Country life movement

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The country life movement was an early 20th century American social movement which sought to improve the living conditions of America's rural residents. The movement focused on preserving traditional rural lifestyles while addressing poor living conditions and social problems within rural communities. Despite the movement's rural focus, many of its adherents were urbanites who sought to bring progressive changes and technological improvements to rural areas. The movement had little success in changing rural ways of life; its principal successes were the promotion of agricultural extension programs and the development of national organizations to improve rural living.


The country life movement's adherents largely fell into three schools of thought. The first group was mainly composed of urban agrarians who wished to improve rural living conditions in order to prevent farmers from flocking to cities and abandoning rural lifestyles. This philosophy held that rural lifestyles espoused certain moral values which were a positive influence on urbanites. Historian William Bowers has described this philosophy as contradictory, as these reformers sought to preserve a rural past while adding elements of urban life to rural lifestyles.[1]

A second segment of country-lifers sought to improve what they saw as declining rural living conditions by introducing progressive ideals to rural life. This group attempted to institute successful urban social reforms in rural areas.[1][2] These reforms were partially designed to improve the efficiency of American agriculture; the reformers feared that a degenerate rural population would not provide sufficient food for urbanites. The main two goals of this segment of reformers involved reforming rural schools and rural churches, which they saw as lagging behind their urban counterparts.[3]

The third group affiliated with the movement consisted of farmers who sought to bring technological progress to their profession. This group promoted agricultural extension and attempted to bring industrial reforms to American farms. In addition, they promoted the idea that farmers should adopt business practices in their profession.[1]


U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed the Commission on Country Life in 1908 to address concerns raised by the country life movement. Horticulturalist Liberty Hyde Bailey was appointed chairman of the commission. Other members of the commission included agricultural scientist and sociologist Kenyon L. Butterfield, forester Gifford Pinchot, and future U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Cantwell Wallace.[4] The commission proposed three objectives for the improvement of rural life: a national agricultural extension program, scientific surveys of rural life, and the establishment of a national agency devoted to rural progress. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 accomplished the first objective by allowing rural counties to establish advisors through land-grant universities who would help spread technology to rural living. The third goal was accomplished in 1919 through the creation of the American Country Life Association.[5][6]

The movement's attempts at introducing urban reforms to rural schools and churches were largely unsuccessful. Rural residents often saw the country-lifers as condescending and out of touch with rural life and felt many of their reforms were unnecessary and not worth the trouble of implementing. Rural residents also disagreed with the notion that farms needed to improve their efficiency, as they saw this goal as serving urban interests more than rural ones. The social conservatism of many rural residents also led them to resist attempts for change led by outsiders.[7] The most successful reforms came from the farmers who pursued agricultural extension, as their proposed changes were consistent with existing trends in agriculture at the time.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d Roth, Dennis. "The Country Life Movement" (PDF). United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved December 17, 2013. 
  2. ^ Swanson, Merwin (September 1977). "The "Country Life Movement" and the American Churches". Church History 46 (3): 358–359. doi:10.2307/3164133. Retrieved December 17, 2013. 
  3. ^ Danbom, David B. (April 1979). "Rural Education Reform and the Country Life Movement, 1900-1920". Agricultural History 53 (2): 464–466. Retrieved December 17, 2013. 
  4. ^ Swanson 1977, p. 360.
  5. ^ "Commission on Country Life". Liberty Hyde Bailey: A Man For All Seasons. Cornell University Library. Retrieved December 17, 2013. 
  6. ^ Sculle, Keith A.; Michael Ward (September 1983). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form: Pine Grove Community Club" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved December 17, 2013. 
  7. ^ Danbom 1979, p. 473.