A Timber Shortage:
how colonial housewives obliterated New England's forests for the sake of a bar of soap (1600-1880)
European Forestry:
a plan for recovering forests
Laws and Orders:
making provisions for New England's town forests
a chronology (1882-1914)
The Saga Continues:
the rise and fall of national community forest programs
a chronology (1919-1952)


A Timber Shortage:
how the colonial housewives obliterated New England's forests
for the sake of a bar of soap

Okay, to say that housewives obliterated the forests for a bar soap is a slight exaggeration. But it's not completely off the mark, as will be explained shortly. The housewife was not by any standard the chief annihilator of New England's forests. The blame can be shared among the entire New England community, most especially:

These folks, either directly through forest clearing or indirectly through wasteful use of firewood and other forest products, were agents of destruction of New England's forests which had New Englanders crying Tiiiimmmberrrrrr! shortage by the end of the 18th century.

The farmer 17th and 18th century farmers labored to clear away forest and make the exposed ground suitable for plowing. They felled and girdled trees with no thought for future generations of farmers, and left pathetic woodlots, meager in size and filled with saplings that were too small for building timber and brush that was useless as firewood. As a result, by mid-18th century, building timber, fence posts, and fuel wood were in short supply.

The logger Lumbering began as a mercantile trade in the 17th century. However, shortages of firewood and building timber, which began as early as the 1638 in Boston, increased the demand for the logger's wares. As a result, lumbering had become a full scale capitalist venture by the end of the 18th century, as full-time loggers in Maine and New Hampshire regularly shipped firewood and timber to seacoast towns that had exhausted their wood supply. Railroads and canals eased the transport of lumber from forest to urban market, enabling expansion of the lumber industry.

Town tax laws, which required property taxes to be paid yearly based on land values, provided no incentive for long-term forest management. Rapid clear-cutting followed by abandonment for tax forfeiture and then moving onto the next forest proved most economically efficient. In their unbounded pursuit of this so-called economic efficiency, lumberers disregarded old traditions of forest stewardship and soon depleted the very resource base upon which their livelihood depended.

The butcher Farmers not only cleared away forests to plant crops for human use, but also to keep cattle and sheep. The land requirements for planting crops were small in comparison to the land requirements for keeping cattle and sheep. These domesticated animals needed pastures for grazing, meadows for haying, and fields for cultivating grain. In addition, cattle and hogs were permitted to run at large in the woods, where they foraged on plants and shoots of young trees and compacted the soil, rendering the forest soils hospitable only to English weeds. Livestock were a significant force in the destruction of forests, whether directly requiring forests to be cut down for pasture, meadow, and field, or indirectly contributing to the long term deterioration of forests.

Colonial Americans combined subsistence-oriented agriculture with mercantile trade. Newly arrived colonists created a ready market for surplus wares, and were willing to pay a high price for grain and livestock that they needed to set up farm and to sustain them until their first harvest. All a homesteader needed was a bag of grain or a couple sheep. And land. Tree-free land. With these meager requirements to begin with--a bag of grain, a few cattle and an acre of land--a colonist could obtain hard cash and then increase his fortune by working more and more land. Land soon became the idol of many in New England. In their single-minded lust for newly cleared land, colonial farmers disregarded the lessons learned from their ancestors in Europe--that stewardship is the essence of agriculture and natural resources, timber in particular, are easily exhausted.

The baker This is where the housewife comes in. The colonial housewife was, for the most part, the baker (and the milkman, the spinner, the weaver, the seamstress, and the...). And in those days, if you wanted to bake, you needed firewood. By far the greatest use of the New England forest was for fuel--not only to bake, but also to warm houses (which were in general much larger than their English counterparts, thus requiring more firewood to heat AND more lumber to build). Colonial households squandered vast amounts of firewood, keeping a fire going day and night all winter in all rooms in inefficient open fireplaces (the Pennsylvania Germans, in contrast, used a much more efficient cast iron stove). As a result, towns often suffered wood shortages within 10 years of their establishment.

The bar-of-soapmaker The burning of a forest to make the land suitable for farming yielded wood ashes, which were either left in place to enrich the soil or processed into potash.. Potash, also known as potassium hydroxide or lye, was a strong base used throughout history to make soap (and gunpowder). Potash was a major New England export. At times it was the only means of making a profit during the first year of setting up a farm. The cleared land (which was considered "improved" since it was ready for farming) could also be sold for a profit. Rapid clearing for potash and then moving onto the next forest proved to be very profitable, and destroying the forest thus became an end in itself. Colonial women made soap as part of their seasonal cycle of housework. Commerical production of soap began in 1608 when soapmakers arrived from England.

As you can see from the recipe for good old-fashioned soap (above), each of our agents of destruction of New England's forests contributed to the soapmaking process. The farmer cleared the land yielding potash (or bought the cleared land that was a "by-product" of potash); the lumberer chopped the trees that made the firewood; the butcher pastured the sheep or cattle that provided the suet, the baker cum firemaker processed the suet into tallow over a great fire; and the soapmaker used these ingredients to make soap, which was then poured into wooden molds or boxes to cure.

Farmers, loggers, butchers, bakers and bar-of-soap makers transformed the landscape of New England. Forest cover disappeared at an alarming rate, replaced by farm, wasteland, and pasture. Forest cover in Massachusetts, for example, was reduced from a high of 95% at the time of European colonization, to 50% by 1850.

Fortunately, the forests finally received a few lucky breaks. Farm owners and timber merchants began to speculate on the forests to the west and south of New England in the mid-18th century. They abandoned their soil and sawmills. Their sheep moved with them. Technology served to alleviate acute shortages of firewood. Cast iron stoves, which were five times more efficient, replaced large drafy fireplaces and coal replaced wood as the fuel of choice.

Technology also saved the reputation of soap. In the mid 1800s, a Belgian chemist discovered a simple method for making soda ash, or sodium hydroxide, from common salt, which replaced potash from wood ashes. Sodium hydroxide is still used to make the pleasant soaps that you can enjoy today

(Soaps made with potash were soft and harsh and rather unpleasant).

In the 1880's, New England stood on the cusp of a landscape revolution. Farmers and butchers were abandoning field and pasture for the greener grass out west and down south. Loggers went the same way, leaving behind devastated wasteland in their wake. Fields that once produced corn and mutton yielded a vigorous young growth of trees. Wasteland showed the same propensity towards self-healing. If these lands were managed correctly they could be infused with new value. So those who remained behind began to learn how to manage and conserve forests. They looked to Europe for inspiration...

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European Forestry:
a plan for recovering forests

Thus began the exploratory stages of the town forest movement in America. Foresters, public officials, and others concerned about reclamation of idle land and regional timber shortages traveled abroad to study the European system of communal forestry.

Communal forests were found throughout Europe, where they had been operated for several centuries. Although most European countries had community forests, the best examples were to be found in Switzerland, France, Germany, and Austria. Most European countries had more forest land in town or community ownership than in state ownership. In Switzerland, for example, at least two-thirds of all the forests were owned by the communities.

Those who went to Europe to study communal forests were convinced that town ownership of forests was an economically sound solution for reclamation of idle land and production of timber to ease local shortages in New England. The sale of forest products yielded financial returns to the community. An oft-cited example of this was Germany, where 500 villages not only had no local tax assessments and actually paid dividends out of the profits from their communal forests. Additional benefits came from the employment of local citizens and the fact the forests also as recreational parks and game refuges. When the forest became overstocked, special hunting licenses were sold, which provided additional income to the community.

Europe's community forests stimulated much publicity and a flurry of articles in American magazines. One of the most influential publications was a series of short articles on the communal forest in Germany, written by Mr. George H. Maxwell, titled "Forests for Towns and Villages". The widespread interest aroused by reprints of this publication resulted in the introduction of a bill in the General court to authorize towns to own and operate town forests.

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Laws and Orders:
making provisions for New England's town forests
a chronology (1882-1914)
1882 Massachusetts legislation enables towns to purchase land and place it in the public domain for protection and cultivation of forest trees for wood and timber or to protect water supplies. Towns did not own the forests directly--the forests were owned by the state, which had power to adopt management regulations, appoint a keeper, sell forest products, lease any existing buildings, construct new buildings for recreation, and balance books.

1882 The State Board of Agriculture is mandated to act as a Board of Forestry

1890 The Board of Agriculture is ordered by the House of Representatives to "inquire into the conditions of the forests of the state and to report on need and methods of their protection and improvement."

1895-1904 Nonprofit forestry organizations are chartered in New England

1895 The Connecticut Forestry Association, is chartered.

1898 The Massachusetts Forestry Association (MFA)

1901 The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF)

1904 The Forestry Association of Vermont

These forestry organizations, particularly SPNHF and MFA, served as a catalyst for policy-making at the turn of the century and helped to launch town forest programs.

1904 Massachusetts legislature establishes the position of State Forester

1911 Harris A. Reynolds becomes secretary of the MFA. The MFA was very influential in New England's town forest movement largely through the efforts of Reynolds, who has been called "the father of the town forest movement".

1913 "The Town Forest Act"
Enactment of town forest enabling legislation in Massachusetts. This amendment to the 1882 state law permitted towns to own forests directly and manage them without supervision by the state. Communities were given the choice of appointing a forester or assigning that task to the state forester. New Hampshire also passed enabling legislation in 1913. Vermont followed in 1915.

Harris Reynolds travels to Europe with his new bride this same year, for a combined honeymoon and study of European community forests.

1914 "The State Forest Act"
With enactment of the State Forest Act, the state begins establishment of state forests for the production of commercial timber and conservation of water.

1914 The first town forest is created under the Town Forest Act--and so this phase of the conservation movement begins.

From New England, the town forest movement spread south and west into other states...

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The Saga Continues:
the rise and fall of national community forest programs
a chronology (1919-1952)

1919 The chief forester for the U.S. Forest Service establishes a Committee for the Application of Forestry to foster public control of timber cutting on private lands.

The U.S. Forest Service is concerned about unrestricted logging on private lands, where purchase followed by clear-cutting followed by abandonment proved most economically efficient . Community forests are considered as a potential solution.

1929 Nationwide depression begins.

1933 Congress reviews a document titled A National Plan for American Forestry (better known as the Copeland Report). The report discommends private ownership of woodlands and recommends increased public ownership as the key to long-term management of America's forests.

1937 The United States Forest Service begins to plan for a National Community Forest Program. Questionairres were sent to state foresters and town officials to gather data about ownership, use, planting, management, and revenue.

The U.S. government, however, wavers at plans to fund community forests and President Roosevelt deletes the provision on a bill submitted to him in 1942.

1941 The Society of American Foresters establishes a Committee on Community Forests. The committee's first report, issued in February 1942, recommended "that the Society of American Foresters recognize the community forests as an important factor in the conservation of the forest resources of the country and that its policy shal be to ecnourage in every possible manner the establishment of such forests."

1952 The American Forestry Association establish a Committee on Community Forestry.

An association forester, assigned to supervise the committee, publishes a 1953 census of community forests in the U.S. The census reports 3226 community forests in the country, covering an area of more than 4,382,000 acres and indicates that the community forestry movement is maintaining a steady growth.

The committee, which had no funding and a vague agenda that called for making recommendations "from time to time", vanished into obscurity soon afterwards.
The Society for American Forester's Committee on Community Forests suffered the same fate.

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