Directive from Washington

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Above: This two-page spread appeared in a farm wagon advertising folder printed and distributed by John Deere in 1921. Note the boldface headline: “Made to Government Specifications.” Other U.S. farm wagon manufacturers promoted the 56-inch auto-track feature in their magazine advertising and literature.
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Right: One wagon manufacturer ran this ad in a 1918 farm publication to inform its customers about the new wagon auto-track standard. The ad referred to the standard as a federal “recommendation.” However, the directive sent to all wagon manufacturers was much more specific: It clearly stated that “after Jan. 1, 1919, all wagons must be made to conform to the auto track.”

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
– 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
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

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

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

“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,

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

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.

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