The Great Plow Debate


| April 2003



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Sam MooreSam Moore

In the February 2003 Farm Collector letters to the editor column, there was a letter from a reader about his grandfather's plow, in which he expressed surprise that the plow was right-handed. There have been many questions about why some horse-drawn moldboard plows, both walking and riding, throw the furrow to the left, while most others throw to the right. The short answer is that it's strictly a matter of preference, custom - and prejudice.

The right-handed plow is well rooted in history. Illustrations which depict English plows from the 17th century show they were all right-handers. Drawings of several wooden plows often used by American pioneers show both right-and left-handed versions.

Two specific early American inventors, Charles Newbold from New Jersey, with his 1797 cast iron plow, and Jethro Wood, a New Yorker who in 1819 designed an improved plow, both favored the right-handed design. In fact, John Deere's famous steel plow was right-handed. Since most plows made in the United States, however, were built by blacksmiths, carpenters and wheelwrights until the 1830s or 1840s, there were many local customs and designs. As a result, some areas of the country used one type to the exclusion of the other.

When implement manufacturers began to build plows, they offered both right and left versions to cater to the demand of farmers in all parts of the country. That practice continued until 1917, when American plow manufacturers announced an agreement to eliminate what they called 'the southpaw plow.' The resolution of the manufacturers, as published in the Jan. 5, 1918 issue of the Rural New Yorker, reads:

'Whereas, it is the belief of those present that left-hand plows are non-essential; therefore, we, the undersigned manufacturers of left-hand plows, hereby agree with each other to discontinue the manufacture of left-hand plows as soon as the present stock of materials is exhausted.'

The agreement excluded hillside plows and left-hand bottoms for two-way plows, as well as replacement parts for existing left-hand plows. Parlin & Orendorff Co., a major plow builder, explained the decision. 'Left-hand plows have been used to the exclusion of right-hand plows in the states of Indiana and Ohio, with some overlapping into eastern Indiana and western Pennsylvania. This defines what might be called the left-hand plow section of the U.S. The present day farmers of this section are using left-hand plows because they were brought up that way, and this goes back for two or three generations.' The article went on to explain that several factors combined to bring about the decision, including the large number of tractor plows, which were all right-handed, being sold to those farmers in Ohio and Indiana. Another concern cited by P&O was the cost of producing both left-and right-hand plows and providing spare parts for them both.