How a Harvest of Machinery Catalogues Fed Rural America

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A version of this article won the Best of Section Award at the 1996 Kentucky Philological Association conference and was subsequently published in Studies in Popular Culture, volume 19, number 1. It is reprinted here with the permission of that journal.

R Douglas Hurt states that 'the national work force engaged in non-agricultural pursuits did not reach 51 percent of the population until 1880' (3). By 1900, large sections of the country continued more rural than metropolitan, and the majority of people living in cities recalled close relatives who had resided on farms. Threshing wheat, oats, and other grains constituted a significant agrarian task which, in many parts of turn of the century America, had evolved into an annual gathering that featured communal labor. For a generation, steam-powered machinery had made threshing easier and more efficient, transportation of grain to eastern markets had improved, and the harvests had become increasingly abundant. Only a few people, however, could afford to purchase threshing equipment, and a single rig might harvest the grain of a ring comprised of half a dozen or (frequently) more farms. Sales literature accumulated in the effort to persuade more farmers and custom threshermen to acquire steam engines and threshing machines. The firms which built and sold threshers hired talented writers to compose catalogues. Reclaiming such literature affords a study of the non-fictional, agrarian writing aimed at almost half the population of early twentieth-century North America.

On what David R. Pichaske calls 'the proven agrarian past' is based a myth of long-time cooperation among rural inhabitants (xx). Tribal memories of the twenty-year period from approximately 1900 until 1920 cause nostalgic dreamers to envision agrarian collaboration stretching uninterruptedly back to the dawn of time, but the student of agricultural history finds that farmers did not always share labor with one another that, instead, they worked independently until the mechanization of the late 1800s supported larger yields of grain and encouraged agriculturists in areas of smaller family farms to join in communal harvests. The scientific progress and technological advances of the nineteenth century's industrial revolution often had more to do with farming than with city employments, and, as the beneficiaries of the scientific/technological labors on their behalf, many farmers combined their efforts to thresh more and more grain each year. The mystique of a golden age of agriculture when neighbors helped each other in a glorious collaboration called the 'thrashin' season' originates in this industrial history. As J. Sanford Rikoon correctly points out, beginning in the late teens and early 1920s, the same industry which created those communal harvests, today so nostalgically remembered, gradually smothered the cooperative instinct by selling farm families a small tractor to do their own threshing. By the late 1940s, only remnants of the former threshing rings persisted. When combines flourished during the 1950s and 1960s, the last vestiges of shared labor disappeared. As they had at the time of the Civil War, farmers again worked alone.

The era which engendered friendly exchange of labor in the harvest ritual and in the legendary threshing-day dinners reached its pinnacle from 1900 through 1920. Cooperation among harvesters grew not only from improved transportation and technologies but also from the fact that the steam traction engine, the threshing machine, the water wagon, and the tools needed to keep these machines running cost too much for most people to afford. By the late 1800s and especially during the first two decades of the twentieth century, the companies which produced such equipment devoted considerable resources to the printing of annual catalogues, complete with illustrations and testimonials from satisfied customers. The catalogues' anonymous authors consisted of shrewd writers well aware that their audience appreciated 'direct and relatively unadorned literature,' preferred 'content over form,' refused 'to disesteem the truth with excessive and unnecessary elegance,' and suspected 'that artifice is often a lie and always a distraction' (Pichaske xxiii, xxvii). To place their catalogues most favorably with such an audience, writers had to employ their rhetorical savvy to balance sophisticated composition and plain language. To fail meant loss of sales.

The 1903 catalogue of the Northwest Thresher Company, based in Stillwater, Minnesota, offers an example of the rhetorician's art: 'We' are old-fashioned enough to tell the truth even when writing a catalogue, and there is no statement made in this book other than absolute facts. We have cut out generalities, speculations and fairy tales. Instead we have given lengths, widths and thicknesses. . .'(1). This opening recalls that other famous beginning Huck Finn's comment: 'You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.' Twain gently satirizes the unadorned sincerity of much rural writing. Where Twain hopes his readers will discern his burlesque, the canny author of Northwest's catalogue expects his audience to accept his work at face value.

The Geiser Manufacturing Company's catalogue, issued from the corporation's main offices at Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, in 1905, asserts, 'The bare statement that this is The Geiser Manufacturing Company's catalogue and describes the 'Peerless' Machinery is sufficient to insure its careful perusal from cover to cover This Company and its various products are so well known that any 'introduction' or 'eulogy' is unnecessary' (3). Having dispensed with the need to elaborate, the anonymous author next invokes a metaphor: 'The tide comes and goes, and men and machinery in high favor at one period drop back in the next. Here's the latest and best product of the busy head, hand and heart of the 'Geiser Company.' How do you like it? It's our 20th Century masterpiece' (4). Beneath these words appears a cut of a steam traction engine. The author's figurative language suggests that such a machine represents the high tide of perfection, but the writer may be oblivious to the conclusion that Geiser's ebb inevitably approaches. In an evocative phrase, the author notes that Geiser engines' wheels resist slipping in slick spots: 'These engines have a great grip on Mother Earth' (15). Forcefully, the author champions the innovations found in Geiser threshing machines: 'This simple invention. . .practically revolutionizes the old and antiquated method of threshing. The change was so radical. . .that a doubtful world for a time would only buy the 'Peerless' Separator under the strongest guarantee and even then with a measure of suspicion. Time has demonstrated the correctness of the new process. . .' (22). According to the Geiser catalogue, the 'old things.. .have passed away and are forgotten. . .'Out and forever out' goes the incapable and incompetent' (24-25). Such writing sounds the proverbial clarion call for progress.

Indeed, change signifies the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1900, the population of the United States numbered 75.9 million, and most Americans still traveled by horse, mule, or bicycle; however, by the end of the decade, the population would rise to 91.9 million, 8.7 million of them immigrants. By 1905, the number of registered automobiles would increase to 77,988. In 1895, only three-hundred were listed, but, by 1917, 4.8 million automobiles would be registered in the United States. Meanwhile, in 1901, Frank Norris published The Octopus, a novel portraying the clash between economically-repressed farmers and corrupt railroad interests in the wheat-growing regions of California. Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the first successful flight in a motorized airplane, and the experimental electrical trolley enjoyed success both in 1903. Largely in response to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, which disgusted citizens with depictions of unclean conditions in Chicago meatpacking .plants, the Meat Inspection Act passed in 1906, along with the Pure Food and Drug Act. These 'camera phone,' an invention of Edison's in that same year, would lead to motion pictures combined with sound. In 1907, Oklahoma became the forty-sixth state. While the anthropologists of 1908 reconstructed the first complete skeleton of a Neanderthal, America's first skyscraper was erected in New York, and Henry Ford introduced the Model T. By 1909, government lands opened for settlement in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The decade finds its best descriptor in 'transformative.'

As Rikoon has shown, the notion that rural people of the initial years of this century resisted change falsely stereotypes them. The catalogues of the threshing-machine manufacturers do not so much apply a corrective to refractory readers as they do appeal to the audience's appreciation for change. The J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company catalogue of 1907 (Racine, Wisconsin) states, 'If we stood still the 'annual catalog' would be unnecessary, and a consequent large expenditure eliminated. But we move forward every day and every year, our annual catalog measuring as a stepping-stone, the upward climb toward perfection'(1). The author calls 'unprecedented' the volume of business conducted by the company in 1906 and expresses hope for even more profits in the year to comean ardor dampened by the Financial Panic of 1907. The 1909 Case catalogue would look back on the bank failures of 1907 and the economic slowdown of 1908: 'The year just closed, while bringing unfavorable business conditions, which will make it memorable, has been an exceptionally good one for us, and we wish to thank our friends for their continued loyalty. . .' (2). One wonders how to take the word 'exceptionally,' but the catalogue plainly substantiates that its author trusts the company's 'friends' to approve of change.

Describing the firm's thresher, nicknamed the Rusher, as 'the simplest, the strongest, the best working, and the best looking thresher in the World,' the author of the 1908 catalogue published by the Port Huron Engine and Thresher Company of Port Huron, Michigan, employs hyperbole: 'The Rusher is not only good in one respect, or two respects; but it is good in every respect.' Later in the catalogue, the writer selects anaphora from the arsenal of rhetorical devices: 'We have led all other makers of Traction Engines in America in the use of all steel-gearing. . . We have led all other makers of Traction Engines in America in the use of high pressure boilers. We have led all other makers in America in the use of the compound cylinder. . .'(27). The exuberant author goes on to share additional ways Port Huron has led. Not outdone, the author of the 1909 Case catalogue encourages farmers and entrepreneurs to enter the business of custom threshing:' [W]e would say by all means investigate Threshing as a business it offers great opportunities a business that requires comparatively small capital is easily conducted and pays a handsome percentage on the investment if you buy wisely and exercise ordinary judgment in the operation of your machinery' (2). The dashes separate the message into bursts conveying telegraphic urgency. This rhetorical strategy upholds the twentieth-century value of speed; in contradistinction, nineteenth-century catalogues uniformly present long paragraphs of polished prose.

Acknowledging the modern penchant for brevity, the Geiser catalogue of 1910 feigns the risky approach of less-is-more: 'If we are not doing as much talking about our machinery as some manufacturers, not using as much printer's ink, it is because our machinery does its own talking and its own advertising' (3). With customary bravado, the author claims, '[The machine's separating device] is a masterpiece of mechanism, that makes and marks [a] new era in the history of the business. Tis the work of genius. . .'(32). Located across the street from the Geiser factory in Waynesboro stood Geiser's closest competitor, the Frick Company. Its catalogue of 1912 challenges Geiser on the level of rhetorical proclamations: '[Frick machines] are not only superior in every factor of mechanical design, construction and utility, but they stand for the most advanced thought of the originators of their class' (3). Both companies' praise of their mechanical engineers' intellectual attainments echoes the boasts which must have passed back and forth in the street between the workers at the firm producing the 'Eclipse' line of products and the employees of the manufacturer building the 'Peerless' make of equipment.

In 1912, when motion-picture stars were drawing five million people to metropolitan theaters daily, catalogue writers began to emphasize not only innovation but also tradition specifically by including brief biographies of the firms' founders. A celebrity mentality was dawning in American business. The catalogue of the M. Rumely Company of La Porte, Indiana, recalls, 'The M. Rumely Company was founded in 1853 by Meinrad Rumely. . .. As a boy Meinrad Rumely had flailed the grain and he knew the burdens of farm life, and also knew intimately, from years of actual experience, the processes of grain separation' (2). The author of this catalogue eventually leaves behind the life story of the company founder and makes an analogy: '[Difficult medical operations, important lawsuits are not intrusted to young doctors or young lawyers just starting their work and who lack experience. Experience is just as important in the manufacture of agricultural implements. . .'(3). Winding up his pitch, the writer turns to evolution: 'An Organization! Think what that means in the human body. Millions of separate cells. . .Does the hand hesitate, or the foot halt in its task? The heart beats, the eye sees, the voice speaks. Each does its own work in perfect harmony. . .The story of life upon this globe is nothing but the irresistible growth of a more perfect organization, ranging from the simple-celled amoeba to the perfection of the human body' (3). The M. Rumely Company, concludes the writer, is such a perfect organization. This catalogue author appeals to an educated class of agriculturists to those who, thirteen years later, would side with Clarence Darrow in the trial of John Scopes. Yet, so as not to ostracize anyone, the writer cleverly inserts an ambiguity into his definition of 'organization' to satisfy those who, like William Jennings Bryan, would favor a more medieval concept, like the Great Chain of Being.

Despite the modernity of allusions to evolutionary science, the country in the teens bore much more in common with what it had been in the rural nineteenth century than with what it would become in the metropolitan twentieth. In 1913, the same year that Willa Cather published O Pioneers! and Robert Frost his first book of poetry, the author of the Huber Manufacturing Company (Marion, Ohio) catalogue urges farmers to compare horses to engines: 'Teams must be handled with great care, must have regular periods of rest. . .On the hottest days they accomplish less work. The engine can work constantly, day and night if necessary' (13). In paraphrase, horsepower surpasses power by horse. The reference to horses is not as antiquated as it may appear, for the majority of farmers would continue to employ teams until after World War II.

While Huber indulged in equestrian studies, the Nichols & Shepard Company of Battle Creek, Michigan, published a 1913 catalogue which applies the public's growing fear of trusts to the sale of machinery. 'The Builders of the Red River Special Line are not a Trust, nor a great big combine trying to get hold and control of the building and selling of everything a farmer buys and uses' (4). The Nichols & Shepard catalogue of the following year adopted the established strategy of celebrating the founders: 'Corporations, like individuals, have certain well-defined and dominant characteristics that can be traced to their ancestry. Those which typify the standing of the Nichols & Shepard Company are. . . progressiveness and straightforward honesty of purpose. .. Buyers and users. . .owe much to the two Michigan pioneers whose portraits are shown on the preceding page' (3). Both years' catalogues feature extraordinary addresses to the reader common-sense arguments worthy of Lincoln:

'If a farmer should take you out to his barn, showing you on the barn floor a pile of intermingled straw, chaff and grain and ask you to go to work and separate the grain from the pile, what would you do? You would first ask for a pitchfork, wouldn't you?

'Now watch your own actions closely, because what you do to that pile of straw and grain is going to tell you which thresher is the best separator.

'Would you jab your fork down into the top of the pile of straw and drag a bunch of it across the barn floor, expecting the grain to fall out? No! Because you know that much of it would not fall out. Some of it would, but you know that some of it would not, even if you dragged it over the floor a dozen times!

'Yet, you have done just what some threshing machines do. They have forks and tines to push the straw back through their machines, but there is not sufficient agitation to take out the grain.' (1913,32).

The catalogue continues to show the faults of competing manufacturers always with the question 'Would you. . .?,' followed by the exclamatory negative! Authors of catalogues in the heyday of agricultural steam power often reveal their folksy wit.

In 1910, the Department of Agriculture estimated that 100,000 engineers were running steam engines for threshing, plowing, road-building, and hauling (Wik 5). In 1911, Case erected the highest number of engines it would build in a single year of company history. By 1914and the beginning of World War I the trend began to shift away from bulky, steam-powered equipment to gasoline-run motors and lighter-weight ' machines. Although a generation would pass before the effects would be realized, the change had started. The Huber catalogue for 1914 adjures readers to identify additional applications for the steam engine: 'After you became the fortunate owner of one of these engines, you will be finding new uses for it from time to time, and be able to keep it working a large part of the year. Where you keep it busy that way, it is bound to be a money-maker for you. . .'(38). The author betrays urgency by repeating this motif three times in the catalogue. Huber was seeing sales of steam engines drop.

The Case catalogue of 1919 summarizes the condition of a world torn by war: 'The peoples of the earth are crying for food of all kinds and it will be years before the normal food supply is restored. Europe has lost millions of men and many of the most productive areas have been laid waste. All nations look to North America for food. . .' (7). With foresight, the author states, 'Farms must be run with the same efficiency as factories, for in reality the farmer is a manufacturer' (7). To transform each farmer into an industrialist, companies like Case designed smaller and smaller finally cheaper and cheaper tractors. This response to global change ended the steam era. In 1921, the Keck-Gon-nerman Company of Mount Vernon, Indiana, advertised steam engines, but also listed gasoline-powered tractors and smaller threshing machines. Interestingly, the author's description of threshers designed for the individual farmer states, 'With one of these separators, you can do your threshing when it should be done, without waiting to suit the convenience of the community thresher, or the annoyance and trouble of feeding a large thresher crew' (20). Today viewed nostalgically as something of a summer Christmas celebration, the threshing dinner in 1921 had become an 'annoyance.' The period of communal harvests was vanishing. The era of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920) had arrived.

The threshing-machinery catalogues of the first twenty years of the twentieth century trace the massive changes away from an agrarian nation of roving settlers to a war-weary, metropolitan republic of settled industrialists. The catalogue authors reflect their time and reveal their understanding of the epochal relationship they bear to traditions and to future cultural prerogatives. Herbert Quick's encomium fits the anonymous authors of the threshing-machinery catalogues: 'All praise to them from a great people famished for reading! They brought to thousands and thousands of humble, isolated homes the nearest approach to literature that was available, in a day when books were costly and the good magazines were not only more so, but were pitched in a tone too high or too dull. . .'(42). The catalogues' anonymous writers brought to a large percentage of the population a literature richer and more varied than anyone had the right to expect.

Works Cited

Case Power Farming Machinery. Racine, Wisconsin: J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., 1919.

Catalogue of Northwest Thresher Company. Builder of High Grade Threshing Machinery. Stillwater, Minnesota: Northwest, 1903.

Engines & Threshing Machines. Marion, Ohio: Huber Manufacturing Co., 1913.

Frick Company General Catalogue. Waynesboro, Pennsylvania: Frick, 1912.

The Geiser Manufacturing Co. Waynesboro, Pennsylvania: Geiser, 1905.
The Geiser Manufacturing Company General Catalog of 'Peerless' Machinery. Waynesboro, Pennsylvania: Geiser, 1910.
General Catalog: 1908 Book of Specifications of Threshers and Engines. Port Huron, Michigan : Port Huron Engine & Thresher Co., 1908.
Hurt, R. Douglas. 'Ohio: Mainstream America' In The Ohio Almanac. Ed. Damaine Vonada. Wilmington, Ohio: Orange Frazer, 1992.

J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company. Racine, Wisconsin: Case, 1907.

Keck-Gonnerman Company: Catalogue No. 32. Mount Vernon, Indiana: Keck-Gonnerman, 1921.

M. Rumely Company: 1912 Annual Catalog. LaPorte, Indiana: Rumely, 1912.

Nichols & Shepard Company. Battle Creek, Michigan: Nichols & Shepard, 1914.
Nichols & Shepard Company Catalogue. Battle Creek, Michigan: Nichols & Shepard, 1913.
Pichaske, David R., ed. Late Harvest: Rural American Writing. New York: Paragon, 1992.
Quick, Herbert. The Hawkeye. New York: A. L. Burl, 1923.
Rikoon, J. Sanford. Threshing in the Midwest. 1820-1940. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

67th Annual Catalog of the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company. Racine, Wisconsin: Case 1909.

Threshing Machines, Steam Engines, Gas Tractors. Marion, Ohio: Huber Manufacturing Company, 1914.
Wik, Reynold M. 'Farm Steam Engineers: Pioneers in Rural America.' Iron Men Album Magazine 34.6 (1980): 3-6.