The social network of “neighboring” was not simple. Its varying dimensions and intensities were unwritten but understood by the people themselves. To begin with, one's neighbor was not defined by geography. Every geographical neighborhood had some people who were not really neighbors to others for various reasons, from being anti-social (hard to get along with, just plain ornery) to being untrustworthy. The extent of cooperation and mutual aid varied between and among families. Borrowing was a special dimension typically involving close ties, often kinship.
Borrowing was a crucial solution to temporary scarcity or, more rarely, the sharing of a relatively rare tool or substance. Like barter, it was a social channel to deal with economic issues in a world where money and markets were limited. Going beyond people helping one another, each exchange carried unspoken assurance that the lender could depend upon the borrower for the same sort of assistance at any time.
There were periods when farmers had little or no cash money on hand. Much depended on crop cycles, the times when cotton, tobacco and livestock were sold. Loans were hard to come by and paid for dearly (8 to 10 percent). Prices for their products were unpredictable and low at best. Even when they had money, they could not run to town just any time to pick up some flour, sugar or a replacement handle for some tool. Before there were automobiles, the trip meant unhitching a mule from a plow and hitching it to a wagon or buggy, taking time away from work for man and mule. Even with an automobile, the demands of work were pressing and stores in town did not stay open after dark. Buying happened on Saturdays. Borrowing was the way they got by until the next Saturday.
An important part of the lending culture was obligation to respond. “If I’ve got it, you can get it.” It mattered not whether the request was for a cup of sugar or the use of a hand saw. Of course, everyone understood that some “borrows” were more serious than others. That was recognized in the etiquette of borrowing. If “Mary” did not “pay back” a cup of sugar, neighbor “Sally” would not be upset, might even tell Mary at the moment of lending that she should not “worry about paying this back.”
Still, Mary might show up soon with that cup of sugar and at Sally’s protest say, “Well, you know that’s just my way.” Or she might appear one day with vegetables or a freshly baked pie as a sign of appreciation, not obligation.
There were important unspoken understandings about serious borrowing that involved things which were expensive or otherwise difficult to replace. The most important is that material objects, such as tools, must be returned in as good condition — or better — as they were when they left the owners’ hands. “Better” was a smart practice. Axes, saws and other edged tools should be sharp. Minor repairs should be fixed “as good as new” and pointed out immediately to the owner. Broken handles should be replaced and anything damaged beyond repair must be replaced with a new one or a used one of equal or better quality. The same “rules” applied to household items.
Another expectation was that borrowed things would be returned as soon as possible. One did not assume that an owner would not or might not need the item. He or she just might! It was bad if an owner had to come to the home of the borrower to retrieve property. It weakened the bonds of trust, bringing into question any borrowing in the future.
Borrowing transactions concluded with earnest words of appreciation. People really did depend on borrowing to “get by” in everyday life. Their “thank you” was heartfelt. Lenders almost always replied in words like, “Glad to do it. Any time. You know that.” And these words were equally sincere. Their ties to one another were many and often precious.
Few people were remiss in following the unspoken rules of borrowing. Some were trapped by misfortune — crop failure, serious illness, death in the family — but more important, parts of neighboring guided their friends and family in such times. Otherwise, bad borrowers usually found that “word got out” about their failures. They were in danger of getting the reputation of being a “sorry neighbor,” which was most unfortunate in a world where interdependence was part of life.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.