Eugenics and Rural Americans: Country People Have Long Been Misunderstood.

July 27, 2015

 

In 1915 a national magazine,The American Magazine, published an article written by the highly regarded health expert Dr. Woods Hutchinson, entitled “Health and Horse-Power.” Dr. Hutchinson discussed how the urban areas in America had caught up to the rural areas regarding personal health. He cited that despite the considerable slum numbers and masses of immigrants, the efficient handling of epidemic and contagious disease brought about a death rate equal to those in the country. The cities provided more access to medical care for those living in urban areas. At least in the personal health category, country living has always been the standard to achieve. The noisy, nasty industrial cities had always been viewed as not the healthiest or most desirable places to live.

What Hutchinson was saying was not new. In 1912, Chicago and New York were considered the healthiest big cities in the world. Their death rate per thousand was significantly less than the rest of the country. Since the rest of the country was still rural, it was suggested that it was healthier to live in the cities than in rural America. Unfortunately, the author did not offer detailed scientific evidence to prove his point.

If Hutchinson’s work had ended with a discussion on health, his article would have been acceptable, although a bit stuffy. The physician, however, decided to end his paper by personally attacking rural people. He included the findings of two university reports that made a statement about incoming male students. According to the studies, male students from urban areas “were taller, stronger, and more vigorous men than countrymen.” However, the reports also described many rural students as “higher physical defects, horrible to relate, stoop shoulders, narrow chests, flat feet and curvatures of the spine.” Dr. Hutchinson tells us that the most mentally capable students were not from rural areas but from the city. The article attributed the physical differences to the demanding daily work on farms. Many rural children began helping on the farm at an early age and, sometimes, worked seven days a week.

Dr. Woods Hutchinson, 1912. Physical, scientist and leader in the field of Eugenics.
Dr. Woods Hutchinson, 1912. Physician, scientist, and supporter of Eugenics.

The doctor decided to take one last swipe at rural Americans when he stated that most of the world’s star athletes came from the city, not the country. His work was clearly intended to mislead and prejudice his readers, and it was clear that his true mission was simply to tell America that he thought rural Americans were inferior to their urban cousins. The more significant problem was that most readers believed him.

Hutchinson’s various opinions impressed many, especially his advocacy of a red meat and white bread diet and his belief that vegetarians were misguided if they felt that a vegetable diet was healthy. Additionally, he was well known for his leadership in the quack science of Eugenics, which was based on the even more distorted notions of social Darwinism. Like Adolph Hitler and others, Dr. Hutchinson believed that one group was superior to others and used the findings of prejudiced research to support their racist and bigoted beliefs.

Hutchinson failed to recognize rural Americans for their standards of hard work or even remotely suggest that maybe country students were too busy and worn out from farm work to be “vigorous” pupils or highly regarded athletes, but wait — what about such sports stars as Jim Thorpe (all-around best athlete in the world) Ty Cobb, (Hall of Fame baseball) Jack Johnson (world heavyweight champion), Honus Wagner (Hall of Fame baseball) and many other world-class athletes who were making daily headlines in the sports pages of that period — and, they were all born and raised in rural America. I will not attempt to begin the long list of country-born Americans who contributed in other ways to build this nation, like U.S. Presidents, business, educational and academic leaders.

Jim Thorpe, 1912, Summer Olympics
Jim Thorpe, 1912, Summer Olympics

A century ago, urban America was not joking about stereotyping rural Americans. Referred to as hicks, hillbillies, country bumpkins, and much more, the image of rural Americans was twisted from its inception. By the 1920s and 30s, country folks were fair game for poking fun at. With the invention of the phonograph, recorded music became a huge favorite in the country, but soon that form of recorded entertainment targeted rural people in what was referred to as “Rube sketches.” Rubes, of course, are country bumpkins. The settings were always the same: country stores, barn yards, or blacksmith shops, and the comedy skits reinforced the prejudices of Dr. Hutchinson that rural Americans were unsophisticated, uncultured, uneducated bumpkins, and worthy of only jokes.

Yes, jokes, and by the 1940s and 50s, rural America didn’t seem to mind. They laughed along with everyone else. Then, Al Capp created a comic strip entitled “Li’l Abner” that combined all the negative stereotypes Dr. Hutchinson had preached about. Capp was raised in the city and knew very little about the lives of rural Americans, but by the 1950s, his comic strip became so popular that it was circulated daily to over 60 million readers. Capp’s daily comic strip planted a deep stereotype of rural Americans as hillbillies — uncultured, unsophisticated, and undoubtedly unattractive. And, just as Hutchinson had written about nearly a half-century earlier.

Andy comes to the rescue when Barney gets his gun stuck on his finger. September, 1960. The Andy Griffith Show
Andy comes to the rescue when Barney gets his gun stuck on his finger. September 1960. The Andy Griffith Show

Then, along came television, smothering its viewers with such comedy shows as Andy Griffith Show, HeeHaw, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Gomer Pyle, and plenty more, all designed to further reinforce Dr. Hutchinson’s low opinion of country people and entertain America, but at the expense of demeaning rural Americans. If your name is Goober, Gomer, or Barnie, you are probably a bumpkin. If you have a pig named Arnold, who just happens to live inside the house with you, you are probably a bumpkin. And, chances are you are a bumpkin if you wear high-water pants and your favorite expressions are “shazam” and “gall-lee.” These are humorous memories; many Americans still define rural America by these stereotypes. That is the problem.

Unlike a century ago, a cultural divide between urban and rural Americans no longer exists. Some may protest my thinking and point to the more significant employment and social opportunities available in metropolitan areas. True, but much of life is a trade-off for happiness, success, adventure, or whatever way we want to measure our own life meter. The point is rural Americans now have choices, and lots of them. With an abundance of technology and educational options, if you miss the boat, it is probably your own fault. A century ago, however, the choices were few; for the most part, you were just stuck with your situation. Rural Americans just dealt with the challenging issues of hard work, few opportunities, poverty, and isolation. And that’s why the image of rural Americans needs to be revised.

The industrial revolution (1820-1900) established the footprint of America’s largest cities. By the turn of the last century, the population growth in the towns was exploding. It was due to the expansion of industries drawing more workers and the millions of immigrants flooding their ports. Until then, residents in the rural areas were reasonably well balanced in the ‘haves’ and ‘have not’ departments compared to their city cousins, so a cultural gap was barely noticeable. And there were no jokes.

As late as the 1880s, most Americans still lived in rural areas, but between 1910 and 1930, that changed dramatically with a mass population exodus to the cities. By the end of the 20s, more than 70% of Americans lived in cities. Currently, only 20% of Americans still reside in rural areas.

Job opportunities were not the only attraction to the cities. Larger populated areas were the first to receive all the new innovations of that time. Most urban areas had electricity and telephone service by the turn of the century and certainly by 1910. That meant many urban households also had electric appliances such as refrigerators, radios, stoves, and running water for their kitchens and bathrooms. This was a considerable distinction in living standards.

Some farm families also had radios, but they ran on batteries. Nearly a half-century later, many rural areas were still waiting for electricity, telephone service, and indoor plumbing. In the 1940s, less than 30% of all farmers had these services. The more significant issue, however, was roads. With the development of cars and trucks, urban industrial areas also built good roads. They were black-topped asphalt surfaced highways that encouraged travel and the transporting of products. The roads in the rural areas, however, were nearly always dirt, or more often like huge mud holes resulting from winter storms and spring thaws. This limited most families from traveling far from their homes. With the passage of federal highway laws in the 1930s, rural roads finally improved and were finished after World War II.

Like economic poverty, some people have realized that hardships that impact other Americans are not hard for rural Americans. The pastoral, idyllic myth that things just aren’t so bad down on the farm is misleading, at best. In this generation, those notions don’t really matter anymore.

Sadly, the inaccurate stereotype that Hutchinson and others created is still alive. In the last three decades, many films, television shows, articles, and books have continued to portray rural Americans as unpolished, naive, ignorant, and entirely out of touch with the faster pace of urban society. In any community, urban or rural, plenty of folks fit that definition. It is unfair to suggest that rural Americans represent such a ridiculous stereotype. It is, frankly, time to stop with the jokes. Maybe it is time to have some jokes about our city cousins!

There is an odd cultural contradiction that Dr. Hutchinson failed to address. If country folks are just unsophisticated hicks, hayseeds, and rubes, as he thought, why, on the other hand, are rural Americans still viewed by a good number of citizens, as a repository of American values? That is the correct image of rural Americans. As far as Hutchinson’s thoughts on this, I guess we will never know.

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at: allencornwell@mac.com

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