This image from Benjamin Butterworth’s The Growth of Industrial Art, depicts reaping grain during the colonial period. Reaping had to be done by hand, using a scythe or hay knife to cut the grain. Notice that the whole family helps with the field work.
By the mid-nineteenth century, farmers no longer had to reap entirely by hand. Machines made the work of harvesting go more quickly. This Self Raker Harvester was patented in 1855, to help farmers bring in their harvest.
In order to harvest grain and process it to be used for food, farmers must cut the grain from the field and separate the grain from the plant. Cutting the grain in the field is known has harvesting or reaping. Separating the grain from the plant is known as threshing. Harvesting and threshing were two separate jobs, but machines called “combines” save farmers time by both cutting and threshing in one step.
This combine was patented in 1879. Notice the machine was powered by steam, but the farmer still relied on horses to move the machine through the fields.
This 1882 oil painting by Theodore Robinson illustrates the change in technology toward wheeled farm equipment. This riding reaper, or cutter, reduced the amount of physical labor needed to harvest crops. The horses pulled the reaper, and it cut automatically. The farmer only had to direct the horses. This painting also illustrates how women played an important role on farms as well. Women often did just as much work in the fields as men.
Planting is a very important step in the farming process. This small seeding bag spread the grain seed out onto the field. Planting could have also been done by hand, but the seeding bag made the process much easier. This seeder is operated by a crank at the bottom. The farmer would turn the crank, the seeds would come out through the bottom of the bag, and be spread out onto the field.
Patented in 1865, the adjustable switch reel rake was intended to make reaping grain more efficient for farmers. Although some farmers used steampowered machines by the 1860’s, many still used horses or oxen to power the equipment on their farms.