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The Right Tool for the Job: Husking Corn by Hand

Small hand-held tools helped farmers husk corn by hand for decades.

| November 2015

  • A competitor at the 2014 Iowa corn husking competition rips an ear from the stalk just before hurling it toward the waiting wagon’s bangboard.
    Photo by Teri McManus
  • This patent for a “husking thimble” represents the first U.S. patent issued for a hand-husking device. The patent was awarded in 1856.
    Image courtesy United States Patent and Trademark Office
  • The left hand has grabbed the ear of corn. Note position of thumb and fingers.
    Photo by Don McKinley
  • The right hand is coming across the ear and hooking husks. The hook is placed approximately three-quarters of the way down from the tip of the ear.
    Photo by Don McKinley
  • The husks have been opened by the hook on the right hand. The thumb of the left hand is pushing the husks toward the fingers, which are beginning to grip and tear the remaining husks.
    Photo by Don McKinley
  • The right hand has rotated at the wrist and grabs the ear, which has been cleared of husks.
    Photo by Don McKinley
  • As the husks are held by the left hand, the right hand sharply snaps the ear from the stalk and simultaneously sends it on the way to the wagon with a vigorous flip of the wrist. The left hand immediately goes to the next ear to be properly grabbed and ready for the hook. The husker is always looking ahead to the next cornstalk (or two) to find the position of the ears on those stalks, which will determine how the left hand will grab them. If you watch a proficient corn husker, you will observe that the right elbow never leaves the side of the husker’s body.
    Photo by Don McKinley
  • Thumb hook
    Photo by Don McKinley
  • Wrist hook
    Photo by Don McKinley
  • Peg hook
    Photo by Don McKinley
  • Palm hook
    Photo by Don McKinley
  • Two-thumb glove, wire thumb stall and leather wristband
    Photo by Don McKinley

According to archaeologists, the domestication of corn (or maize) started in Mexico approximately 10,000 years ago. Selective breeding of corn by man, over thousands of years, has brought the development of an ear of corn from the wild teosinte plant to the large, compressed ears we have today.

For thousands of years, corn was harvested by removing the protective husks by hand, without the aid of any device to help in the labor-intensive process. To realize the magnitude of that labor, consider this. In 1880, 62 million acres were planted to corn in the U.S. Every stored ear of corn from those 62 million acres was harvested by hand.

Between 1880 and 1930, there was no significant difference in corn yield per acre. In 1900, 95 million acres of corn were planted in the U.S., yielding an average of 25 bushels per acre. (By contrast, in the year 2000, American farmers planted 79 million acres in corn, producing an average yield of 137 bushels per acre.) In 1917, 111 million acres in the U.S. were planted to corn, the largest number ever.

In the late 1930s, farmers were planting 12,000 kernels of corn per acre. If each stalk in a 10-acre field produced an ear of corn, it would result in the farmer husking 120,000 ears of corn from that field by hand. Again, try to imagine the time and labor involved! Mechanical corn pickers came into being in the 1920s, but thousands of acres were still harvested by hand until after World War II.

Literally countless devices

Many stories describe the days of husking corn by hand. Most of those stories, however, reveal that hand aids were used by most of the corn huskers. How and when did these hand aids first appear, and how did they evolve?

The book American Corn Huskers by Jim Moffet traces the patent history of hand-husking equipment used to remove the husk from the ear of corn. Jim’s research indicates that the first U.S. patent for a hand-husking device was granted in 1856. The device was described as a “husking thimble.” After that, the floodgates opened: Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of unpatented husking devices were produced.


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