Farm Thermometers: One Hot Collectible

Popularity of farm thermometers rising like mercury on a summer day

Much of Ronnie Bradley's collection of thermometers is displayed on the wall of his shop in Rock Port, Mo.

Much of Ronnie Bradley's collection of farm thermometers is displayed on the wall of his shop in Rock Port, Mo.

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One of the most used items on the farm is now a hot collectible: the lowly farm thermometer. Many are mounted outside the kitchen window for a fast check of outside temperatures, while others are nailed to walls of the shop, barn or other outdoors sites. 

Knowing their importance on the farm, agribusiness concerns have used thermometers as advertising vehicles for years. Feed, seed, fertilizer, chemical and machinery dealers are familiar names on farm thermometers. Those advertisers know that farmers will use that give-away for decades, until the printing is faded or the glass tube breaks.

Thermometers with coils – made with spring-like metal that expands or contracts with temperature changes, linked to a pointer over a dial – are less common than mercury-tube models. Coils can also turn a round dial with a scale that can be read through a small window. Those are likely the rarest of collectible farm thermometers.

DeWayne Adams, Davis Junction, Ill., collects coil thermometers, particularly large round ones with faces covered by a plastic or glass lens. He specializes in pieces issued by seed companies.

"I have Pioneer, Acco, Super Crost, Trojan and FS," he says. "These will vary in size from about 12 inches, up to about 20 inches in diameter, with bodies made of light metal covered with enamel paint."

DeWayne branched off into collecting thermometers after beginning with other farm advertising collectibles. Friends, relatives and other collectors find thermometers for him, and he keeps an eye open at antique malls, flea markets and auctions.

"Like the signs, pencils and other ad items, thermometers in good condition – especially the older and rarer ones – have been increasing in price," he says. "Also, many collectors now have them, so you're seeing them for sale less often.

"I paid $35 for my Pioneer round thermometer at an antique mall," he says. "While some round ones may sell for somewhat higher, after looking around, you can probably still find cheaper ones."

The mercury tube "uprights" also have a fairly wide price range, DeWayne says, depending on condition, scarcity and size. Many uprights of 12 inches or less sell for $15-20, he says.

"In the southwest Iowa area, some mercury thermometers still sell in the $7-15 range," says auctioneer Wade Rubey, Red Oak, Iowa. "Old or out-of-business seed company thermometers from the area, such as Earl May and Henry Field, are very popular with collectors.

"But the supply of all advertising thermometers has dropped as they get into collectors' hands. We don't see thermometers come through auctions like we used to."

Tom Bailey, a broker/auctioneer from McCool Junction, Neb., says the popularity of farm collectibles in general has helped drive up prices.

"As with any good farm collectible, thermometers are heavily collected, and you can bet they're going on somebody's wall," he says. "Any older advertising item is highly collectible, and collectors don't hesitate to bid them up.

"They like anything old, including ones with products or pictures on them of things they used or saw when they were younger. Of particular interest are the mirror or glass-faced thermometers that often have a large picture and lots of artwork. Ones with tractor pictures bring the highest prices, and around here, ones showing a John Deere, J.I. Case, Minneapolis-Moline or Oliver are harder to find. One with a John Deere on it went extra high last year, at around $150, and others in good condition from the 1940s and 1950s usually bring over $100."

A thermometer collector who's always on the hunt for more, especially those with unusual designs, is Ronnie Bradley. Owner of a farm and repair service at Rock Port, Mo., Ronnie displays much of his collection on the walls of his shop.

"Most of my thermometers are farm-related, and are issued by ag businesses such as fertilizer and farm suppliers, banks, insurance companies, seed companies and implement dealers," he says. "I buy ones I don't already have at auctions, farm sales, garage sales, and flea markets. And many of my friends and customers have brought me thermometers."

Ronnie especially likes larger seed corn thermometers, as well as one from the Farmers Almanac that's illustrated with old-fashioned drawings. A farm and home supply thermometer has an inner revolving dial that gives very accurate temperatures. Others are shaped like violins, paddles and other objects.

He's also seen thermometer prices rising.

"The larger ag thermometers, such as from seed companies, usually cost in the $15-30 range," he notes, "but this may go up, because they are getting harder to find as the older ones get bought up or rust away. And some are broken when they try to take them down to move or sell them." FC 

Gary Van Hoozer is a freelance writer based in northwest Missouri. He specializes in farm history and collectibles.