Stepping Forward: Hand-Held Corn Planters

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Jim Smith’s planter collection.
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Two-handed fertilizer/corn planter.
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“Auto­matic” corn/pumpkin seed planter.
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Jim’s oldest corn planters, patented in the 1850s and 1860s. Second from left: a salesman’s sample; second from right, the actual production model.
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Patented in 1867, this planter features quality workmanship (the seed chamber appears to have been turned with a lathe) and a leaded glass area at the bottom left allowing the farmer to monitor seed drop.
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Close up showing the leaded glass area.
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Original inscription showing patent dates and directions for the Improved Monitor planter.
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Original lettering on the Triumph planter.

Inspired by a planter belonging to his wife’s grandfather, Jim Smith discovered a broad category of collectibles: hand-held corn planters.

Research he’s done shows more than 300 manufacturers of the hand-held planters; Jim has 41 unique models.

Patents for the earliest hand-held units date back to the 1850s. The Acme Co. was among the first to manufacture the planters. “My 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog advertised the Acme planter for 56 cents,” Jim says.

His collection covers 100 years of corn-planter evolution. Four wooden planters in his collection were patented in the 1850s and 1860s; each is considered rare, and one is a salesman’s sample. One (patented in 1867) was a top-of-the-line model complete with a sight glass, allowing the farmer to monitor seed drop.

Before the planters of the 1850s, farmers carried a sack of seed corn on their shoulder and used a stick to poke a hole in the soil where they then dropped seed. Hand-held planters evolved rapidly during the roughly 60-year period before large mechanical planters became commonplace. The hollow stick used by early farmers gave way to a one-hand unit with a trigger-release hopper. Next came units with two hoppers on the handle: one for seed and the other for fertilizer (some even planted corn and pumpkin seeds in one pass). Ultimately, the hand-held unit was relegated to garden use or to “fill in” gaps in fields.

An “automatic” model was patented in about 1891: The operator walked along while pushing the tip into the ground. As he moved forward, a lever assembly on the bottom of the unit touched the ground and caused a seed to be dropped. “Apparently four acres a day could be planted using the automatic model,” Jim says. “All of these enabled the farmer to plant his field without bending over to plant each seed.” FC

Jim Smith’s collection is not limited to antique hand-held corn planters: He’s also interested in stationary gas engines. Read “1909 IHC Famous Vertical.”

Don Voelker is a freelance photographer and writer in Fort Wayne, Ind., specializing in tractors, farm equipment, historic sites, museums, barns and covered bridges. View his work at
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