American Legal History
-- ZebulunJohnson - 12 Jan 2017

Breaking the Soil

Part 1: The Rise of the Horse in the 19th Century


In 1825, Senator William Findlay of Pennsylvania submitted a resolution for the establishment of a Senate Committee on Agriculture. (BHoSCA? 10). Senator Findlay argued that, as the Senate had already approved the creation of committees for Commerce and Manufacturers, it was only appropriate that Agriculture receive equal attention as one of the “three great branches of domestic industry.” (BHoSCA? 10). Senator Findlay was persuasive, and the Resolution was adopted, beginning the official recognition of the importance of agriculture in the American tradition and economy.

At the time of Senator Findlay’s proposal, farming had changed remarkably little from colonial times, or even from the times of the ancient Romans. Until 1833, practically all farm work, excepting plowing and harrowing, was done manually. (PoRE? 84). Although some farm implements were of better quality than others—the Dutch were noted for having “superior” tools over the English (MoL? 751)—with the exception of the quality of livestock and crops, the actual tools of farming had seen only minor changes over the course of nearly 4000 years. (Id.) Until the 19th century, grain was planted, harvested, threshed, and winnowed manually, either by hand, with hand tools, or with minimal help from farm animals. Similarly, row crops were planted by hand, cultivated by hoe, and harvested by hand.

However, beginning in 1833, there was an explosion of new farm technology in America, particularly in the Northern and Western states. This disparity of development between New England and the South occurred because of a variety of factors, the largest of which were the quality of the land, the demand for labor, and the crops produced. Compared with the cheap, arable land of the Southern states, New England agriculture, as well as the agriculture of the Great Plains, was relatively labor intensive. (MoL? 752). In the Western states, frontier development required a constant demand for efficiency whereas in slavery, the South had a labor supply which required a heavy initial investment but nominal upkeep. (PoRE? 95). Further, Southern crops did not easily lend themselves towards automation: Apart from the cotton gin, the cotton industry did not realize the full benefits of mechanization until the 1950s, and tobacco today still requires much manual labor. (PoRE? 93). In contrast, the wheat fields and row crops of the Northern and Western States lent themselves nicely to automation, although row crops did not benefit from mechanized harvesting until the 1930s.

This environment proved ideal for the invention and adoption of horse-powered machinery. Over the course of the 19th century, horse-powered machinery would disrupt millennia-old forms of farming by providing far more efficient methods of farming than had before been possible. This machinery would become widely adopted in the North and spread quickly westward towards the plains, and by the turn of the 20th century, nearly every task associated with grain cultivation, many tasks associated with row crop cultivation, and some tasks associated with cash crop cultivation were performed primarily by horse-powered machinery. (PoRE? 87). This widespread adoption of horse-power in the Northern and Western states resulted in a steady increase in the amount of horses on farms which persisted until the introduction of the tractor in 1918. Even then, horses remained the primary source of power on farms until WWII. (AAiTC? XX).

In 1898, the Commissioner of Labor concluded that “one man with the improved machinery…can cultivate and harvest nearly twice as large a crop” of any type of crop, as had been previously possible. (MoL? 756). The work of the American farmer in 1900 was drastically different from the work of the American farmer in 1800, due primarily to the transformation of agriculture from man-power to horse-power. It is this remarkable transformation that this section will focus on, though an examination of the most important horse-powered machinery at work in the 19th century. The following subsections are divided by the principal tasks of a farmer: the preparation of the soil, the planting of seeds, the harvest, and (in the case of grains) threshing and winnowing. Each of these subsections will deal briefly with the historical method of performing the task, and then examine the 19th century technological changes which resulted in a horse-powered method replacing the historical method. By doing so, this section will give explain how horse-powered machinery transformed agriculture in the 19th century.

Breaking the Soil

Until the mid-19th century, the plow, the basic tool of soil preparation, remained remarkably similar to the plow used in ancient times. The plow is seen as far back as ancient Egypt: Egyptian bas-reliefs show a slave guiding two oxen drawing a wooden pronged implement, the longer prong attached to the oxen and the shorter prong digging in the soil. The wooden lower prong—now called a share—often broke, so the Egyptians covered the share in a hard cover made of flint. This technique of hardening the shares spread, and the plows mentioned biblically, as well as by the Greek poets Herodotus and Homer, were made of iron. The largest innovation in the plow before the 18th century came from the ancient Romans, who added a flat board to the plow to move the disturbed soil in one direction. This flat board is known today as the moldboard.

This Roman plow was the basic plow design used in the Western World until 1730, when English inventors created moldboards which would fully flip the disturbed soil, rather than simply moving it. After 1730, although the size and shape of the plow varied depending on the area being developed and the crop to be sown, and although plows were sometimes reinforced with strips of iron, the fundamental design of the plow remained remarkably similar until the end of the century, when Charles Newbold patented the first cast-iron moldboard. Although this new moldboard created a huge gain in productivity, it proved too expensive to repair, as it was cast in one piece and any damage would result in the necessity of a new moldboard.

Over the next two decades, American inventors tinkered with the design of the plow, and in 1814 the plows gain curved moldboards similar to those used today. In 1829, the defect in the Newbold plow of expensive repairs was fixed when Jethro Wood patented a plow which was cast in sections, allowing replacement of worn parts. After Wood’s sectional plow, an avalanche of different plow designs followed, with 186 plow patents being issued by 1870. It was also during this period that John Deere first entered the agricultural spotlight by patenting a plow with a steel share made of mill blades. The steel share easily scoured the dirt, and this feature of teel became crucial for plowing the sticky soil of the Midwest.

However, by 1855 the patents shifted focus from the design of the plow itself to the design of the “hook-up” of the plow to a power source. At this point in time, the primary labor savings came from the ability to increase the amount of power, allowing for multiple plows to be pulled at once, at the same time. For example, Iowa, which represented the median labor requirement of the US, required 4.1 man-hours per acre with a three-horse plow; 3.1 man-hours with a 4-horse plow; and 1.6 man-hours with a 5-horse plow. Western states such as Washington saw further economy of labor, whereas New England states such as New York saw less. The largest of these hook-ups allowed for twenty-horse outfits which could plow a strip of land with a width of up to 60 feet.

Planting Drills

Unlike the plow, until 1840 seed planting had, with few exceptions, always been done by hand. Prior, grain seeds were broadcast—meaning they were scattered by hand and then raked over—whereas row seeds were dropped by hand into prepared rows. In the 19th century, however, this process was mechanized through the advent of the drill. For row crops drills, the drills utilized wheels with different sized holes designed for different types of seeds. When the drill was drawn by horse, the drill wheel would rotate, which would drop different varieties of seeds in checkerboard patterns with different spacing. These drills represented enormous labor savings for farmers: in 1850 it took 13.8 man-hours per acre to plant corn, whereas in 1894 it took 3.6 man-hours.

Grain drills were dragged by horses and consisted machinery holding three bins: one bin was filled with grain seed, one was filled with fertilizer, and one was filled with grass seed. The drill would make a small furrow in which to place the seeds, then feed the seeds at the proper rate into a funnel leading into the furrow, and then cover the furrow with soil and fertilizer. Grain drills introduced even larger labor savings than row crop drills, and this design is still the principal design used in agriculture today. Drills of both kinds became available for purchase in 1840, but widespread usage did not occur until 1870.

Once planted, the row crops needed to be weeded. Until the 19th century, this process was done by hand and hoe. However, the difficulty of weeding vast tracts of corn, cotton and tobacco gave great incentive for the development of a mechanical weeder. In 1820, farmers because utilizing horse-drawn plow cultivators. These were plows which had multiple teeth of variable width. By aligning the teeth between the rows, farmers could remove almost all the weeds except those actually in the row.


Although there were innovations in soil preparation and seeding, no aspect of the process saw greater labor gains than harvesting grains. For nearly all crops, harvesting was the most labor-intensive part of crop production. Harvesting grains involved cutting the stalks, separating the grains, and removing the chaff. Until the mid-nineteenth century, farmers did each of these tasks manually, using methods which had not substantively changed in thousands of year: the farmer would cut the grain by hand, bind and store the grain to let it dry, beat the dried stalks to separate the grain, then throw the separated grain on windy days to remove the chaff.

By the turn of the century, the labor involved in harvesting grain had been reduced by a factor of fifty. This gave the US a considerable advantage in the global wheat market, and mechanization was viewed as primary source of this advantage. So great was the perceived threat of American mechanization to skilled laborers that there were riots and destruction of imported American machines in England. Although there were some innovations for the harvest of row and cash crops, the major disruptions in harvest of row and cash crops did not occur until the mid-twentieth century.

Pre-Mechanized Harvest

For cutting the stalks of grain, the oldest harvesting tools are the sickle and the scythe, whose origin dates back to the Ancient Babylonians. In fact, until the 17th century the only substantive developments of these basic tools were the type of metal used, the curve of the blade, and the thickness of the blade. In the seventeenth century, the most widely used grain harvesting implement was the English sickle. The blade on this sickle was serrated on one edge of a curved blade set almost at a right angle to a short handle. To use the sickle, the reaper would grab a handful of grain in one hand and would then cut that handful with his sickle. As the reaper did so, he would pull the grain forward into the crook of his arm. This process would repeat until the harvester could carry no more grain in his arm. Although it seems simple in theory, in execution it required a great deal of skill, and prior to horse-powered machinery, wheat harvesting was considered skilled labor and had corresponding increased pay.

In contrast, the scythe was a larger implement which, through a double bend in its handle, was used while standing to cut larger swathes in the grain field, leaving the stalks for others to collect. It wasn’t until 1827 that the sickle/scythe was improved upon, when Charles Vaughn created the American cradle by adding “fingers” to the scythe which vertically matched the blade. This innovation allowed harvesters to cut large swaths while simultaneously collecting the grain on the fingers. The Vaughn cradle, at its lowest estimate, improved efficiency by nearly 300 percent over the scythe method. This was the preferred tool of farmers until the mechanized reaper saw widespread usage after the Civil War.


The McCormick? reaper, patented in 1833, consisted of an oscillating cutter bar which would drop grain onto a sled. The reaper was guided by a horse walking alongside. Although innovative, this first reaper suffered from too many defects for its usage to become widespread. First, apart from the price of the machine, the reaper’s parts were too delicate to be used in any but the mildest of conditions, as an unseen rock or branch often caused the reaper to break down. Second, the early versions of the reaper did not drastically reduce labor. The cut grain still had to be raked off the sled and hand-bound. Despite these shortcomings, this first reaper represented a new era of grain harvest, and the following fifty years saw a revolution in the harvesting of wheat.

One of the earliest additions to the reaper was the automatic raker in 1858. This consisted of a canvas on rollers which would place the grain on a platform where workers could easily gather the grain into bundles. This became a standard feature of the reaper as early as 1864. The 1870s saw the addition of an automatic bundling mechanism, but it used wire which often resulted in the injury or death of workers and livestock. In the 1880s, reapers replaced wires with twine through a device called a binder. By 1890, the usage of reapers had improved harvest efficiency by another 300 percent.

While the binder and reaper combination remained the pinnacle of grain harvest invention until after WWII in the Eastern US, the drier parts of the country preferred a mechanism called a header. In specifically California, Oregon, and Washington, the mechanism used had the same fundamental concept as the reaper, but was instead pushed from behind, and they utilized special wagons to move the cut grain to stationary threshing machines. Because the climate was so dry, the binding and drying phase in the harvest cycle could be skipped completely.


Until the early 18th century, grain still needed to be threshed manually after it had dried. This was done by either trampling the grain with animals, or beating the grain with flails. The flail was essentially two wooden rods attached by a chain or strip of leather. The farmer would beat the grain with one end of the flail to loosen the husks. Afterwards, the farmer would winnow the grain by exposing it to wind, which would blow the chaff away. By 1870, both threshing and winnowing were nearly fully mechanized in the US.

Shortly before the advent of reapers, stationary threshing machines appeared in the US. These machines utilized either horse-powered flailing devices, or revolving rollers with teeth and spurs. Over time, the latter came to dominate the agricultural landscape. However, these machines did nothing to separate the chaff from the grain. For this purpose, winnowing machines were used. Invented contemporaneously with the threshing machines, these machines operated by pouring the wheat and chaff onto vibrating mesh screens, below which operated a fan. The vibrations would cause the chaff to rise to the top, and the fan would blow the chaff away. The leftover grain would be utilized on the farm or sold.

In 1844, the first combination thresher/winnower was placed on the market by J. I. Case. This stationary machine operated by utilizing the power of a team of up to 8 horses to power rollers for threshing and screens/fans for winnowing. The clean grain was then sent through a chute to be collected. This machine dominated the agricultural landscape until 1880, when the entire machine was placed on wheels, and the horses were replaced by a steam engine. These new mobile machines required at least five people to operate, but larger teams were necessary to ensure maximum utility. These new mobile machines—dragged either by a team of horses or self-propelled—disrupted the individualistic/familial nature of grain farming which had been in place since colonial times, and replaced it with a specialized industry form not before seen.

Combination threshing/winnowing machines were exorbitantly expensive. It was impossible for the average farmer at the time to afford these types of machines. Even if they could, there were only a select number of farms which would have used the machines enough to justify the cost. However, the productivity gains could not be ignored. To this end, agriculture saw the birth of its first real specialization: customized threshers. Custom threshers purchased their own machines and traveled from farm to farm during the harvest season, offering their services for either cost of a portion of the grain. The threshers would normally visit the same farms year after year, and by 1900, they had become a staple in agricultural life.

The horse-powered machinery introduced in the 19th century would have long-lasting effects which would not be fully realized until the 1920s and 1930s. At the turn of the century, the future of the common farmer seemed optimistic. The New York Times reported in 1899 that, “The farmer, the miller, the stockman, and all classes engaged in like industries are reaping the benefits that flow from bounteous harvests and good prices.” Indeed, the 20th century would bring many benefits for America’s farmers: an increasingly accessible global market, the creation of national infrastructure which reached rural areas, and of course, the government regulation during the New Deal era. However, it seems that these benefits could not compete with the labor displacement introduced by the machinery of the 1800s—up to 80 percent of farm workers were made redundant in some areas of the agricultural economy. The difficulty created by this labor displacement was compounded by WW1, followed by the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Although it was thought for most of the 19th century that agrarian necessities would continue to grow with the population, the opposite has proven true. Today, we have nearly five times the population of 1900, yet we have only a third of the farms. Further research in plant biology, soil health, and further improvements on technology led to a 1% increase in production of acre of land per year pre-WWII, and a 2% increase thereafter. In order to understand the complexity of these economic, governmental, and technological changes which occurred in the 20th century, however, it is necessary to understand the mechanical revolution which occurred on America’s farms during the 19th century.


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r2 - 16 Jan 2017 - 17:34:09 - ZebulunJohnson
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