Making American Plow


| November 2001



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Jefferson was not only a farmer himself, but believed that farming was a blessed employment

Even as common an object as the field plow has been romanticized as part of America's westward expansion in the phrase 'the plow that broke the plains.' Yet the history of the plow in post-colonial America is a subject hardly touched upon except in diverse and scattered sources.

The McCormick hillside plow of 1831 and the Deere steel plow of 1837 are consequential in agricultural history because they represent the increasing momentum of westward expansion and the beginnings of maturing industrialism based primarily north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Further, they represent the protection of design through patenting, which Thomas Jefferson had failed to do with his 'mould board of least resistance,' arguably the most consequential influence upon American agricultural efficiency of its time.

Jefferson asserted that 'the plough is to the farmer what the wand is to the sorcerer' and that the plow was 'the most useful of the instruments known to man.'

Every agricultural advancement of the time was achieved through plowing, including erosion prevention and weed reduction. The efficiency of this work was dependent upon the wooden curvature on the furrow side that implemented the separation of the soil after the coulter tip had initially broken the ground. This wooden moldboard needed to be as efficient as the bow of a ship moving through water, and it was this objective that Jefferson ultimately achieved.

The British and the French received Jefferson's moldboard with great adulation, with the British Board of Agriculture electing Jefferson to a foreign honorary membership in 1797 and the Parisian Society of Agriculture awarding a gold medal to him in 1807. The presentation of the moldboard to the American Philosophical Society in 1790 in Philadelphia hardly initiated the interest that this device should have created. To a great degree, this was because only the most affluent of farmers could afford to engage in the pursuit of new technology. Wealthy landowners imported British plows.