William Deering Impresses at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

William Deering & Co. made quite a splash at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Deering All Steel Binder

Deering’s improved steel binder.

Photo Courtesy George Wanamaker

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In 1890, the U.S. Congress selected Chicago over New York City, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., as the site for the World’s Columbian Exposition, a world’s fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of the landing of Columbus in the New World. The event was designed to showcase the art and technology of the world at the time — and Chicago farm implement manufacturer William Deering made sure his company was at the center of the action.

The world’s standard

William Deering was born in Maine in 1826. As a youth, he worked for his father in the woolen industry. By 1865 he’d made a fortune selling woolen goods (including uniforms for the Union Army) and as a land speculator. In 1870, Deering moved in a different direction, loaning E.H. Gammon $40,000 (about $701,800 today) to build the horse-drawn Marsh grain harvester. Three years later, when Gammon’s health failed, Deering moved to Illinois to manage the company. With the massive western expansion of American agriculture in the 1870s, sales soared.

Deering continued to improve the harvester, experimenting with an automatic wire-tie attachment. By 1879, he had incorporated the Appleby twine binder attachment. With that improvement, William Deering & Co. set the standard for the world in binders.

In the 1880s, building on the success of the twine binder, Deering moved ahead of most manufacturers in production of agricultural equipment. In 1879, Deering Harvester Works’ annual output was 3,000 binders; by 1890, 1,200 machines of various types were produced every day by 9,000 employees in the company’s Chicago plant.

A silvery shine

The Deering exhibit was a standout attraction among agricultural displays at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Reflecting both his company’s position as an industry leader and as one of Chicago’s top employers, Deering clearly determined to cut a wide swath at the Chicago world’s fair. “The Deering exhibit covers 2,000 square feet and includes a dazzling display of light-running frictionless roller- and ball-bearing twine-binders, mowers and reapers, all finished in burnished silver and gold plate,” gushed an account in Rand, McNally & Co.’s A Week at the Fair, published in 1893.

As part of the Deering exhibit, the company produced a unique premium for fair goers. Measuring 3-1/2 inches in diameter, the round, 14-page booklet sported silver-colored covers, perhaps intended to coordinate with Deering’s gleaming display of equipment. Printed on both sides of each page were photos and information on Deering agricultural implements. Fastened by a single rivet, the pages fanned out when opened.

The booklet’s front and back covers were embossed with an illustration and text. The front cover showed a 2-horse team pulling a Deering reaper. Embossed around the edge were the words: “The Deering, Victorious in Every Field.” The back cover was embossed with the company name and a partial list of its products: binders, reapers, mowers and binder twine.

“We have, and will”

The booklet opened with a letter addressed to “Farmers of the World.” The text repeated the theme of “victorious over all” and pronounced Deering “the world’s greatest manufacturer of grain and grass cutting machinery.” The second page showed a photo of the Deering factory, said to encompass 50 acres.

Subsequent pages featured the first twine binder to cut and bind wheat (built by Deering in 1879), the Deering 1-horse mower (“good for lawns, parks and cemeteries”), Deering’s improved steel binder (“more are in use today than any other make”), and the Giant and Junior Giant mowers. Other products included Deering’s Pony binder (“the only successful light-weight binder made”) and the New Deering mower (“the favorite of farmers”).

At the back of the booklet, Deering showcased its inventive genius with portraits of inventors of the company’s Marsh harvester (C.W. and W.W. Marsh) and twine-binding attachment (J.F. Appleby). The booklet closed with a proud proclamation:

“Who first invented reapers? The Gauls, 1,800 years ago. Who first bound grain before throwing it on the ground? We did. Who first made and put on the market a successful wire binder? We did. Who first put successful automatic twine binders on the market? We did. Who first applied sheaf carriers? We did. Who first put out a light self-binder? We did. Who first put out an all-steel self-binder? We did. Who first used the chain drive? We did. Who first reduced a self-binding harvester to pony size? We did. Who has always led? And will lead? We have, and will. William Deering & Co.”

Landmark event

Deering’s world’s fair booklet trumpeted the company’s successes in customary promotional prose. Still, as one of the country’s largest producers of agricultural implements in that era, Deering had a reputation for quality products, and such claims may have sounded reasonably accurate to farmers of the time.

The booklet did not include Deering’s full line of implements but focused instead on the company’s high-demand showpieces. Repeated references to twine signaled Deering’s understanding of the component’s importance. In fact, Deering built a factory to supply twine for its binders and eventually became a major supplier of the commodity.

The Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 was a landmark event for American industry, technology, architecture, design and culture. More than 27 million people from all over the world attended the event during its six-month run. The exposition was designed as a grand exhibit and many of the buildings built for it are still in use. The buildings that today house the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry were all part of the world’s fair — as was the Ferris wheel, which was invented for the event.

The Columbian Exposition was a landmark event for Chicago industrialist William Deering as well. Given the chance to position his company as a global leader, Deering made full use of the opportunity. Just eight years later, in 1902, Deering merged with McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. and Milwaukee Harvester Co. to form International Harvester Co., launching a new era in the American farm equipment industry. FC 

For more reading on the Chicago World's Fair, check out 1893 Columbian Exposition: The World's Fair Highlighted Agriculture in America, World's Fairs Showcase March of Progress and Ferris Wheel Launched at the 1893 Exposition.  

George Wanamaker is president of the Midwest Tool Collectors Assn. He started collecting carpenter tools in the mid-1970s and now, in addition to carpenter tools, collects farm and kitchen tools and anything unusual and old. Contact him at 321 S. Lafayette, Macomb, IL 61455; phone: (309) 255-2406; email: george.wanamaker@gmail.com.