Left-Hand Cut, Right-Hand Cut

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The McCormick Improved grain binder was offered in 6-, 7-, and 8-foot cuts.
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The McCormick No. 6 mower: "used in hay-growing counties all over the world."

Somebody asked: “Why are mowers right-hand cut, while grain binders left-hand cut?”

Cyrus McCormick, the younger son of the famous “Inventor of the Reaper,” answered the question in his 1931 book, “Century of the Reaper,” when he wrote: “Except for the accident of the reaper tradition, there is no reason why the cutter bar of a grain binder should extend to the left of the main wheel. The platform on all modern tractor-drawn apparatus projects naturally to the right, as does the bar of a mower; but since its inception, the standard binder has cut to the left.”

McCormick’s reaper, first tested in 1831, featured a left-hand cutter bar, along with a platform from which the cut grain was raked by hand. Apparently, there was no particular reason for this: it just was the way he chose to build the reaper. Obed Hussey also claimed credit for the first reaper, testing his machine in 1833. Most drawings of Hussey’s machine reveal a left-hand cut, although I’ve seen one that appears to be the opposite. McCormick’s machine prevailed, and most of the reapers built by other firms copied the left-hand cut setup.

During the Civil War, the Marsh Brothers improved the reaper by adding canvas aprons that carried the cut grain up over the drive wheel to a platform where two men hand-tied the grain into sheaves. About 1870, a wire tie device was added to a Marsh harvester, and hand-tying was no longer necessary. Farmers and millers didn’t like the wire ties because pieces could break off and get into the flour or a cow’s stomach. John Appleby patented a twine tying mechanism in 1875, and the self-tying binder, still in use by horse farmers, was born. These later improvements to the early reapers were built around the original left-hand cut concept that characterized binders until the end of production, so Mr. McCormick’s comment about the “accident of tradition” seems to be accurate.

Mowers, on the other hand, took a different tack. William Ketchum patented the first successful hay mower in 1847, a single-wheel model with a rigid right-hand cutter bar. The improved mowers that came along later, two-wheel machines with hinged cutter bars, mostly all followed the right-hand cut pattern. Virtually all of the “self rake” reapers that were popular during the 1860s and 1870s were based on the mowers and were right-hand cut, as well.

During the “harvester wars” of the 1890s, as competition to sell binders became intense, McCormick suddenly changed all its binder production to right-hand cut. According to Cyrus Jr., the change was nothing more than an attempt to give the sales department a new feature to talk about and to draw attention to the McCormick machines. The change was soon quietly abandoned.

Strangely, when combines started to replace binders, most were right-hand cut. Holt, Massey-Harris, Minneapolis-Moline, Oliver, Case, McCormick-Deering and the larger John Deere models all cut on the right, while Allis-Chalmers, Gleaner and Woods Brothers, along with the popular John Deere 12A, were left-hand models.

Even though the benefits of crop rotation had been known to the Romans, American farmers neglected the practice because they believed their rich land would never wear out. During the late 1800s, without the chemical fertilizers available today, yields fell off dramatically, and folks began to realize that a regular system of crop rotation was needed to help keep the soil fertile. The recommended crop rotation was, at least in my part of the country, corn, then oats, followed in the fall by wheat. Clover, or a mixture of timothy and clover, was seeded into the wheat in the early spring for the next year’s hay crop. This clover, with its deep roots and its ability to take nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil, helped rebuild soil fertility for the following nitrogen-hungry corn crop. The clover furnished hay for animal feed, as well as seed that could be sold as a much-needed cash crop.

Many farmers felt that the grain stubble left in the field after binding or combining should be mowed shortly after the wheat was cut. This mowing killed weeds (such as cocklebur and button-weed) before they went to seed, helped prevent field mice from working the fields during the fall, and was believed to increase the yield and quality of the next summer’s hay. Another consideration was the appearance of the field. Farmers took a lot of pride in straight furrows and rows, as well as weed-free corn, and mowing the grain stubble made the fields look better.

Some folks have told me the reason for the different configurations is that the combination of left-hand binder or combine and right-hand mower simplifies and improves this stubble clipping. Binders, with their wide bull wheels and heavy teams, trampled down stubble as they traveled around a field in a counter-clockwise direction. A mowing machine, on the other hand, went clockwise, or against the grain, allowing the stubble to be cut cleanly.

However, I think Cyrus McCormick Jr. is correct when he says that the thing happened entirely by accident. At the time the senior McCormick built his reaper, there were no mowing machines, only scythes. When William Ketchum built the first mower in 1847, crop rotation wasn’t practiced to any great extent, making it doubtful that anyone used the new mowers for anything other than cutting hay. The opposing cuts of the two machines made the job of clipping stubble easier for later farmers, but that clearly wasn’t the reason for the original design.

So, it appears that it was merely a matter of chance that binders cut to the left and mowers to the right. Now, aren’t you glad I cleared that up? FC

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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