I once saw an article from Mother Earth News, a magazine that “offers practical advice on self-reliant living, renewable energy, organic gardening, natural health and low-cost homebuilding.”
Titled: “The scythe: A classic mowing option,” the article touted the efficiency and the ease of use of a mowing implement that has pretty much been forgotten by all but a few old-timers (like me). Although I never really used a scythe, there was one on our farm that Dad used occasionally to mow weeds around the farm buildings. As I recall, there was an old cradle scythe stored up overhead in our granary as well. I wonder what ever happened to them.
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 hand grips, or nibs, was developed around 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, and 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.
Another factor that helped to keep the sickle in the forefront as a harvesting tool was based upon farm labor economics. It took a strong man to swing a scythe all day, while women or children could cut grain with a sickle. The wages for women and children (unless they happened to be members of the family, when they worked for free) were much lower than for a robust man who knew how to use a scythe. Not only that, but a good scythe man considered that he was above doing the lower-paid jobs of raking and binding. One Pennsylvania farmer wrote in 1829 that, “...because cradlers only cradle, a farmer must also hire a raker and a binder.” He also noted that sickle reapers “reap through, bind back and shock in the evening,” thus eliminating the need to hire additional workers, while “...a cradler will not do much more than three sickle reapers, and never as clean harvested.” However, a farm analyst of the day estimated the cost of reaping three acres as follows: One cradler with wages of 75 to 80 cents, one raker at 37-1/2 to 40 cents, and a binder at 37-1/2 to 40 cents, for a total of $1.50 to $1.60. To cut the same three acres with sickles would require three men, who would cut, rake and bind the crop, at 50 cents each for a total of $1.50. Not much difference, although ten cents was a lot more in those days than it is today.
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.
The Mother Earth News article described the modern European-made scythe, and said: “The scythe is an efficient and graceful tool for mowing. It cuts heavy weeds and tall grass with ease and with practice can be precise enough to cut and trim your lawn. It will silently out cut your string trimmer and venture where a push or gas lawn mower becomes useless. The scythe does all this with little physical effort, noise or pollution.” Further on in the article, it states: “In a good stand of grass even a child can cut a 7-foot-wide swath with each stroke.”
I’m sure Mother Earth News knows what they’re talking about, but I think I’ll keep my John Deere lawn tractor and my weed whacker.
A political cartoon from the 1880 presidential election showing candidate James A Garfield mowing down the opposition with a scythe on his way to the White House. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)