The world's supply of bread literally "hangs by a thread" - a thread of binder twine.
The quotation above appeared in a 1925 booklet about binder twine published by International Harvester Co. It illustrates how vital the product was to the grain farmers of the world. Twine was used to tie sacks, fashion makeshift belts and suspenders (as portrayed in the many “farmer as hayseed” jokes), and perform a hundred other tying and fastening jobs around the farm. It was also an actual necessity in feeding the hungry population of the planet.
About this time of year 80 or more years ago, grain binders were swarming the wheat fields of the Northern Hemisphere. As the machines moved through the fields, the tying mechanisms could be heard. If the crop was good, the mechanism clicked with monotonous regularity — and each click meant another couple of feet of binder twine was used.
Key component for binders
John F. Appleby patented his twine-tying mechanism for grain harvesters in 1879, and the new binder swiftly swept the grain-growing world. By the turn of the century, virtually all small grain was harvested with a twine tie machine and the price of twine became critical to farmers, who used a lot of it.
Many sources of raw material were tried in making twine — grass, hemp, flax, straw and even paper — but all were rejected as unsatisfactory, many because rodents and insects found the taste irresistible. Finally, both sisal and manila fibers proved satisfactory and these two products became staples of binder twine manufacture.
Building a better mousetrap
Of course the manufacture of twine became big business, and most companies that built binders also made twine for them. International Harvester had large twine mills in Chicago, St. Paul and New Orleans, as well as Hamilton, Ontario; Croix, France; Neuss, Germany; and Norrkoping, Sweden, supplying farmers of the world with this lowly but essential product. IH bragged in 1931 that there were 5,795 spinning mills in the seven factories: “Allowing for the difference in time (between Europe and North America) there is a certain period of the day when all these spinners are in operation simultaneously, making twine at the rate of 2 miles each second, 7,200 miles an hour, or a single strand of twine long enough to go around the equator, 25,000 miles, in less than four hours.”
IH twine was made of either sisal or manila fibers, or a blend of the two. Apparently, pure manila was preferred, as an item in a 1900 trade paper lists these prices: 11 cents a pound for sisal and standard, 13 cents for 600-foot manila and 14 cents for pure manila. The price and availability of sisal, manila and finished twine was the subject of much reporting in trade papers of the day and, probably, a lot of speculation among dealers: “Should I buy my yearly twine supply now when the price may be lower than later, or wait until later when it may be lower?”
Fiber from tropical plants
Sisal fiber comes from the leaves of the henequen plant, which is found primarily on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, where IH had a large sisal plantation. Manila fiber is in the stems of the abaca plant, which is mostly from the Philippine Islands. Illustrating the importance of the stuff, a news item in 1899 warned of “a binder twine famine” unless the U.S. administration reopened Philippine ports, which had been closed due to the Spanish-American War. The story went so far as to predict that unless the ports were opened, “binder twine may yet be an issue in the coming national election.”
The leaves of the henequen and the thick stems of the abaca plants were hand-harvested by native workers and the long fibers were extracted, initially by hand, but later in decorticating machines, before being hung over long wire racks to dry and bleach in the sun. After drying, the fiber was baled into large bales and stored in warehouses to await shipment to the twine mills.
Carried by ship and rail to the mills, the bales were inspected and the sisal and manila fibers were blended, oiled, made flexible and treated with insecticide. The fibers passed through a series of four machines called “breakers,” which combed and straightened the fiber, and then four additional machines called, respectively, the spreader, the bell machine, the set machine and the finishing machine.
The spinning machines were next; there the fibers were given a final combing, reducing the string to approximately 75 strands, twisted 14-1/2 times per foot, and the finished twine was wound onto large bobbins.
Self-packaging and continuous feed
The bobbins were moved to the balling machines where the twine was wound into exactly 8-pound balls, regardless of grade, including International’s patented “crisscross” cover, an outer wrapping of twine mechanically applied to each ball. Twine length averaged 500 feet per pound for sisal and 600 feet for manila.
IH was proud of this “hammock-like” cover, “which protects the inner core, keeps the ball in shape during shipping and prevents snarling as the last of the twine is drawn from the can.” The “can” was the twine-holding can on the binder, which held two balls of twine, one above the other, with the outer end of the top ball tied to the inner end of the bottom one for continuous feeding when the top ball was used. That was when the traditionally wound ball of twine was most likely to snarl; the outer plies of twine would collapse inward and the twine would tangle. International’s crisscross cover was designed to prevent this.
The finished twine balls were packed six balls to a bale, which consisted of a large burlap sack, sewn shut at the top and bound with “14 feet of good rope.” I remember as a kid my dad getting these bales of the crisscross-wrapped twine and occasionally giving me the 14-foot rope to play with.
With the coming of the combine, another industry that had provided employment for thousands of workers all over the world bit the dust. So goes progress. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.