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Stories From the Collection

A series of factual, but informal accounts that showcase digitized materials and the role that the U.S. Department of Agriculture played in in the lives of full-time farmers, the general public, and the larger world of American agriculture.

In addition to these Stories, find additional materials offered through the National Agricultural Library's Digital Collections (NALDC) and the library's Internet Archives collection.

Disclaimer: Some of the items featured here were published nearly a century ago. Therefore, please do not assume that all of the content reflects current scientific knowledge, policies, or practices. All views expressed in these items are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or NAL.

Unless otherwise indicated, all materials contained in these pieces are either in the public domain due to copyright expiration or because they are works produced by employees of the U.S. Government as part of their official duties and thus are not copyrighted within the United States.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease and a Collaborative Response from the U.S. and Mexico

This Story from the Collection invites readers to appreciate the complex history of foot-and-mouth disease and the relationship between the United States and Mexico. It briefly chronicles the 1946-1954 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Mexico and how the United States and Mexican governments worked together to eradicate the disease.

Using both primary and secondary sources, this telling embodies the ways that institutions like NAL contain, curate, and share histories within its collections that can shed light on the varied and dynamic, if at times fraught, experiences between national governments and local communities.

The Chemistry of Flavor: The Flavor Researchers of USDA's Western Regional Research Center

"Flavor—encompassing both aroma and taste—provides the defining characteristic of how we experience food. Flavor has long been an enigma to scientists: Aristotle described two categories of taste, sweet and bitter. Today we recognize five basic tastes in food: sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness and umami (savory). But what are the scientific components of flavor, and how can flavor be studied, quantified and replicated?"

The Three Sisters of Indigenous American Agriculture

The intercropping method of planting corn, beans, and squash together, commonly called The Three Sisters has been studied and described by scholars in anthropology, history, agriculture, and food studies for many  years. While this practice is often cited in current sources as a way to improve small gardens for individual use, its historical value lay in larger-scale implementations designed to nurture and sustain entire communities. This short review will strive to elevate Indigenous authors and practitioners whenever possible to describe this agricultural practice.

Lima Beans

The lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus L.) has a long and distinguished history that might surprise those of us who know it only as a humble ingredient of succotash.

This short review addresses the many roles played by the lima bean in culture, cuisine, and agricultural science. It also includes a small sample of the many publications produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to document the scientific development of lima beans and also to help farmers establish, grow, and manage this crop.

Subsistence Homesteads

In response to the Great Depression, a Federal housing program was created in 1933 that aimed to improve the living conditions of people coming from overcrowded urban centers, while simultaneously giving them a new opportunity to experience small-scale farming and home ownership.

The homesteads were organized as examples of how the country could benefit from a proliferation of semirural neighborhoods, where part-time farming on inexpensive but desirable land would encourage uplifting social functions and help establish a better way of life. Combining the benefits of rural and urban living (rurban), the communities were to encompass a new expression of some basic American values and demonstrate the path toward a healthier and more economically secure future.

Carriker, R.M. (2010). Urban Farming in the West: A New Deal Experiment in Subsistence Homesteads. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, p. 3.

This review of the Subsistence Homestead program showcases the materials produced by the Department of Agriculture to help the public take part in this form of "rurban" life.

The School Garden

In 1906 the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that there were 75,000 school gardens in the United States (Jewell, 1907, pp. 37-38). The first American school garden was established in 1891 at the George Putnam School in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The peak of the school garden movement was reached in the years immediately following World War I when War Gardens turned into Victory Gardens and the urgency for surplus food production began to wane. The value and use of school gardens is enjoying new life however, with the popularity of the local food movement, USDA's current Farm-to-School Program, and the USDA's People's Garden. This review of the school garden movement in the early 1900s reveals the roots of school gardening as an educational tool designed to enrich many aspects of children's lives.

The Fireless Cooker

The well-equipped kitchen of a century ago was envisioned in many home economics publications from the early twentieth century as a well-designed, pleasant place where all sorts of homemaking tasks could be performed efficiently and with minimum drudgery. At the beginning of the 1900s a specific cooking appliance gained prominence and was advocated by cookbook authors and U.S. Department of Agriculture home economists as a way to make delicious meals with minimum effort. This review will describe the development and rise of the fireless cooker, its status as a commercially marketed home kitchen appliance, and the fireless cooker's re-emergence within low-income countries.

The Beltsville Small White: A Heritage Turkey

The “family-size, handy-weight” turkey developed by Stanley J. Marsden and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry had a brief period of popularity once it was released to the commercial market in the 1940s, but became an obscure oddity by the 1970s, and is now labeled as critically endangered by the Livestock Conservancy. This short review will describe the rise and fall of the Beltsville Small White through a sample of documents located both inside the National Agricultural Library, located in Beltsville, MD, and in other external repositories relevant to agriculture.


The journey of the cranberry from the bog to the annual holiday dinner table does not follow a straightforward path.

Although the link between American fall and winter holidays, roasted turkey, and cooked cranberries is a tight one in the current food landscape, there is no clear precedent for these particular foods within the history of Thanksgiving. This short review shares the small amount of evidence to support the tradition of cranberries with Thanksgiving and early American cuisine, along with the ways in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture supported farmers as they established, grew, and maintained this unique food crop. The USDA's Agricultural Research Service is also investigating this food for its unique properties, including its ability to prevent urinary tract infections and its nature as a source of flavonols.

Step-Saving Kitchens

To help homemakers reduce time and work involved in kitchen activities, the Bureau is designing and preparing construction drawings for kitchens, with different arrangements of equipment — the U, L, broken U and L, and parallel-wall types of arrangement. They are designed to reduce walking, stooping, and stretching to a minimum, in accordance with accepted principles of work simplification.

Stiebeling, Hazel K. (1948). Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics, Agricultural Research Administration. U.S. Department of Agriculture, p. 13.

Throughout its existence, the USDA's Bureau of Home Economics used principles of systematic research to devise the best designs for efficient kitchens and farmhouses. This post showcases several of the more prominent results of this work.

The Dirt Roads of Rural America

At the beginning of the year 1913, 90 per cent, or approximately 2,000,000 miles, of the roads in this country were earth. The repair and proper maintenance of earth roads are therefore of great importance.

Hewes, Laurence I. (1913). Repair and Maintenance of Highways. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Office of Public Roads. Bulletin Number 48, p. 35.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued publications in the early 1900s that provided guidance on the best ways to build, maintain, and improve the earth roads that were common in rural America at that time. Here is a selection from these USDA reports, along with some supplementary text, to provide a larger context.

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Digital Library Branch (DLB)