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Looking Back

The John Deere Model Y Tractor

Sam MooreBy 1920 most tractor builders had gotten away from the big, heavy and awkward tractors that were the norm during the first two decades of the 20th century. Still, except for the Fordson and a handful of others, most tractors sold were in the three to four plow classes. Tractors were expensive, and there were tens of thousands of farmers with 100 acres or less who felt that the purchase of these larger machines couldn’t be justified for their small acreage.

By 1930, tractor dealers east of the Mississippi River, where the bulk of these smaller farms were concentrated, were besieging their home offices with requests for a small, inexpensive tractor to replace the one team of horses on these farms. One of the earliest was the 14 HP Farmall F-12, introduced in 1933, followed by the little Plymouth (soon renamed Silver King) in 1934.

Deere and Co. brought out the 14 hp Model “B”, an extremely popular tractor that replaced many a team of horses on small farms (as did the Farmall F-12). Still, there was a clamor from the field for an even smaller and lower-priced machine, so the engineers at the Waterloo Tractor Works, and the John Deere Wagon Works in Dubuque began work.

The Dubuque group, under Max Slovsky won the race, and in 1936 more than 20 Model “Y” tractors were built and tested. Looking nothing at all like the Waterloo built tractors, the Model “Y” used mostly off-the-shelf components to hold down costs. Management had specified that the engine of the new tractor must be 2-cylinder, so a Novo C-66 engine was used. The Novo was indeed 2-cylinder, although it was (gasp) upright instead of following the Waterloo tradition of horizontal engines! The transmission and steering gear on the Y were the same as that of the Model A Ford car, while the frame consisted of two heavy steel tubes. The Model Y weighed 1340 pounds, had a cushioned seat with a canvas back on a wire frame, and the rear fenders had curved, flat tops over the tires.

John Deere Model Y replica

A replica of the Deere Model Y that was put together by the late Jack Kreeger, who showed it at Tipton, Indiana, in 1993 where I photographed it. (Photo by Sam Moore)

During field trials, the Model Y performed well and it generated a lot of interest among farmers when demonstrated at fairs that summer. The only problem was with the Novo engine, which was designed for stationary use and didn’t have enough oil sump capacity to keep the bearings lubricated while working on hillsides. Apparently, at least some of the Novo engines were replaced by a Hercules 2-cylinder, L-head engine that was basically one half of their 4-cylinder engine with a bore and stroke of 3 x 4 inches, 56 cubic inches, and put out about 8 horsepower. Hercules records show that 20 of these engines were sold to Deere in 1936.

It seems the Model Y was advertised briefly at a cost of $532.50, but most accounts say that none were actually sold and that all 20-some tractors were recalled to the factory and scrapped. Deere was convinced the little Dubuque tractor was a keeper, however, and Slovsky and his crew set out to improve the design. The result was the Model 62, which made its debut in 1937.

The Model 62 was powered by the same 2-cylinder Hercules engine that was successful in the Model Y, although there were many differences from the earlier effort. The cast front and rear wheels are different and the fenders are more rounded, while the transmission is mounted to the front of the rear axle instead of the rear of the engine. Another feature that appears only on the Model 62 is the large, combined JD logo that’s cast into the rear axle housing and the cast shield below the radiator in front. The few lucky collectors who own Model 62 tractors (probably fewer than 80 were built) delight in painting these logos yellow to make them stand out, although they were green on the originals.

Made for less than a year, the Model 62 was replaced in late 1937 by the un-styled Model L, again similar to its predecessor, only different. But that’s a story for another day.

– Sam Moore

The History of the Harrow

Sam MooreBack in the day when every farmer worth his salt believed that a well-tilled field was essential to growing a good crop, a harrow was an essential implement. First the ground would be plowed, and then the turned furrows were worked down with a couple of passes with a disc harrow that sliced up clods and did the initial smoothing. Lastly a harrow, an open frame with several rows of either spike or spring teeth and sometimes called a smoothing, or drag harrow, was run over the field until the soil was in good tilth for planting.

When seeds were commonly sowed by broadcasting, or scattering them evenly on the field, rather than by drilling them into the soil, a harrow was used to cover the seeds. After the planted seeds and the weeds were just peeking through the ground, a spike tooth harrow was commonly run over the field. The tender young weeds would be uprooted, while the deeper rooted crop plants would survive.

Harrows are mentioned in the Bible and are as ancient as the plow. The first such implements were nothing more than a carefully selected tree trunk or limb with protruding branches, that scratched the soil when pulled along by hand or behind an animal. England's Parliament felt it necessary, in 1664, to abolish “as being cruel and injurious to the animals,” the practice of tying, with a rawhide cord, the brushy limb of a tree to a horse's tail for use as a harrow.

Early American farmers made an A-harrow that consisted of timbers (or a forked log), through which wooden or iron pegs were driven. Especially useful on just cleared fields that often were full of stumps and rocks, the A-harrow was strong and would slide around obstructions rather than get caught on them. By the 1850s, square harrows, made of wood with wrought or cast iron teeth were popular. However, the iron teeth often snapped off when a rock or other obstruction was struck. Finally, after the War Between the States, manufacturers began to use steel teeth and iron frames, and added levers to change the angle of the teeth. These spike tooth harrows changed very little from then on.

Of course, the way a harrow is usually used requires the operator to walk either behind, or to one side of the machine. These many miles of walking in soft, mellow soil is very tiresome. Not only that, but harrows don’t do much good in heavy, wet soil, so the ground is usually dry. An old Zane Grey book, titled The Desert of Wheat, gives an account of a man harrowing with four horses in a Washington wheat field. “Driving west, he faced a wind laden with dust as dry as powder. At every sheeted cloud, whipping back from the hoofs of the horses and the steel spikes of the harrow, he had to bat his eyes to keep from being blinded. The smell of dust clogged his nostrils. As soon as he began to sweat under the hot sun the dust caked his face, itching, stinging, burning. There was dust between his teeth.”

To make things a little easier on the harrow operator, ingenious inventors began to patent wheeled, or sulky harrows, where the harrow itself was suspended under a frame that was supported by two wheels. None of these devices seems to have caught on, probably because they were heavy, awkward and, undoubtedly expensive. However, lightweight riding attachments were developed that had some success. Some of these have survived and occasionally one is seen in a suburban lawn as an ornament.

The 1939 International Harvester catalog lists a harrow cart with the following comment: “No man who has tramped all day back and forth across a plowed field behind a peg-tooth harrow can fail to appreciate the value of a harrow cart.” The 1928 John Deere catalog describes their No. 4 harrow cart as “A popular drudgery-saver,” and goes on to list the advantages. The two “drawbars are crossed, making cart trail harrow in turning.” An automatic lock “Prevents the cart from swaying and holds it straight in hillside work. Automatically unlocks in turning.” There was “no danger of tipping over on hillsides,” and the 36-inch wheels gave a light draft. The final selling point was the high seat described thus: “Because of large wheels and long seat spring, operator sits high, away from the dust.” While I doubt the operator escaped much dust, there’s no question that riding beat the stuffing out of walking in loose dirt.

As can be seen from the illustrations, the two drawbar arms bolted directly to the wooden harrow drawbar. The carts themselves were lightweight, with the IH model weighing 121 pounds, while the John Deere No. 4  was a little heavier at 135 pounds. The light weight of the cart, plus the weight of the operator that balanced any additional weight on the drawbar, along with the large diameter wheels added very little to the draft of the harrow.

– Sam Moore

John Deere No. 4 harrow cart

The John Deere No. 4 harrow cart. (Illustration from a 1928 John Deere catalog in the author’s collection)

Deere and the Dain Tractor

Sam MooreBig, heavy gas tractors began appearing on a few farms early in the 20th century. At the time of the 1910 census, there were 10,000 tractors counted on U.S. farms, along with more than 21 million horses, mules and oxen. Some of the major farm implement companies, such as IH and Case, as well as dozens of smaller companies were eagerly diving into the beckoning but unknown waters of the promising tractor market. The conservative management of Deere & Co., however, was reluctant to dip even a tentative toe into the water, which looked very dark and forbidding to them. Deere president, William Butterworth, was especially opposed to the tractor, although vice-president and chairman of the executive committee, Willard L. Velie, was strongly in favor.

During 1912, a couple of Deere branch houses listed the Gas Traction Big Four tractor in their catalogs, and Deere even made an offer to buy the company, which Gas Traction turned down. In addition, the John Deere Export Co. sold Minneapolis Twin City tractors in South America. At the March 5th, 1912, directors’ meeting, Velie got a resolution passed that read in part: “... a movement to produce a tractor plow (meaning a tractor) should be started at once ...” even though Butterworth was still opposed. In July, C.H. Melvin was told to design and build a tractor. Melvin came up with a prototype that had two large drive wheels and a smaller, single steering wheel. A 3-bottom integral plow was hung beneath the frame of the tractor, which was then run with the drive wheels forward. When pulling other implements from the drawbar, the machine was run with the small wheel forward. One of these so-called “Melvin” tractors was built, tested, found unsatisfactory and discarded and, by 1914, William Butterworth’s resistance to the new-fangled machines seemed to be justified.

However, a few of the Deere directors, including Velie, and new convert to the cause, C.C. Webber, hadn’t given up and commissioned fellow board member, Joseph Dain the hay machinery expert, to explore the possibilities of a tractor. Webber specified that any such machine must be small, 2 to 3 plow, and should be priced at about $700 and, by early 1915, Dain had a prototype ready. The board looked at Dain’s new tractor, but weren’t really enthusiastic. Butterworth said “we have repeatedly told our bankers that we were not in the tractor business and we’re not going into it.” The Moline branch manager, R.B. Lourie, worried that tractors and tractor plows would hurt Deere’s booming wheeled horse plow business. In the end, the board took the easy way out and voted to wait and see, and to have Dain perform further field tests on his tractor.

Dain’s tractor was a 3-wheeled design, with two wheels in front and one behind, and with all three wheels driving through a heavy chain drive. The first half-dozen or so machines had 4-cylinder Waukesha engines, which proved to be under powered and were soon replaced with a McVicker power plant that was found to be entirely satisfactory. The prototype Dain tractors weighed 3,800 pounds, with a transmission that gave two speeds forward and two in reverse, and had a drawbar pull of more than 3,000 pounds. Rated to pull three plow bottoms in stubble, and two in sod, the machine would cost $1,200, which was considerably more than C.C. Webber’s target price of $700.

During the spring and summer of 1916, Dain tractors were tested in Texas, Minnesota and the Dakotas, and were found to be the “best on the market.” Users especially liked the all-wheel, chain drive, along with the transmission which could be shifted “on-the-go.”

By this time, most of the Deere directors, except for William Butterworth, had been convinced that the firm needed a tractor. As a result of the favorable field tests, Deere decided, in 1917, to build 100 Dain tractors. Joe Dain died unexpectedly in late 1917, but W.L. Velie stepped in and pushed the new tractor along. The 100 machines were built during 1917 and 1918 at the Harvester Works in East Moline. Powered by a 4-cylinder engine of 4 1/2 x 6-inch bore and stroke, they were rated at 12 hp on the drawbar and 24 on the belt. Features, such as worm and sector steering and the shift-on-the-go 2-speed transmission were far ahead of most other tractors of the day. According to Don McMillan’s book, John Deere Tractors and Equipment, Volume One 1837-1959, all 100 Dain tractors were sold in the Huron, South Dakota, vicinity, but in March of 1918, Deere bought the Waterloo Gasoline Tractor Company. However good it may have been, that was the end of the Dain designed machine; it cost $1,700, twice as much as a Waterloo Boy.

In later years, Deere and Company virtually denied that the firm had ever built any tractor other than the two-cylinder Waterloo Boy and its successors. However, the Melvin and the Dain, along with a couple of others, are the rightful ancestors to “the long green line,” which is still going strong today.

– Sam Moore

Dain tractor

The Dain tractor that was found derelict in 1948 by the late Frank Hansen of Rolling Stone, Minnesota, and finally bought by him in 1960. Frank had it restored, and exhibited it at many shows such as this one at Tipton, Indiana, in 1991 where I saw it. Photo by Sam Moore.

Military Equipment Maintenance During World War II

Sam MooreSeventy-five years ago, when the United States became embroiled in World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. armed forces found themselves seriously unprepared. It was apparent from the German “blitzkriegs,” both on land and in the air, that the war would be one in which machines played a huge part. Industry quickly was mobilized to build these machines and troops were trained to operate them, but every piece of machinery requires maintenance, and training competent mechanics takes time and experience.

The War Department solved the problem in part, by in 1942 turning to the established machine manufacturing firms and asking them to recruit skilled personnel from their employees. Although most all these factories were heavily engaged in making war material, nearly all civilian production had stopped and the government apparently felt that it could draw trained technicians from these sources without causing disruptions in production.

The first farm implement company selected by the Army was the International Harvester Company – a firm that was making half-tracks, artillery tractors, trucks of all sizes, wheeled and crawler tractors, scout cars, ambulances, tank transmissions, cannon, gun carriages, ammunition, torpedoes and even blood bank refrigerators.

IH got the request on June 24, 1942, began enrollment in the unit on the 29th, and had surpassed the enlistment quota by July 6. Volunteers came from the main office, the various factories and sales branch houses and dealers. The 900 plus men who were chosen from more than 1,000 volunteers were to report to Camp Perry, Ohio, on July 15 and were to be commanded by Lt. Col. D.L. Van Syclye of the Army Ordinance Corps. Organized as the 134th Ordinance Maintenance Battalion and assigned to the 12th Armored Division, the unit later joined General Alexander Patch’s 7th U.S. Army in November of 1944, and ended up in Austria at war’s end.

Next up was Deere & Company, who received the same request in September. The firm was making tank transmissions, aircraft parts, ammunition and mobile laundry units, as well as assembling Cletrac MG-1 military tractors. Recruiting posters were put up in all the Deere factories, branch houses and dealerships across the country and by November some 600 former Deere employees were assigned as a battalion of the 303rd Ordinance Regiment and were undergoing basic training at Camp Sutton, a temporary facility near Monroe, North Carolina. The unit later trained in the California desert and then went to England in late October of 1943. Re-designated the 608th Ordinance Base Armored Maintenance Battalion and assigned to Patton’s Third Army, where the Deere unit served in France and Belgium, helping to relieve the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

A veteran of the Deere unit, a Texan named Bill Pekar, said in a 2009 interview by Nicole W. Little in the Gonzales Inquirer: “We didn't stay in one place; we were with the Army and moving with the front lines, repairing tanks, trucks and all the equipment with them. We fixed what we could on the road, but if we couldn't fix it we’d bring back to the shop.”

The J.I. Case Company was asked at about the same time for a heavy maintenance company, a request that, as at IH and Deere, was met with enthusiasm by employees of the factories, branch houses and dealers. In a short time the 200 man company was recruited, organized, and mustered into the Army as the 518th Heavy Maintenance Company. Case was making artillery shells, military tractors, and bomber wings, among other military products.

The 518th was stationed at Knockmore, in County Mayo, Ireland, from Nov. 20, 1943 until May 8, 1944, and then was part of the First U.S. Army, initially under General Omar Bradley in the June 1944 invasion of France known as Operation Overlord, and then later under General Courtney Hodges as the 1st Army fought its way across Europe.

A news blurb about the Harvester unit tells us that not only mechanics were enlisted, but machinists, blacksmiths, welders, carpenters, painters, chauffeurs, electricians, warehousemen, clerks, engineers, supervisors, radio experts, toolmakers, and leather and canvas workers.

One source says that Allis-Chalmers also organized a maintenance unit, but I’ve been unable to verify that, although I’m sure that employees of every farm equipment manufacturer either enlisted or were drafted into the armed services throughout the war.

So many trained repairmen were in the service that during 1943 the farm dealer’s magazines were full of complaints about the lack of technicians to keep existing farm machines running. There were many calls to bring back some of the repairmen and to exempt from service any who were still on the job.

In the end, of course, everyone made do with what they had and the war, thankfully, was successfully concluded.

– Sam Moore

Burton F. Peek and recruit

A photo showing Deere president Burton Peek shaking hands with one of the company’s first recruits. (From the September 1942 issue of Farm Machinery and Equipment magazine in the author’s collection.)

Riding in a New-Fangled Flying Machine

Sam MooreJust 100 and a few years ago, a ride in one of the new-fangled flying machines was a rare experience. Lanark is a town in south central Scotland and was the site of the first “Aviation Meeting” in Scotland in August, 1910. At the meet the planes were accurately timed over a straight, 1.6 km (about 1 mile) course, the first time such measurements had been attempted.

Attending the meet was a reporter from the London Times who “was invited by Mr. Grace (Cecil Stanley Grace, 1880–1910, who disappeared on a flight from Calais across the English Channel to Dover), to share his ascent in a Farman biplane.” The un-named reporter wrote the following account of such a ride that was published in the December 1910 issue of Gas Power magazine:

“The first wind register showed the velocity to be from 25 to 30 MPH, but toward 1:30 it dropped to 18 to 22. The competition for this period was weight-carrying, each machine to carry 350 pounds. By virtue of my weight of 14 stone (196 pounds) I was invited by Mr. Grace to share his adventure in a wind that warned off all other competitors.

“The worst part of such a journey for the novice is the waiting to start. But once the propeller starts to whirl behind you all other thoughts beyond exhilaration of rapid motion vanish. You have gripped the struts thinking that you will have to hold on like grim death, but you soon find this is not necessary.  The machine moves along the ground at as extraordinary pace, and I only knew that it was actually flying when I saw the elevating plane change from the horizontal.

“Of the motion of flight it is difficult to speak clearly. Even in the high wind that Mr. Grace was now climbing, it was not more than the sensation of a beautifully balanced motor-car. The earth seemed to be racing away from under us, and in a flash we were level with the first pylon and the judge’s box.

“The machine was now up to 150 feet and I became engrossed in Mr. Grace’s method in flying. His attention was glued to his elevating plane, with just momentary glances out of his eye to judge the distance by which he had to shun each pylon in its turn. We were crossing fields and water. I could observe the gates, the wire fences, and a man bathing in the water. Then we went round into the wind and our pace immediately slackened, while Mr. Grace was working to keep his machine in the air. As we crossed a road we were going so slowly that I could observe the direction of the hoof marks of a horse that had recently passed. Here all observation ceased as Mr. Grace was now battling with the wind. We had only 500 yards to traverse to cross the winning line, but the dead weight against the wind was bringing the machine down. Then here came a gust heavier than them all that lifted the machine just up the amount required to cross the line and we came gently to earth.

“It had been only a four minutes’ ride, but it was certainly the most delightful ride that I had ever experienced. The only way that I can describe the general sensation is that of exquisite motion.”

I had not heard of a Farman airplane so I did some research. Henry Farman was born in 1874 in Paris to an English father and French mother. His family had money and he was able to indulge his fascination with bicycle and auto racing, and then airplanes. Farman bought his first plane, a Voison, in 1907 and modified it extensively. Soon, Voison was building aircraft to Farman’s specifications, but they had a disagreement in 1909 and Farman, with two of his brothers, started their own aircraft factory.

Farman built both civilian and military aircraft until 1944, when the firm was absorbed by another French plane maker. The Farman Brothers also began building luxury automobiles after World War I and their cars were praised by the motoring press, although the high cost put them out of the reach of all but very wealthy buyers. The Great Depression put an end to the car venture in 1931, after only about 120 Farman vehicles had been built from 1919 until then.

– Sam Moore

Farman III aircraft

French aviator, Louis Paulhan, in 1910 in a Farman III aircraft. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Harvester World

Sam MooreIn October 1909, the 7-year-old International Harvester Co. began publishing a monthly employee paper titled The Harvester World. While ostensibly meant for all employees, the first issues at least seemed to be aimed primarily at Harvester’s salesmen. Full of tips on how to break down reluctant buyers, each month there was a letter from some salesman telling how he had closed a deal. Here are two of those accounts, one from the October 1909 issue and one from December of the same year.

A salesman named, Oral Bleau wrote this one.

I put one over on a competitor last winter, and in the course of events I made two sales grow where only one idea was planted, and I did it in one day at one psychological moment.

Two doctors came to Omaha looking for an auto. They went straight to the competitor, and they had the buying light in their eyes. I followed them in and stood around as an interested spectator while the competitor’s boys showed them over the machine and proved to them that there was no other auto so suitable for the wear and tear of a country doctor’s practice. And they proved it well, too. It was a cold, snowy day, with weather straight from Medicine Hat in Canada, but one of the salesmen said “Doctor, we’ll take you for a spin this afternoon and show you what the car can do.”

The doctors agreed, and I lit out and got my own car. In the meantime, Medicine Hat got busy, and by the time of the appointment it was storming worse than ever, so bad that the competitor never showed up.

I saw my opening – introduced myself and said, “Gentlemen, I have a car that enjoys these icy roads and does its best work in impassable spots. Take a ride with me?”

“Why not?” they said and we started.

After seven miles of ice and drifts we stopped and got out. The engine was working perfectly. It had held up under as hard a test as they could ever give it in their practice, and they grew enthusiastic and asked questions.

I made out that such rides on such roads were mere recreation for both me and the machine.

They only wanted one machine when they started, but after that seven miles of snow and ice and the impatient “chug,” “chug” of the engine beneath them, it was just too strong a sales argument for them to resist, and they each gave me an order on the spot.

By the way, they’re still on the competitor’s mailing list.

This letter, written by Pat P. Nichols, not only describes the life of a farm machinery salesman in those days, where he often ate meals and stayed overnight with his customers, but also that the wife is sometimes the way to get at the old man.

The hand that “rocks the cradle” once helped me get an order.

I was sent into a territory where the canvasser or the block man had made a single sale. Both were so discouraged that when they saw a farmer, they’d hide in a fence corner, or, if the farmer had a dog, climb a tree.

I came in with the idea of encouraging them, and possibly I acted kind of chesty about it, for they straightaway steered me onto the hardest proposition in the county, a man who believed all salesmen were liars.

I didn’t know this and went after him that afternoon. He received me all right, that is he told his dog to lie down, and I began.

I followed that man from house to barn, to the hog pen, the mailbox and the cow pen, and then to supper, and all the way it was like talking to a moving fence post.

Then at supper I saw things – Mr. Hard-Nut had a boss.

I saw in a flash that the hand that rocked the cradle also cradled the rocks. When she wanted anything from the kitchen all she said was “Let there be movement.” And there was movement. He was docile, all right.

I got busy at once on the new task and helped the boys with the chores, fixed the fire, did a “sum” for the little girl, and when the time came to put the children to bed I gave the baby a good night kiss.

This made her fairly beam at me, and when I rolled up my sleeves and offered to dry the dishes, the sale was made.

She did not let me do it but sent me in to smoke with John. When she returned to the sitting room all she said was, “John, you’ve needed that binder for two years; you had better order it now.”

John hunted up a pen and signed on the dotted line – and he seemed glad to do it.

– Sam Moore

Automobile in the snow

Drawing that accompanied the first story. (October 1909, The Harvester World)

Mail-Order Catalogs

Sam MooreDoes anyone (besides me) remember the anticipation and the agonizingly long wait after your mother sent in an order to Sears and Roebuck? This Christmas season made me think of the wonderful Sears and Roebuck wish books full of toys that my sister and I pored over as children.

Aaron Montgomery Ward established the first of the modern mail-order houses in 1872 in Chicago. By 1874, his catalog offered a wide range of products to farmers at near wholesale prices. The National Grange supported Ward’s efforts, and by the early 1890s, Montgomery Ward was distributing a 280-page catalog, containing nearly 10,000 items, to tens of thousands of mid-western farmers.

In 1886, a 23-year-old railroad telegrapher in Minnesota, Richard Warren Sears, began selling watches as a sideline. The watches were so profitable that Sears quit the railroad and sold jewelry and watches by mail, hiring a watch repairman named Alvah C. Roebuck. In 1894 they moved to Chicago and set up a general mail-order house called Sears, Roebuck and Co.

Sears was a master salesman and an advertising genius. Through his catalogs, Sears convinced skeptical farmers to send their money off to a man in Chicago they’d never seen, for things they’d never seen or, often, even heard of.

The incredibly low prices, money-back guarantees and showy catalogs all combined to supply the rural customer’s every wish and to sell them items they never believed they could afford. Sears emphasized the variety, style and low prices of the seemingly endless array of food, medicines, hardware, household goods, farm equipment, sporting goods, jewelry and clothing in his huge catalogs. Although there were no colors shown, each product was represented in the early years by an accurate and detailed drawing. The 1900 catalog featured actual photographs of people’s heads perched atop drawings of the suits, dresses and corsets, giving a comical aspect to some of the pictures.

The mail-order catalog put the world’s biggest store in every farmer’s mailbox and offered people products they would never see in their local country store. Women could pore over the pages of clothes and pick out the same fashions that stylish women were wearing in the large cities, for a lot less money. All the latest gadgets, furniture, and appliances for the home were displayed. Little girls dreamed of a new doll, toy furniture, or a miniature tea set. Boys wished for a wagon, a train, a gun or a kite. Farmers studied the latest tools and machinery and checked out the shotguns and fishing poles. The catalogs were a centerpiece in every country home and were called “Wish Books,” or the “Farmer's Bible.”

In the 1900 Sears catalog you could buy groceries; tea, coffee, canned fruits, vegetables and meats, salt, flour and crackers. Drugs of all kinds, from smoking and drinking cures to “Brown’s Vegetable Cure for Female Weakness,” to pills to “cure almost every illness.” Veterinary supplies, paint, watches and jewelry, silverware and eyeglasses were available, along with all kinds of clothing for every member of the family.

Cameras, talking machines, pianos, organs and all kinds of musical instruments, books,  firearms, boxing gloves and catcher’s mitts, fishing tackle, bicycles and toys, trunks and traveling bags, wigs and toupees, tombstones, hardware and farm equipment, safes, stoves, buggies and sleighs and harness, furniture, dishes and lamps, as well as sewing machines and baby carriages, all could be seen and ordered from the comfort of your kitchen table.

From 1908 to 1940, Sears, Roebuck and Co. even sold house kits. These kits included plans, millwork, cabinetry, roofing, flooring, siding, doors, shutters, hardware, paint and even nails. You could buy the extras, such as heating, plumbing, and electrical fixtures from the catalog as well.

Both Sears and Wards knew exactly what rural folks needed and wanted, even though folks sometimes didn't realize they needed or wanted an item until they saw it in the catalog. The country housewife became convinced that she had to spend money to do her housework more efficiently, to clothe her family properly, and to keep up with the times. Agricultural tools and machines, such as cream separators, pumps, gas engines, and corn shellers, which had been  too expensive were now within reach through the catalog. Mail-order had changed the lives of rural families. One writer summed it up by saying: “A baby born in the country in 1890 might sleep in a mail-order cradle, play as a child with mail-order toys, buy a mail-order suit as a young man, get his new wife a mail-order washing machine, work his fields with a mail-order plow, raise his children in a mail-order house, and be buried at the end of his life under a mail-order tombstone.”

Probably the greatest beneficiaries of rural free delivery mail service, after the farmers themselves, were the mail order houses themselves. Catalogs were considered “educational” material and could be put into the farmer’s mailbox for the lower 2nd class postal rate. Although ordering by mail was a new experience for most farmers, it was easy because a trip to the post office in town wasn’t necessary. Sears told their customers to give their order and money to the mail carrier, who would buy a money order and send the order on its way. At first, packages over four pounds had to be picked up at the railroad station or freight express office, but in 1913, the government started Parcel Post service, and packages up to 11 pounds were delivered just like other mail. Within that first year of Parcel Post, mail orders increased about five times over previous years. By 1920, 50 to 70 pound packages could be sent through the U.S. Mail and over 100 million packages were shipped on rural routes that year.

By providing modern conveniences and stylish goods, the catalogs helped to improve rural life and eliminate the isolation of farm families.

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all!

– Sam Moore

Montgomery Ward catalog

A few of the toys in the 1930-1931 Montgomery Ward Fall and Winter catalog. (In the author’s collection)