From the colonial period and its wooden and iron hand and animal implements to the start of the nineteenth century and the development of cast-iron and polished-steel plows, cotton gins, reapers, and threshing machines, agricultural technology advanced at a quick rate and brought about large-scale agriculture by the end of the nineteenth century. Tasks that had taken days or hours to complete could now be finished in hours or minutes. With the new implements, the use of hired labor declined as farmers utilized family members for labor and machinery operation. The mid-Atlantic and Midwest became technologically advanced early in their agricultural history, while the South lagged behind as slave, then sharecropper, labor made use of hand tools.
During the colonial era, hand tools were common on most farms. A wooden hoe with an iron blade was used to prepare the field for planting and cultivating. Other tools included the flail, sickle, and scythe. Used in grain and hay production, the sickle cut the stalk, while the scythe gathered the cut crop that was carried from the field. Flails threshed the grain. Labor intensive during the colonial period, agriculture required several hands to plant, cultivate, and harvest crops. Some plows were present in colonial America. Constructed by local blacksmiths or imported from England, colonial plows bore regional differences. In most cases, they were wooden with a metal plowshare. Wooden plows remained the plow of choice for most farmers until the 1820s. In the 1790s Charles Newbold patented the first cast-iron plow. This implement proved impractical, as it had to be cast in one piece. In 1807 David Peacock patented a plow whose moldboard, landslide, and share were cast separately. Further refinements were made by Jethro Wood in the 1810s. Wood's plow was popular in the East; many farmers abandoned their wooden and older cast-iron plows for his model.
During the period from the 1820s to the 1840s, several innovations occurred in plow production. As people moved onto the prairie frontier, farmers needed plows to work the soil there. The Breaking Plow, or Prairie Breaker, was a heavy wooden plow plated with iron strips to reduce friction. Prairie plows were heavy, weighing at least 125 pounds and requiring from three to seven yoke of oxen. Cutting only three inches into the soil, farmers could break eight acres a year. Professional prairie breakers could break more land as they traveled from farm to farm. In 1833 John Lane of Illinois designed the first plow for general farm use on the prairie. Lane used steel instead of cast iron. In 1836 John Deere began to produce steel plows in Illinois. Deere's plows contained a polished wrought iron moldboard and steel share. This design quickly became the plow of the prairie frontier as the polished steel blade cut through the prairie soil.
The cotton gin that was developed in the 1790s drastically changed southern agriculture. Dependent on hand labor but without a strong cotton market, southern planters recognized the need for a device to process and clean upland cotton. The cotton gin patented by Eli Whitney in 1794 allowed for the cleaning and ginning of upland cotton. This invention changed southern agriculture by spreading upland cotton across the South and West, developing a dependence on one-crop agriculture, and perpetuating southern slavery.
After plowing, other implements were used. The harrow was necessary to smooth the soil in areas where the soil remained rough. Initially as simple as a tree branch, the harrow became more sophisticated after the Revolution. By the 1790s, two distinct types of harrows were in use: the square and the triangle, or "A" frame. The square harrow was used on old fields that were free of large obstructions, while the triangular frame was used on freshly plowed fields. These models had wooden frames with wood or iron teeth.
Cultivators weeded crops once they were planted. By 1820 Americans were using an implement called a horse-hoe. Based on a design by the Englishman Jethro Tull in the early eighteenth century, this horse-drawn machine loosened the soil and killed weeds. In the mid-1820s an expandable cultivator appeared: a triangular-shaped frame that expanded from twelve to twenty-eight inches to till between rows.
The mechanical reaper appeared in the 1830s, making mechanized grain harvests possible. The reaper of Cyrus McCormick, patented in 1834, cut through grain stalks as the machine moved forward. Stalks fell onto a platform and were raked off by someone walking alongside the reaper. The McCormick reaper was used for small grains such as rye and wheat. Obed Hussey also developed a reaper in the 1830s. This machine was heavy and proved better suited to mowing hay.
Threshing machines were necessary to process cut grain. Replacing the flail, the first American machine was patented in 1791 by Samuel Mulliken. In the 1820s several simple, inexpensive, and locally made hand- and horse-powered threshing machines appeared on the American market. These early machines did not separate the straw from the grain; they merely threshed. Many farmers found that it was more difficult to turn the crank of these simple machines then it was to wield a flail, and in general farmers were not inclined to use these early threshers until a horse-powered machine was developed.
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McClelland, Peter D. Sowing Modernity: America's First Agricultural Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.
Stephanie A. Carpenter