FAMISHED FOR READING

How a Harvest of Machinery Catalogues Fed Rural America


| May/June 1998



4745 Glenway Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45238

A version of this article won the Best of Section Award at the 1996 Kentucky Philological Association conference and was subsequently published in Studies in Popular Culture, volume 19, number 1. It is reprinted here with the permission of that journal.

R Douglas Hurt states that 'the national work force engaged in non-agricultural pursuits did not reach 51 percent of the population until 1880' (3). By 1900, large sections of the country continued more rural than metropolitan, and the majority of people living in cities recalled close relatives who had resided on farms. Threshing wheat, oats, and other grains constituted a significant agrarian task which, in many parts of turn of the century America, had evolved into an annual gathering that featured communal labor. For a generation, steam-powered machinery had made threshing easier and more efficient, transportation of grain to eastern markets had improved, and the harvests had become increasingly abundant. Only a few people, however, could afford to purchase threshing equipment, and a single rig might harvest the grain of a ring comprised of half a dozen or (frequently) more farms. Sales literature accumulated in the effort to persuade more farmers and custom threshermen to acquire steam engines and threshing machines. The firms which built and sold threshers hired talented writers to compose catalogues. Reclaiming such literature affords a study of the non-fictional, agrarian writing aimed at almost half the population of early twentieth-century North America.

On what David R. Pichaske calls 'the proven agrarian past' is based a myth of long-time cooperation among rural inhabitants (xx). Tribal memories of the twenty-year period from approximately 1900 until 1920 cause nostalgic dreamers to envision agrarian collaboration stretching uninterruptedly back to the dawn of time, but the student of agricultural history finds that farmers did not always share labor with one another that, instead, they worked independently until the mechanization of the late 1800s supported larger yields of grain and encouraged agriculturists in areas of smaller family farms to join in communal harvests. The scientific progress and technological advances of the nineteenth century's industrial revolution often had more to do with farming than with city employments, and, as the beneficiaries of the scientific/technological labors on their behalf, many farmers combined their efforts to thresh more and more grain each year. The mystique of a golden age of agriculture when neighbors helped each other in a glorious collaboration called the 'thrashin' season' originates in this industrial history. As J. Sanford Rikoon correctly points out, beginning in the late teens and early 1920s, the same industry which created those communal harvests, today so nostalgically remembered, gradually smothered the cooperative instinct by selling farm families a small tractor to do their own threshing. By the late 1940s, only remnants of the former threshing rings persisted. When combines flourished during the 1950s and 1960s, the last vestiges of shared labor disappeared. As they had at the time of the Civil War, farmers again worked alone.

The era which engendered friendly exchange of labor in the harvest ritual and in the legendary threshing-day dinners reached its pinnacle from 1900 through 1920. Cooperation among harvesters grew not only from improved transportation and technologies but also from the fact that the steam traction engine, the threshing machine, the water wagon, and the tools needed to keep these machines running cost too much for most people to afford. By the late 1800s and especially during the first two decades of the twentieth century, the companies which produced such equipment devoted considerable resources to the printing of annual catalogues, complete with illustrations and testimonials from satisfied customers. The catalogues' anonymous authors consisted of shrewd writers well aware that their audience appreciated 'direct and relatively unadorned literature,' preferred 'content over form,' refused 'to disesteem the truth with excessive and unnecessary elegance,' and suspected 'that artifice is often a lie and always a distraction' (Pichaske xxiii, xxvii). To place their catalogues most favorably with such an audience, writers had to employ their rhetorical savvy to balance sophisticated composition and plain language. To fail meant loss of sales.

The 1903 catalogue of the Northwest Thresher Company, based in Stillwater, Minnesota, offers an example of the rhetorician's art: 'We' are old-fashioned enough to tell the truth even when writing a catalogue, and there is no statement made in this book other than absolute facts. We have cut out generalities, speculations and fairy tales. Instead we have given lengths, widths and thicknesses. . .'(1). This opening recalls that other famous beginning Huck Finn's comment: 'You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.' Twain gently satirizes the unadorned sincerity of much rural writing. Where Twain hopes his readers will discern his burlesque, the canny author of Northwest's catalogue expects his audience to accept his work at face value.