With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, by the 1850s iron became available in much greater quantities. By the 1860s, steel was also increasingly available and was used to manufacture objects previously made of wood. This was true for farm equipment, including discs, planters, binders and especially plows. It was also true for many smaller items: shovels, hayforks, wrenches and household items.
Because of the durability of iron and steel, many of those early objects have survived more than 100 years for us, the collectors of 2015, to find and collect. The pages of Farm Collector are routinely filled with articles on plows, binder, steam engines, tractors and other devices used to plant, cultivate and harvest crops used to feed man and beast. But that is only half the story of man’s needs and ingenuity in fulfilling such needs.
Once produced, most crops needed to be processed before they could be preserved and/or consumed. Before corn could be cooked or baked, it had to be shelled or ground. Wheat needed to be separated from the straw and chaff, ground and baked. After animals were butchered, the meat was smoked or dried before it was cooked. All of these functions required tools made of iron, which is now the old iron many of us collect.
A century ago, fruit and berries were already important crops in the U.S. In addition to their nutritional value, fruit and berries were a welcome sweet addition to an otherwise simple diet. Canning and drying were common preservation methods.
Apples, which could be grown almost everywhere, were the most popular of all the fruit crops nationwide. Cherries (especially sour red cherries), grapes (eaten fresh or dried, juiced and made in to jellies, juice and wine) and peaches (less common, owing to their climate sensitivity) were also commonly grown. After harvest, each fruit required extensive processing for storage and immediate use. Special tools made of iron were invented to make preparation easier and quicker – in some cases, much quicker.
Apple peelers were known of as early as the late 1700s. The first peeler patented in the U.S. was issued to Moses Coates, Downing’s Field, Pennsylvania, in 1803. Since then, more than 325 patents have been issued for apple peelers, possibly the most patents issued for any given item. Until 1852, these peelers were made mostly of wood. The typical peeler had a wooden base and frame, a metal fork to hold the apple and a separate knife blade held against the apple to peel it as the fork and apple were rotated.
In 1852, Ephraim C. Pratt, Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, received the first patent for a cast iron apple peeler with a paring arm that returned to its starting point. The tool was mounted on a wooden board. This patent was assigned to J. Sargent and Dan P. Foster for manufacture. In this and nearly all succeeding peelers, an apple was placed on a cast iron fork. The fork was turned by a cast iron crank with one or more gears, rotating the apple. An iron arm with a paring blade at the end was held against the apple and moved around it as the apple was turned, peeling it.
Subsequent improvements included a pivoting paring head attributed to Horatio Keyes, Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1856 and a slicer added by Guy H. Hubbard, Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, in 1857. An article in Scientific American claimed a 12-year-old boy could peel and slice a bushel of apples in 15 minutes with this device.
The automatic apple kicker (patented by D.H. Whittemore, Worchester, Massachusetts) came next in 1866. The kicker automatically pushed the apple off the fork when it was peeled. Finally, in 1883, Reading Hardware, Reading, Pennsylvania, under four different patents produced the Champion, the ultimate apple peeler. With a simple turn of the crank, the apple was peeled, sliced, cored and kicked off the core.
In 31 years, we went from the first cast iron peeler to the ultimate peeler. The ultimate peeler – the Champion – sliced, cored and kicked the apple by simply turning the crank. Subsequent improvements accelerated the process. Without this modest device, much more time and energy would have been needed to peel, slice and core apples.
With at least 325 patents granted, everyone seems to have had an idea for improved peeler – and a keen understanding of the size of the market. Certainly almost every farm family had an apple peeler, manufactured or homemade, and those that did not probably wanted one.
When I taught school, we had a “Pioneer Day,” where fourth grade students learned about a couple dozen pioneer tasks and activities. One of those was apple peeling. Even inexperienced students could peel a bushel of apples in about 45 minutes using a comparatively modern White Mountain apple peeler. This proved to me the benefit of the apple peeler.
Peaches were commonly grown in the South and Midwest. The crop required a climate warm enough that early spring frosts were not a threat.
The peach parer was very similar to an apple peeler with one key difference. Where the apple peeler had a straight blade, the peach parer’s blade was round. Because it rotated while paring, it was called a rotary parer. Generally speaking, peaches are softer than apples. In use, the rotary parer took less peach with the skin. However, because of the lack of peach parers found today, I have to assume that apple peelers did double duty with peaches.
Another useful tool in working with the peach crop was the peach stoner (or pitter). Two types were produced: a cast iron plunger-type and a steel knife-type. In the plunger-type, a cast iron cradle held the peach. The plunger was pushed down from the top, through the end of the peach, knocking out the pit through an opening in the cradle. The plunger-type came in two styles: a hand-held model and a counter-mounted model. Very few of either style exists today, indicating lack of utility.
One end of the more common knife-type stoner was shaped similarly to a cupped spade. It was about 3/4-inch long, with the point away from the handle. After the peach was halved, the tool was used to remove the pit. A small paring knife would have worked nearly as well as either stoner and at no additional expense.
Cherries, particularly red sour cherries, were a common orchard crop in most of the eastern U.S. Quite hardy, they could be grown as far north as southern Michigan. But unless they were to be juiced, the cherries had to be pitted before they were used. As with apple peelers, cherry pitters (or stoners) came in many types and styles. The plunger-type worked very much like a peach pitter; the revolving disk-type broke the cherry into pieces that passed through one opening and while the pits went through another.
The plunger-type had more variations and, based on known examples today, appears to have been the most popular. In the plunger-type, the cherry was placed in a cradle with a pit-sized hole in the middle bottom. When the plunger was pressed, the pit was pushed out and dropped away. The cherry was removed to a container and the process was repeated. The cherry retained its general shape as a whole cherry – just pitted.
Cherry pitters could be operated with finger plungers (pitting one cherry at a time), a hand plunger (pitting up to 10 cherries at a time) or by a mechanism (usually a crank) pitting one cherry at a time but with automatic loading and discharge. This last method would seem to be the fastest, as the cherries were handled only once before the device was activated with the turn of a crank.
Most hand pitters were made of light metal; heavier, counter-mounted machines were made of cast iron and steel. One known “gang pitter” was made of sheet metal. The orientation of the cherry entering the pitter did not seem to matter.
The second type of pitter – the disk pitter – was produced in far fewer styles. Only two or three companies made them, but they did so in fairly large numbers. The earliest disk pitter patent was issued to H. Buchwalter, Kimberton, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 17, 1863. Later, Landers, Frary & Clark, New Britain, Connecticut, produced several models of its Enterprise cherry pitter. Rollman Mfg., Mt. Joy, Pennsylvania, also made a disk model. The Enterprise model was by far the most popular of these pitters.
The first Enterprise stood on legs for table- or counter-top use. Two later models were mounted to the counter or table with a clamp. All were made of cast iron; the last two were nickel-plated. This type of pitter separated the cherry and the pit, but tended to grind the cherry in the process.
Grown throughout much of the eastern U.S., grapes were often juiced for wine production. They were also dried for raisins. Seeds did not have to be removed from grapes used for juice, but seed removal was essential in grapes that were dried for raisins. The raisin seeder was the first solution developed for that task. Raisin seeders were patented primarily between 1870 and 1900. Two types were produced: the spaced-wire seeder and the roller-and-tooth seeder.
The spaced-wire seeder had an iron base with wires spaced about 1/8-inch apart. The wires had a small surface area, about 1-1/2 by 3 inches. The device usually had a hinged top piece. After raisins were placed on the wires, the hinged top was swung down and pressed through the raisins, smashing them so that seeds could be picked out by hand.
Powered by a hand crank, the roller-and-tooth raisin seeder was mounted to a table or counter with a clamp screw. A small hopper on the top held unseeded raisins. When the crank was turned, the raisins went through the device, teeth stripped the seeds and the seeded raisins fell through a front opening.
By 1892, the seedless raisin was developed. The day of the raisin seeder was almost over before it was started. By the early 1900s, boxed raisins were available in seedless, seeded and unseeded.
Old iron was immensely important in preparation of common fruit crops in the last half of the 19th century. Peelers, parers, pitters and seeders saved time and labor. And all of these improvements can be traced back to the development and use of iron and steel to make tools. FC
George Wanamaker is a past president of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association. He started collecting carpenter’s tools in the mid-1970s. Since then he’s also become a collector of farm and kitchen tools and anything old and unusual. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.