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USDA History Collection

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See the Collection Map for a chart outlining all components of the collection.

Historical Note

The materials in this collections were gathered over several decades by the staff of the Agricultural and Rural History Section (ARH) of the Economic Research Service (ERS). The ARH staff served as the official historians for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Historical work was carried out by various divisions in USDA over the years, principally by the Division of Statistical and Historical Research, which was part of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE) from its formation in 1922. When the BAE was abolished in 1953, the Division of Statistical and Historical Research was transferred to the Agricultural Marketing Service, 1953-1961. The Agricultural and Rural History Section (also called the Agricultural History Branch, or Agriculture and Rural History Branch) was established when the ERS was organized in 1961, and it inherited the Statistical and Historical Research files. The ARH was closed in 1994.

Scope and Content Note

The collection includes letters, memoranda, reports, speeches, press releases, organizational charts, statistical tables, pamphlets, booklets, clippings, newsletters, scrapbooks, annual reports, audio and video tapes, oral histories and photographs, relating to the activities of the USDA and the history of agriculture. Also included are papers and writings of USDA staff and other individuals on agricultural history, correspondence and other records of the Agricultural and Rural History Section, and a small group of letters, account books, diaries and other manuscript material relating to U.S. agriculture dating from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries.

This collection documents the work of the USDA, its staff and agencies. It is particularly strong concerning the activities of the Secretaries of Agriculture, their assistants and staffs, especially for the administrations of Henry Agard Wallace, Ezra Taft Benson, and Orville Lothrop Freeman. Large sections of the records relate to the response of the USDA to such crises as World War I, World War II, and the Great Depression, droughts, floods and other disasters, and the changes brought about by the economic and technological developments of the twentieth century.

Subjects covered include the production, distribution and marketing of agricultural commodities; price supports and the management of surpluses; research, education and technology; land use and conservation; rural development and other sociological aspects of agriculture; international trade, international food aid and technical assistance; the administration of the Department of Agriculture; and the relationship of the USDA with the U.S. Congress and Executive Branch, with states and counties, and with agricultural interest groups and citizens.

Most of the collection relates to the activities of the USDA during the 20th century, but there are original records, copies of records, and research notes documenting the years back to the founding of the Department in 1862, as well as material dealing with the entire history of agriculture in the Americas and the world.

Nature of the Collection

The USDA History Collection was created by historians who gathered material from many sources, and organized it to suit their research needs. For many researchers, the unique organization of these documents will enhance the value of the collection. Much of this material may be available elsewhere, since the collection contains many secondary sources (printed items, or duplicate copies of letters and memoranda), but here it is arranged in a system, based on detailed subject breakdowns concerning agricultural topics and USDA activities, that brings together items that may be widely scattered in other repositories.

Also, much primary source material can be found in this collection, including original correspondence, memoranda, drafts of government reports, and manuscripts of books and articles. The Historical Manuscripts in Series X are only one special case. Such documents are located throughout the collection, often filed as large blocks that almost constitute discrete sub-collections, but frequently mixed among secondary materials as well. The presence of unique and rare material is highlighted throughout the collection guide in the detailed scope and content notes for each series


The bulk of the collection (the Documentary Files and the Class File) is arranged according to chronological and subject-based outlines that were devised by ARH staff. Other sections are arranged chronologically, topically, or according to creator or office of origin, as appropriate. The arrangements are described in the detailed scope and content notes for each series or subseries.

Series Descriptions

The Collection has been organized into 12 series. Some series also contain two or more subseries. Brief descriptions of the series follow. Click on highlighted links for detailed scope and content notes. See the Collection Map for a chart outlining all components of the collection.

Series I. Documentary Files

Dates:  1822-1997 (bulk 1914-1994),  Extent:  ca. 360 cubic ft.

Materials on the history of the USDA and agriculture in the United States, including letters, memoranda, press releases, speeches, reports, charts, statistical tables, printed materials, clippings, papers and articles by USDA staff and others. Most of the materials are from the 20th century; items of earlier date are generally copies or transcriptions from other sources. Arranged in six subseries by time period. Within each subseries, the files are arranged by a classification scheme developed by ERS historians (schemes vary for each time period). Several subseries have addenda following or inserted into the formal scheme.

Series II. Class File

Dates:  1761-1995 (bulk ca. 1900-1994), Extent:  56 cubic ft.

General materials on the history of U.S. agriculture, including pamphlets, booklets, clippings, articles, reports, and photographs. Arranged alphabetically by subject or name of author. Many of the authors represented in this series were staff of the Agricultural and Rural History Section. These files contain both published and unpublished writings.

Series III. Secretary's and Agency Memoranda

Dates:  1897-1995, Extent:  30 cubic ft.

This Series includes two subseries. Subseries 1 contains the Memoranda of the Secretary of Agriculture, which provide the legal basis for administrative actions with the Department. Numbered memoranda are filed numerically; unnumbered memos are filed by date.

The second subseries includes memos, directives, bulletins, instructions, notices and other communications to staff issued by USDA agencies including the Agricultural Marketing Service, Agricultural Research Service, Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Commodity Stabilization Service, Food and Nutrition Service, Production & Marketing Administration, War Food Administration, and others.

Series IV. Annual Reports and Directories

Dates:  ca. 1905-1990, Extent:  9 cubic ft.

Annual reports of Department agencies; also telephone books and other personnel directories, and regulations, forms, leaflets, and court decisions. Agencies represented include the Bureau of Animal Industry, Bureau of Dairy Industry, Bureau of Plant Industry, Office of Agricultural Experiment Stations, Agricultural Research Administration, Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Surplus Marketing Administration, Agricultural Marketing Administration, Agricultural Adjustment Administration, Production & Marketing Administration, Resettlement Administration, and the Soil Conservation Service.

Series V. Press Releases and News Clippings

Date:  1940-1995, Extent:  48 cubic ft.

Press releases from the USDA Office of Information and other agencies, including daily summaries of releases issued as well as complete individual releases. Also clippings of articles on agricultural topics from many sources, some compiled into daily packets and issued to staff by departmental agencies.

Series VI. Newsletters

Dates:  1918-1996, Extent:  25 cubic ft.

Newsletters published by USDA agencies, and by national farmers' associations, industry and lobbying groups, and other agriculture-related organizations. Files of the official departmental newsletter "USDA News" (formerly "USDA") include production and editorial files as well as copies of the newsletter. Non-USDA organizations whose publications are found here include the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, National Grange, National Milk Producers Federation, and state and local groups.

Series VII. Photographs

Dates:  ca. 1860-1995 (bulk 1900-1990), Extent:  ca. 7 cubic ft.

Photographs separated from other series, including photographs of USDA buildings, and pictures from the Class File (Series II); photographs collected by Emerson Brooks, an employee of the Statistical Reporting Service; and other loose photographs and albums found among ERS records.

Series VIII. Audio, Video, and Oral History Material

Dates:  1942-1995 (bulk 1986-1992), Extent:  ca. 3 cubic ft. (147 items, 1 cubic ft.)

Audiotape cassettes, videotapes in both VHS and Beta formats, and paper records. There are audio tapes of personal interviews, transcripts of these tapes, and reports of interviews (not verbatim records). There are also audiotapes of conferences, and public service announcements and reports on agriculture-related news and events. The videotapes record conferences, personal interviews, and productions intended for broadcast.

Series IX. Administrative and Biographical Records

Dates:  ca. 1860-1995, Extent:  ca. 36 cubic ft.

Office records of the Agricultural and Rural History Section, including correspondence, research and administrative files; records relating to organization, training, personnel and planning within the Economic Research Service and its predecessor, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics; materials on the history of personnel administration in the USDA, ca. 1860-1990; and a collection of biographical sketches of USDA employees, ca. 1940-ca. 1970.

Series X. Historical Manuscripts

Dates:  1785-1922, Extent:  ca. 3 cubic ft. (ca. 100 items)

A collection of items from the late 18th through the early 20th centuries, including diaries, letters, receipts, broadsides, articles, publications, clippings, scrapbooks, pamphlets, record books, ledgers, and certificates. These items were gathered by USDA historians from a variety of sources. The creators of the materials include farmers, gardeners, scientists, USDA officials, business people, and educators. The subject matter is the daily activities, accounts, and records of farming, horticulture, livestock breeding, and other agricultural enterprises. Most of the materials are in English and of American origin, although there are a few British, French, and Dutch items.

Series XI. Personal Papers

Dates:  ca. 1900-1990, Extent:  ca. 58 cubic ft.

Papers of individuals, mainly staff of the Agricultural and Rural History Section, or other divisions of the Economic Research Service. Papers including research notes, correspondence, manuscript and typescript drafts of books and reports, subject files, notes and transcripts of interviews, copies of articles and reports, as well as items such as letters, resumes, appointment books, and photographs.

Series XII. Addenda

Dates:  ca. 1940-1990, Extent:  ca. 17 cubic ft.

Materials found with the collection, collected or received by ARH historians over the years, that were not filed with or directly connected with any of the other series. Included are papers, theses and dissertations sent by historians and other researchers for comment or review, or in appreciation for assistance in their research; papers and other materials from conferences; USDA Graduate School catalogues, and other records; land use planning reports, 1930s-1940s, including postwar planning reports; bibliographies; and research materials gathered on various topics, including migrant labor, milk, the farm debt problem of the 1980s, statements of John F. Kennedy relating to agriculture, the Civilian Conservation Corps, Land Grant Colleges, and food aid programs including P.L. 480.

Administrative Information

Usage Restrictions

Materials created by agencies or employees of the United States government are in the public domain. Unless specified otherwise, the copyright interests in materials acquired or collected by government employees from outside sources have not been transferred to NAL or to the U.S. government.

Preferred Citation

[description of item, Series and Box/Folder number], USDA History Collection, Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library.


The USDA History Collection was transferred to the National Agricultural Library, Special Collections, from the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture in April 1996. Additional shipments of material were received in June, August, and October of 1997.

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