Before there was an organized wagon industry in North America, hundreds of individual blacksmiths built wagons for farmers. Their output was a "built-to-order" business: No two wagons, even those made by the same blacksmith, were the same. If a farmer wanted a wagon with a wide wheel-tread, that's what the smith built. Or, if a farmer thought he needed a narrower wagon, that's the type of wagon he got. The same individualization existed in wheel sizes, bolsters and reaches. Some farmers were sure a wagon with wide wheel rims and steel tires was easier for horses to pull, so that's what they asked the blacksmith to make. Others preferred a wagon with high wheels for increased ground clearance. The result was a huge diversity of types and sizes of wagons with little commonality.
As farming moved west of the Appalachian Mountains and the number and acreage size of individual farms increased, wagon production moved from the blacksmith shops to the factory. Competition between factories, some of which were dedicated to wagon production, soon forced an increasing variety of wagons in order to meet individual farmers' specific desires.
An article published in a 1914 issue of Farm Implement News - a dealer trade publication - noted "One of the largest wagon manufacturers in the country declares that there are more than 5,000 different combinations of farm wagons in use in the United States today. In the wagon business, the diversity of sizes, types and combinations have been added from time to time to such an extent that the average manufacturer is confronted with an assortment of 700 sets of tires and heights of wheels to satisfy the trade." The watchword for the wagon industry then became "standardization," not only for the factories, but also for dealers and jobbers.
Another article appearing in a later issue of Farm Implement News was headlined "Standardization Coming," and cited a well-known automobile manufacturer as a strong advocate of the practice. "Henry Ford attributes all of his success to the fact that he will not allow himself to build more than one type of automobile," the writer reported. The same article also stated, "Wagon dealers and jobbers, as a rule, believe that the number of wagon types actually required to serve every purpose on the farm could be reduced to three or four sizes with injury to no one, and a great savings to the dealer, jobber, farmer and manufacturer."
The auto industry took the lead in standardization when U.S. manufacturers agreed to adopt the European 56-inch wheel-tread standard. In July 1918 - with the entry of the U.S. into World War I - the Conservation Division of the War Industries Board in Washington, D.C. declared, as a war measure, "that after Jan. 1, 1919, all wagons (built in the U.S.) must be made to conform to the 'auto track,' or have 56-inch wheel tread." Wagon manufacturers readily agreed with this federal directive. They saw it as an important first step towards improved profitability. Dealers and jobbers saw it as a way to reduce inventory and cut expenses. Initially, one-horse wagons were exempt from the federal mandate, but later were included. Buggies and carriages were not affected.
The War Industries Board cited the following four reasons for its war standardization order:
"1. Automobiles pass over practically all roads more frequently than wagons. On soft or wet stretches, their wheels cut well-defined tracks - always 56 inches wide. A wagon whose tread conforms to these tracks runs smoother, pulls easier and lasts longer than a wagon with a wider or narrower tread. On hard, dry stretches of road, where there is no well-defined track, the standard auto-track wagon has the same advantages as the old-style, narrow- or wide-track wagons.
"Henry Ford attributes all of his success to the fact that he will not allow himself to build more than one type of automobile."
"2. No matter to what part of the country the owner moves, his standard auto-track wagon will fit the road.
"3. By making only standard auto-track wagons, both labor and material are conserved that would otherwise be used in making a multiplicity of styles. Dealers do not have to carry a big variety of wagons in stock, tying up money, material and storage space that could be used to better advantage.
"4. The savings by making only standard auto-track wagons can be devoted by the manufacturer to making better wagons without increasing the cost to the user."
There was a fifth reason the government could have cited, but did not: The auto-track wagon could carry a heavier load than a wagon with a wider tread. This was due to the fact that the axles on the auto-track wagon were four inches shorter and, therefore, stronger.
Only one group of farmers expressed opposition to the new auto-track wagon standard, and they were concentrated in cotton-growing areas. Those farmers preferred the wider-tread wagon, because it was easier to load six cotton bales into it. The standard cotton bale was 27 inches by 54 inches by 48 inches. However, the cotton growers learned how to stack six bales on an auto-track wagon without damage to the box. In spite of this regional objection, the auto-track wagon as proscribed by the War Industries Board in 1918 became the standard for the wagon industry and remains so today. However, it is no longer government mandated.
- Ralph Hughes is retired from a 38-year career with Deere & Company. He joined the company in 1954 as a writer for The Furrow magazine, later worked as an advertising copywriter, and was director of advertising at the time of his retirement.