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Down on the Farm

Grade Level: 5–6

Students will explore life on a nineteenth-century farm by analyzing a painting of Mahantango Valley farm and researching the Manual of Agriculture (1862). They will then write a journal entry of a day in the life of a young person on this farm.


American 19th Century
Mahantango Valley Farm, late 19th century
oil on window shade, 71.1 x 92.2 cm (28 x 36 5/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch

Curriculum Connections

  • History/Social Studies
  • Language Arts


  • Computers with internet access for student research
  • Writing materials

Warm-Up Question

What activities are taking place on this farm?


A complete farm ought to have woodland, pasture land, meadow or grassland, arable land, an orchard, a garden spot, and space for roads.

It should have a farmer’s house, a barn or stable for horses, oxen, sheep, and swine, and for crops, a tool house, a dairy, fences, walls or hedges, and wells or springs.

It would be desirable to have a stream running through it or by it, and to have a pond or swamp connected with or belonging to it.

A husbandman* also wants capital** to stock his farm with cattle and other animals, and to furnish it with carts, wagons, ploughs, and other tools.

To carry on a farm successfully, a good deal of knowledge and a high degree of intelligence are necessary. . .


George B. Emerson and Charles L. Flint, Manual of Agriculture, for the School, the Farm, and the Fireside (Boston, 1862), ii, 1-2. Courtesy of the University of Michigan University Library, and the Making of America project.

In the nineteenth century, many farms were located in river valleys where nutrients from rivers made the soil fertile and where the proximity to water meant easier irrigation and transportation of crops and livestock. The valley depicted in Mahantango Valley Farm is located in central Pennsylvania and was settled mostly by Germans. The area produced primarily wheat, corn, and fruit, as well as livestock. The Mahantango River runs into the Susquehanna River, making the area a good location for the shipment of produce and other goods to and from large cities, such as nearby Harrisburg, the state capital.

Occasionally, a farmer wanted a record of what a lifetime of hard work had achieved. He or she would commission an artist to record the farm, including its property, buildings, livestock, and workers. The artist would give the maximum amount of information in the clearest manner possible. In Mahantango Valley Farm, the artist used an aerial viewpoint to capture receding rows of harvested fields as well as descriptive three-quarter views of the various farm buildings. There are great disparities of scale; huge cows and a bull dominate the yard of the farmhouse, and large birds, presumably pigeons roost on its roof. The artist included a number of details that describe the farm and life at the time. It seems to be an expansive property, with wooden fences and stonewalls separating the fields, and various outbuildings delineating its boundaries. The harvested fields indicate that the farm was largely devoted to raising crops, though it did produce livestock. While men hunt and ride horses, children play a game of hoop and stick. Paintings such as Mahantango Valley Farm became records of daily activities and familiar places and embodied a sense of celebration about the productivity of the land and its seemingly boundless expanse and beauty.


Pennsylvania German Chest
Rendered by Betty Jean Davis, 1935/1942
watercolor and graphite on paper, 31.6 x 45.7 cm (12 7/16 x 18 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Index of American Design

Showing resourcefulness in the face of scarce or expensive materials, this artist worked with materials at hand. In this case, the farm scene was painted on a fabric window shade. While the artist remains unknown, he or she used primarily bright green and brick red colors that are similar to those in Pennsylvania German painted furniture (see depiction at right). It is possible, then, that the painter was of German descent.

Guided Practice

  • What are the geographical features of the area portrayed in Mahantango Valley Farm? What makes it a good spot for a farm?
  • Why would an artist choose to do a bird’s-eye view of a place? (To include all the details of the farm from both near [farm buildings, people, and animals] and far [fields, forest, and distant mountains].)
  • What was probably growing in this location before the farm was established? What would people have to do to prepare the land for farming? (Clear thick forest, remove stones from the field areas.) Why would they keep wooded areas? Why did they need fenced-in areas?
  • In the nineteenth century, large grocery stores did not exist. Where did the food for the people on the farm come from? What did the painter tell you about what they ate? (Crops, deer, wild fowl, chicken, eggs, pigs—bacon and pork, milk.)
  • Where did their water come from? What technology was used to access it? (Pump.) In what ways would this natural resource be used on the farm?
  • What have Mahantango Valley Farm and the Manual of Agriculture taught you about the nineteenth century?


Some farmers kept a reference manual on hand to help when years of farming experience and advice from neighboring farmers failed. One such text was the 1862 Manual of Agriculture, for the School, the Farm, and the Fireside. The book, meant as both a reference for farmers and an educational text for students, lauds the vocation of farming:

Without agriculture there can be no commerce or manufactures, no population or prosperity. Every one, of whatever vocation, is interested in its welfare, and every man, woman and child, should have some knowledge of the fundamental principles of this most useful art.

Part of the manual’s purpose, was “to implant in the minds of youth an abiding love for this honorable employment.” At a time in which some young people were beginning to turn away from farm life in favor of city living, the text was also meant as a rally cry for farming. Its 306 pages described the location, equipment, crops, and livestock of the ideal farm. It had a subject index that allowed a farmer or student to access information such as how to ripen apples, manage the dairy, prepare bedding for cattle, and included additional information on such topics as plant diseases and uses for hay.

Students will now use the online version of the Manual of Agriculture to answer the following questions:

  • What should a good farm have?
  • What items listed in the manual can be seen on Mahantango farm?
  • What does the farm lack based on what the manual says it should have?


Students will write a journal entry imagining they live on this farm. What daily tasks and chores would you help with on a farm? How would you dress? What would you eat? What would you do for fun? How would you get around? 

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cn11.1.6 Analyze how art reflects changing times, traditions, resources, and cultural uses.

VA:Re7.1.6 Identify and interpret works of art or design that reveal how people live around the world and what they value. 

VA:Re8.1.6 Interpret art by distinguishing between relevant and non-relevant contextual information and analyzing subject matter, characteristics of form and structure, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.

Create portraits and construct panoramic landscapes using naive paintings from the NGA with Faces & Places

Borrow the teaching packet Art&

Borrow the DVD American Art, 1785-1926: Seven Artist Profiles

Download or borrow the teaching packet The Inquiring Eye: American Painting

Add primary sources from the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” project