Celebrating autumn with 1800s agriculture!
Happy fall! In the spirit of harvest, here are some interesting farming-related histories.
Using a plow to cultivate soil has been done for tens of thousands of years, and is said to have begun in the Fertile Crescent. The plow has seen countless iterations since then, taking on various forms to address the needs of different peoples.
During the time of the advent of the United States, European farmers were using versions of the moldboard plow.
Named for the swept board that sits atop the share, or blade, the moldboard plow’s design allows it to simultaneously cut, scoop, and turn the earth, bringing nutrients buried in the soil to the surface for healthier crops. Moldboard plows commonly have two moldboards that form a wedge. Originally driven by a horse or ox and steered by a farmer walking behind, these plows are still used today as attachments on farming machinery. The moldboards can be adjusted for depth, typically cutting one and a half feet into the soil and one to two feet across for a double-moldboard.
Thomas Jefferson may have had a hand in the longevity of the moldboard plow in the United States, as he found deficiencies in the version available during his time. In response, he invented a new iteration with an improved moldboard that made it easier to turn the earth. Allegedly, he optimized his design for least expenditure of force, declaring that it was “mathematically demonstrated to be perfect.”
Jefferson’s plow had a wooden moldboard attached to an iron share blade. What most likely made the biggest contribution toward cementing his plow’s place in American agriculture was the introduction of a cast iron version, brought to market in the 1830s by a blacksmith named John Deere.
Later in the 1800s, portable steam engines with belt drives were used to power farming equipment such as threshing machines. Farmers could rent out the traveling engines to aid in their harvests. In the background, internal combustion engines continued to evolve since the advent of the gas-powered engine in the 1790s. In 1876, Nikolaus Otto (think Otto cycle) patented the first compressed charge, four-cycle engine. By the turn of the 20th century, ICEs were being implemented in farming equipment, marking the beginning of a new era for farmers. The first commercially successful tractor came out in 1902, with one forward gear, one reverse gear, and the tricycle wheel arrangement still commonly used today.
As pioneers moved west in the mid-1800s, cultivating land into crops along the way, the growth of public school availability followed. These rural schools were scheduled around farming, with kids attending when they weren’t needed at home to help. The highest attendance occurred in the fall and winter, after the harvest was over. School did not take place during the summer months as the majority of domestic labor occurred during that time.
Most states today require 180 schooldays for public schools. In 1870, the average number was 132 days, with an attendance rate under 60 percent. Rural schools were strategically placed within 4-5 miles of the majority of homes in the area so that kids could reach them by walking. Smaller schools taught all levels up to eighth grade, the highest schooling many farm kids would receive at the time, in the same room.
For those who wanted additional schooling, one desired option was to travel east by train to attend one of the established institutions, with the oldest three being Harvard University in Massachusetts (1636), the College of William and Mary in Virginia (1693), and St. John’s College in Maryland (1696). However, other colleges and universities were beginning to sprout up farther west—the University of Illinois, for example, was established following the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862. Our University was originally the Illinois Industrial University, changing its name in 1885 to recognize its blend of mechanical, agricultural, and liberal arts majors.