In all of Sheffield Peabody’s diaries, there never is a reference to his using a typewriter or even a desk. He often “filed a saw,” but did not keep files; the pens he pushed were for farm animals. So why envision this farmer in relation to the contemporary home office? The answer begins with those times he does mention offices: the Post-Office, the Secretary of State’s office, the Treasurer’s Office, the Land Office. Governments always have required nodes for the purpose of storing information and thereby administering control across distances. As JoAnne Yates argues, with industrialization this office-function became a precondition to further economic growth: "The period between 1850 and 1920 was one of great change in the size and structure of American firms. Before 1850, the economy was dominated by small firms owned and managed by a single individual or a partnership and operating in a local or regional market. The spread of the telegraph and of railroads around the middle of the century encouraged firms to serve larger, regional and national markets" (1). These dates are interesting. When Sheffield began keeping a diary, in 1849, an estimated two-thirds of Americans were farm workers; by the time of his death in 1914 that proportion had dropped to less than a third. Equally important, although his farm may have appeared the same over this period it was gradually becoming part of a different, industrial food system.
Let’s look at how Sheffied’s farm functioned in the economic circuit via the humble potato. He grew them more or less constantly throughout his life, although where and how they traveled reflect important changes. On November 3, 1853 the proud young farmer (aged 23) reckoned that his family had raised 700 bushels of potatoes that year, 500 stored in the cellar and another 200 buried in the ground. Thereafter, they were sold well into the following spring to a variety of people: transported by wagon to Dansville, but also men named Mr. Steel, Mr. Short, and Mr. Allen taking delivery at the Peabody farm. Construction of the Erie Railroad in 1852, with stations in Springwater and nearby Wayland, more directly began to link individual farms and locally owned businesses to national markets. Peabody potatoes started traveling to the Springwater depot, to the Blood’s Corners depot, and to Wayland (21 May 1856; 23 June 1858; 27 May 1859). The railroad transformed transportation but also economic organization. The founding of Capron & Fowler’s produce dealership in 1868 marked a turning point for Sheffield, who now delivered his potatoes almost exclusively to their warehouse alongside the railroad tracks in Wayland: his fields were linked to distant offices. He continued seeking ways to add economic value as a sole proprietor, including a cheesemaking “factory” (5 July 1886), but as he became a commodity farmer Sheffield’s financial circumstances became increasingly desperate. We find him writing how he “looked over our account” with a growing number of creditors, until finally in 1888 he was forced to sell some of his property (31 Dec. 1888).
Throughout most of the 20th century, an office gathered managers and clerks in a centralized location; the “home office” and “working from home” really came into being only with the development of networked computers. And it may be that even this space is disappearing with the spread of smart phones—which curiously resemble the back, business pages of Sheffield’s diaries. In both cases work and family do not occur in a vacuum but rather in dynamic, anxious relation to the economic circuit.
—Jervis, Charles M. A Directory of the Village of Wayland, N.Y. at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, A.D., Including an Historical Account of the Village from the Earliest Times to the Present. Wayland, NY: 1901.
— Yates, JoAnne. Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1989.