A recent piece in Texas Monthly documents the hot trend of hunting for tumbleweeds in West Texas in order to sell them for as much as $200 a piece as home décor accessories. Apparently, they can be DIYed into chandeliers and Christmas trees or just fashioned into an ornamental symbol of rusticity for the corner of your living room. An iconic symbol of rural desolation if ever there was one (“Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds” as the Sons of the Pioneers famously sang), the tumbleweed decorating trend may seem incongruent with our 21st century tastes, but it’s not so surprising given the current state of the world. As society emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, and as war upends modern Europe and remakes global geopolitics, rural nostalgia is more popular than ever, manifesting itself in sometimes unexpected ways.
The History of Rural Representation
Rural life has long been commodified in American culture, packaged and sold as a form of escapism from the pressures of modern society. In the 21st century, this is perhaps best embodied by the myriad of much loved brands that are imbued with the rustic flavor of rural chic, from Chip and Joanna Gaines’ seemingly endless Magnolia empire to the popularity of Ree Drummond’s Pioneer Woman persona. But it is hardly a 21st century phenomenon.
The idea of commodified rurality steeped in nostalgia has deep roots in the United States. While it is hard to pinpoint an exact moment in time where romanticized visions of rural America became more common, 1920 is a useful starting point for their more widespread proliferation. That year, the U.S. census showed that for the first time, more people lived in cities than in the country; 51.2% urban to 48.8% rural. The percentages were close, but the implication was significant. America was becoming an urban nation and the stage was set for what sometimes seems like the intractable rural-urban divide.
As the United States emerged from the roaring 20s, the commodification of rurality stood in stark contrast to the reality of rural American lives. The Regionalist Art Movement made waves in urban centers like New York City and Chicago. It seemed that the elites of the art world couldn’t get enough of colorful, sentimental, and somewhat satirical visions of rural life, even when many actual farmers were displaced by the Dust Bowl.
Fifty years later, a strikingly similar convergence of environmental catastrophe and financial disaster known as the Farm Crisis rocked rural America. On February 18, 1985, Time’s cover headline proclaimed, “Going Broke: Tangled Policies, Failing Farms,” with an accompanying image illustrating a grizzled, anxious looking farmer literally up to his neck in surplus crops. The article conveys the sense of desperation felt by farmers across the country with images of “tractorcade” protests, farm foreclosure auctions, and law enforcement seizing livestock and machinery. The following year, much of rural America was plunged into a drought so devastating that experts have since declared that it was the worst on record since the Dust Bowl.
Selling “Rural” to the Masses
In the realm of popular culture however, something else was happening: the romanticizing of rural life – precisely as it was disappearing. That same Time issue contained a movie review for the film Witness, a story about rural/urban culture clash as a gritty Philadelphia police detective is forced to seek refuge in a bucolic Amish community. Witness was only one of several critically acclaimed films with overt farm themes in the 1980s. From Country (1984) to Field of Dreams (1989), Hollywood simultaneously reflected the dire economic circumstances of American farmers and romantically cast the farm family as noble and heroic.
During this same period in the arenas of fashion and design, “Country Chic,” “Rural Chic,” or “Hick Chic” were all phrases used to describe the trend toward rustic décor and countrified apparel, citing the popularity of brands like Laura Ashley and Kincaid Furniture. In 1985, a column for The Washington Post declared that the vogue for all things rural served merely as another elitist opportunity for conspicuous consumption:
Going country means that you get to order all these neat things from all those neat catalogues that are every good yuppie’s principal reading matter. You get to order Shaker furniture – you can even make it yourself from kits, if you go for the hands-on approach to self-gratification – and quilts made up from the cutest old odds and ends of cloth….what we’re talking about now is country for the new sophisticates, the people who know that the ultimate destiny of barns is to be rehabbed into nouvelle-cuisine restaurants.
Rural Nostalgia Today
Today, we are in yet another cycle of rural nostalgia. Why? The tumult of the past two years is part of the explanation. Like the collective traumas of the Great Depression and the Farm Crisis, the pandemic has led to a search for the familiar and a yearning for comfort. Idyllic representations of rural and small-town life have always offered relief to a slice of the American populace. Rural nostalgia led Walt Disney to create Main Street, USA in Disneyland – a rose-colored representation of his boyhood memories of Marceline, Missouri. River City, Iowa, the provincial setting of The Music Man would not exist without Meredith Willson’s deep nostalgia for his Iowa hometown. Incidentally, both of these cultural creations inspired by nostalgia are alive and well in 2022.
In uncertain times, there is a natural tendency to look backward, both to make sense of our current cultural moment and to find comfort in the idea that the past was somehow simpler. But nostalgia can also be problematic — a form of essentializing rural people and places without truly engaging in more substantive conversations about so many of the challenges facing rural America today, from worsening cultural and political divides to the systemic challenges of poverty and population loss.