Every member of the family was important to the success of early farms. The farm wife was, in some ways, the most important. She not only bore and raised the children, but she also took care of all other family members at the most fundamental level.
As the farm scene changed in the early part of the 20th century, she is often overlooked in the narrative of that period. Even when there was some focus on her, it was superficial and brief.
Friends know of my lifelong activities as a historian, so it was not a surprise when, about a year ago, I was given a box of Tractor and Gas Engine Review magazines published in 1920 and 1921. Wonderfully preserved, the magazines are standard size printed on good paper. Published by Clarke Publishing Co. in Madison, Wisconsin, the magazine sold for an annual subscription of 50 cents (the rough equivalent of $6 today).
As I flipped through one issue, three photographs – each showing women driving tractors – caught my eye. The women are attired in long dresses and hats. The tractors are being used to do field work. Using a magnifying glass, I made out the name Frick on one fender.
On another tractor (wearing IHC emblems) with equally large fenders, the woman operator sits high above the fenders. The third tractor – an Avery – looks less refined. The woman operator sits exposed, with no fenders between her and the tractor’s large drive wheels.
Period of transition for the farm wife
The accompanying article, titled “Farm Women and Tractors,” spells out the fact that, in many parts of the world, women historically had done most of the agricultural work. In 1920, when the article was published, it was pointed out that European women did more farm work than their counterparts in the U.S., partially as a result of the Great War. During World War I, women provided much of the farm work in every country involved. The extreme number of war-related casualties (more than 1 million men were killed) made it necessary for women around the world to permanently fill the ranks of agricultural workers.
In America, the transition from horse-drawn to tractor-drawn implements was well underway in 1920. Twenty-five makes of tractors were advertised in just one issue of the magazine in 1920, including JT Tractor, Heider, Holt, Case (both steam engines and gas tractors), New Britain, Reed One-Man tractor, Cletrac, Turner Simplicity, Trundaar, Avery, International Harvester, Frick, Gray wide-drive drum, Coleman, E-B Motor Cultivator, Pioneer, Bates Steel Mule, Moline, Eagle, Reliable, Lauson, Huber, Allis-Chalmers, Flour City and Uncle Sam.
As noted in the article accompanying the photos, “practically every tractor manufacturer in the country has regular women operators who can handle their machines as successfully as the men.” Still, the author conceded, “the average tractor today is a bit too heavy to start and manage without some assistance from the stronger sex.” However, rapid strides were being made to simplify all aspects of tractor operation, enabling women to be involved in a good share of the tractor usage on America’s farms.
Tractors a plus for most women
What this discussion leaves out is the opinions of farm women about the increased use of tractors. Farmers and their wives made decisions together. If a woman had a strong opinion on a subject, her position was not ignored.
A survey on “power farming” in Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana revealed the strongest resistance to tractors came from men whose wives were opposed to them. It was determined that the natural human reluctance to change played a part in that.
The survey also polled wives of farmers who owned tractors. A surprisingly large number – 82 percent – reported ownership had made their lives easier. The reason? The amount of time spent cooking for hired hands dropped, because more work was accomplished with less human help.
Other reasons were given as well. No farm woman likes to see either her family or the work stock toiling in the broiling sun or when work conditions are unfavorable. Tractors helped alleviate some of the hard work, worry and fatigue. Husbands were in better spirits so the woman was less likely to suffer, having him taking it out on her, when things went wrong. Reduced work provided better health for the farmer and a better overall home life. Sons were more apt to stay on farms where tractors were used than those where only animal power was available. Farm work was completed more rapidly, so the family had more of a chance of getting away during slack seasons.
Interestingly, three-quarters of the article on farm women and tractors had little to do directly with tractors. Instead, it focused on home life. The improvement in farm life resulting from the use of tractors revealed itself in the survey. Another couple of decades passed before American farms were almost completely mechanized, but by then, “The genie was out of the bottle.”
And there was no going back. Women as well as men accepted farm mechanization as a fact of life. As a kid in the 1950s, this author was told by an old farmer who’d experienced the transition that, “The best thing that happened to farming was the use of tractors!” FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.