Editor’s note: Dan Sack, Corning, Kansas, wrote us recently to inquire about grain cradles. “I know what a binder is,” he says, “but what is cradling? How do you cradle wheat?” Our resident expert, columnist and blogger Sam Moore, explains:
The scythe, in one form or another, is an ancient mowing tool, with straight-handled versions appearing about the 9th century. The now-familiar curved handle (or snath) with short, projecting handgrips (or nibs) was developed in about the 12th century. In spite of the fact that a man with a scythe could cut more grain than a man with a sickle, the sickle remained the chosen tool for harvesting grain for many centuries.
The scythe was great for mowing grass or hay, but cutting grain with it left the grain stalks tangled, which made the job of the following rakers and binders extremely difficult. In addition, grain was usually not cut until it was quite ripe and the more violent cutting motion of the scythe, as opposed to the sickle, resulted in a lot of shattering and lost grain. One account estimated 5 to 10 percent of the grain was lost when cut by a sickle, but that number doubled to 10 to 20 percent when a scythe was used.
Finally, someone added a loop to the snath, just above the blade, that caught and held the stalks cut during each swing of the scythe and allowed the scythe man to deposit the gavel to one side where it could be more easily gathered up and tied into a sheaf. The grain cradle, a series of light wooden fingers behind the blade, was an improvement on this primitive loop, and made the cutting of grain with a scythe much more efficient than with a sickle, although still prone to greater losses from shattering.
The development of the reaper and, later, the self-binder, as well as the mowing machine, soon relegated the scythe and the grain cradle to the occasional job of opening up a field so the crop wouldn’t be trampled down by the machines. Now, these tools are seen only in museums or hanging on country restaurant walls. It would be surprising if anyone much misses them.