"Better Living" Grows with Influx of Microfilm

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As the “‘Better Living’ in North Carolina” project enters its final months, Special Collections staff are working hard to make many cooperative extension materials available through our Rare and Unique Digital Collections website. Recent additions to “Better Living” include digitized microfilm reports from county and state-wide extension agents. These reports exist only in microfilm format, which is difficult to use. They reveal a staggering amount of detailed information about agricultural extension and home demonstration work in North Carolina at the individual county level. The reports currently online span the years 1908 – 1935. Depending on the year and the county, there could be reports from the agricultural extension agent and the home demonstration agent in the area, and these were often divided between those serving the white and African American populations, meaning four agents could write separate reports for a single county. Furthermore, each report could contain a statistical section and a narrative section, making for a lot of reports and a lot of data.

Here is the African American home demonstration statistical report from Wake County for 1927. These reports were standardized forms which the extension agents completed with information gathered during the year. In this report, we see that Wake County had two agents, Bertha Maye and Lucy James. The report also tells us that they believed there were 50 communities throughout the county in which extension work should be carried out, but only 16 communities where it actually was. Was this a funding issue, or was there trouble getting people to participate? These reports reveal how many home visits these agents made (114 visits to 62 homes) and how many phone calls they placed over the year (61 in total). Maye and James primarily led their communities through food, nutrition, and clothing demonstrations. For example, the report says that 89 women and 72 girls received instruction on preparing better school lunches and that 161 girls’ coats were made. This granular detail fills in for the researcher overlooked aspects of life at this time, providing a more holistic view.

The 1918 white narrative report from J. H. Hampton, extension agent for Cherokee County, is similarly revealing. The narrative reports flesh out the story that the numbers only partially tell. On dairy farming, for example, Hampton writes: “One cheese factory was established in the county on the cooperative plan. In March, 100 cows were promised to furnish milk for the factory. Owing to the delay in securing equipment for the factory we did not get it started until July 29 and there was not as much milk furnished as was promised. There will be one or more carloads of high grade Holstein cows brought into this community next spring. A pure bred Holstein bull has alread[y] arrived there.” The explanation that the narrative reports provide gives context to the numbers, and the two are necessary to understand the impact cooperative extension had in any given area.

On top of all of these county reports, the microfilm also has state-wide extension reports which cover the program’s focus areas, like swine production, plant pathology, and home management. Altogether there is a vast amount of material in these records which document life in the aggregate in early twentieth-century North Carolina. Preventing insect damage to crop production was the responsibility of the extension entomologist, and in 1934 that was C. H. Brannon. According to him, “1934 was a season of almost unprecedented horn worm infestation on tobacco, the damage was widespread and heavy. Farmers purchased a large number of small dusters for the application of poison and excellent results were secured by those who followed recommendations. Most tobacco growers are beginning to realize that insects must be controlled if tobacco is to be grown at a profit. The excellent price for the 1934 crop will make farmers more solicitous than ever of insect infestations of the 1935 crop and we are expecting even better cooperation in the future.” To find out if Brannon’s predictions were correct, you will have to explore the 1935 entomology report yourself.

So far, the 177,076 pages online represents 1/4 of the “Better Living” microfilm, so there’s a lot that will be available in the coming weeks. All of the digitized microfilm from the “Better Living” project is available as part of the NCSU Libraries’ Rare and Unique Digital Collections, which provides access to thousands of images, video, audio recordings, and textual materials documenting NC State history and other topics. While you’re at it, check out the Historical State timeline on the Cooperative Extension Service.