The Right Tool for the Job: Husking Corn by Hand

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

| November 2015

corn husking competition

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

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.