal of American History

"A treasure trove of information. . . . A major contribution to Illinois history as a definitive work and an example of how agricultural history should be researched and written."--Illinois Historical Journal

"Solidly researched, well argued, and beautifully written. Jane Adams helps us see the big picture while keeping the focus of our attention on the families and farms of southern Illinois. Her book makes a timely and important contribution to the history of American agriculture in the twentieth century."--John Mack Faragher, Yale University

"Will shatter many assumptions about the prosperity, farming strategies, and ethnic dominance of the rural Midwest. Adams evokes with clarity and insight the ordinary life and concerns of families eking out a living from the land. In this history produced by an anthropologist, we are engaged by gritty detail as well as a love of people and place."--Sonya Salamon, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign