Friday, May 28, 2010

Nineteenth Century Heroines: The Source of Innovation

Even though the nineteenth century was a time of industrial innovation, farming was one of the mainstays. From tiny hamlets and villages all over England, farmers planted, and tilled, and harvested their crops as they had for generations. Their teenage sons and daughters were enlisted, of course. My heroine for this month was one of them, growing up on a farm, going through her day-to-day tasks, helping first her father then her husband grow potatoes in the Cumberland area. She even helped haul manure to fertilize the crops.

But one day, Mary Jackson happened to notice something. Growing near her potatoes was a single stalk of oats, and one that was different from any other stalk she’d ever seen. The grains were whiter, the plant more sturdy. She decided to preserve the grain and used it for seed the next year. I imagine her husband thought she was a bit daft.

Until the crop was a huge success. It was such a success (the period paper called it to “a very extraordinary degree”) that their friends and neighbors begged for some of Mary’s seeds. Mary’s “potato oats” spread throughout the country and were soon considered “the best oats in England.” Industrious captains carried them across the seas to America and Australia. By 1881, American Cyclopedias, those compendiums of knowledge treasured by many a farm family, were advising farmers that potato oats were the best possible crop they could grow.

Mary Jackson was widowed at 42 and died forty years later, still living on her farm. Though I could not find so much as a picture of her, her death was reported in the leading gentlemen’s magazine, La Belle AssemblĂ©e, and newspapers as far away as Australia. All reports commented on how she had been greatly respected throughout her life.

But then, what else would one expect from a nineteenth century heroine?

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