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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.

The Geiser Manufacturing Company’s catalogue, issued from
the corporation’s main offices at Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, in
1905, asserts, ‘The bare statement that this is The Geiser
Manufacturing Company’s catalogue and describes the
‘Peerless’ Machinery is sufficient to insure its careful
perusal from cover to cover This Company and its various products
are so well known that any ‘introduction’ or
‘eulogy’ is unnecessary’ (3). Having dispensed with the
need to elaborate, the anonymous author next invokes a metaphor:
‘The tide comes and goes, and men and machinery in high favor
at one period drop back in the next. Here’s the latest and best
product of the busy head, hand and heart of the ‘Geiser
Company.’ How do you like it? It’s our 20th Century
masterpiece’ (4). Beneath these words appears a cut of a steam
traction engine. The author’s figurative language suggests that
such a machine represents the high tide of perfection, but the
writer may be oblivious to the conclusion that Geiser’s ebb
inevitably approaches. In an evocative phrase, the author notes
that Geiser engines’ wheels resist slipping in slick spots:
‘These engines have a great grip on Mother Earth’ (15).
Forcefully, the author champions the innovations found in Geiser
threshing machines: ‘This simple invention. . .practically
revolutionizes the old and antiquated method of threshing. The
change was so radical. . .that a doubtful world for a time would
only buy the ‘Peerless’ Separator under the strongest
guarantee and even then with a measure of suspicion. Time has
demonstrated the correctness of the new process. . .’ (22).
According to the Geiser catalogue, the ‘old things.. .have
passed away and are forgotten. . .’Out and forever out’
goes the incapable and incompetent’ (24-25). Such writing
sounds the proverbial clarion call for progress.

Indeed, change signifies the first decade of the twentieth
century. In 1900, the population of the United States numbered 75.9
million, and most Americans still traveled by horse, mule, or
bicycle; however, by the end of the decade, the population would
rise to 91.9 million, 8.7 million of them immigrants. By 1905, the
number of registered automobiles would increase to 77,988. In 1895,
only three-hundred were listed, but, by 1917, 4.8 million
automobiles would be registered in the United States. Meanwhile, in
1901, Frank Norris published The Octopus, a novel portraying the
clash between economically-repressed farmers and corrupt railroad
interests in the wheat-growing regions of California. Orville and
Wilbur Wright launched the first successful flight in a motorized
airplane, and the experimental electrical trolley enjoyed success
both in 1903. Largely in response to Upton Sinclair’s The
Jungle, which disgusted citizens with depictions of unclean
conditions in Chicago meatpacking .plants, the Meat Inspection Act
passed in 1906, along with the Pure Food and Drug Act. These
‘camera phone,’ an invention of Edison’s in that same
year, would lead to motion pictures combined with sound. In 1907,
Oklahoma became the forty-sixth state. While the anthropologists of
1908 reconstructed the first complete skeleton of a Neanderthal,
America’s first skyscraper was erected in New York, and Henry
Ford introduced the Model T. By 1909, government lands opened for
settlement in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The decade finds its
best descriptor in ‘transformative.’

As Rikoon has shown, the notion that rural people of the initial
years of this century resisted change falsely stereotypes them. The
catalogues of the threshing-machine manufacturers do not so much
apply a corrective to refractory readers as they do appeal to the
audience’s appreciation for change. The J. I. Case Threshing
Machine Company catalogue of 1907 (Racine, Wisconsin) states,
‘If we stood still the ‘annual catalog’ would be
unnecessary, and a consequent large expenditure eliminated. But we
move forward every day and every year, our annual catalog measuring
as a stepping-stone, the upward climb toward perfection'(1).
The author calls ‘unprecedented’ the volume of business
conducted by the company in 1906 and expresses hope for even more
profits in the year to comean ardor dampened by the Financial Panic
of 1907. The 1909 Case catalogue would look back on the bank
failures of 1907 and the economic slowdown of 1908: ‘The year
just closed, while bringing unfavorable business conditions, which
will make it memorable, has been an exceptionally good one for us,
and we wish to thank our friends for their continued loyalty. .
.’ (2). One wonders how to take the word
‘exceptionally,’ but the catalogue plainly substantiates
that its author trusts the company’s ‘friends’ to
approve of change.

Describing the firm’s thresher, nicknamed the Rusher, as
‘the simplest, the strongest, the best working, and the best
looking thresher in the World,’ the author of the 1908
catalogue published by the Port Huron Engine and Thresher Company
of Port Huron, Michigan, employs hyperbole: ‘The Rusher is not
only good in one respect, or two respects; but it is good in every
respect.’ Later in the catalogue, the writer selects anaphora
from the arsenal of rhetorical devices: ‘We have led all other
makers of Traction Engines in America in the use of all
steel-gearing. . . We have led all other makers of Traction Engines
in America in the use of high pressure boilers. We have led all
other makers in America in the use of the compound cylinder. .
.'(27). The exuberant author goes on to share additional ways
Port Huron has led. Not outdone, the author of the 1909 Case
catalogue encourages farmers and entrepreneurs to enter the
business of custom threshing:’ [W]e would say by all means
investigate Threshing as a business it offers great opportunities a
business that requires comparatively small capital is easily
conducted and pays a handsome percentage on the investment if you
buy wisely and exercise ordinary judgment in the operation of your
machinery’ (2). The dashes separate the message into bursts
conveying telegraphic urgency. This rhetorical strategy upholds the
twentieth-century value of speed; in contradistinction,
nineteenth-century catalogues uniformly present long paragraphs of
polished prose.

Acknowledging the modern penchant for brevity, the Geiser
catalogue of 1910 feigns the risky approach of less-is-more:
‘If we are not doing as much talking about our machinery as
some manufacturers, not using as much printer’s ink, it is
because our machinery does its own talking and its own
advertising’ (3). With customary bravado, the author claims,
‘[The machine’s separating device] is a masterpiece of
mechanism, that makes and marks [a] new era in the history of the
business. Tis the work of genius. . .'(32). Located across the
street from the Geiser factory in Waynesboro stood Geiser’s
closest competitor, the Frick Company. Its catalogue of 1912
challenges Geiser on the level of rhetorical proclamations:
‘[Frick machines] are not only superior in every factor of
mechanical design, construction and utility, but they stand for the
most advanced thought of the originators of their class’ (3).
Both companies’ praise of their mechanical engineers’
intellectual attainments echoes the boasts which must have passed
back and forth in the street between the workers at the firm
producing the ‘Eclipse’ line of products and the employees
of the manufacturer building the ‘Peerless’ make of
equipment.

In 1912, when motion-picture stars were drawing five million
people to metropolitan theaters daily, catalogue writers began to
emphasize not only innovation but also tradition specifically by
including brief biographies of the firms’ founders. A celebrity
mentality was dawning in American business. The catalogue of the M.
Rumely Company of La Porte, Indiana, recalls, ‘The M. Rumely
Company was founded in 1853 by Meinrad Rumely. . .. As a boy
Meinrad Rumely had flailed the grain and he knew the burdens of
farm life, and also knew intimately, from years of actual
experience, the processes of grain separation’ (2). The author
of this catalogue eventually leaves behind the life story of the
company founder and makes an analogy: ‘[Difficult medical
operations, important lawsuits are not intrusted to young doctors
or young lawyers just starting their work and who lack experience.
Experience is just as important in the manufacture of agricultural
implements. . .'(3). Winding up his pitch, the writer turns to
evolution: ‘An Organization! Think what that means in the human
body. Millions of separate cells. . .Does the hand hesitate, or the
foot halt in its task? The heart beats, the eye sees, the voice
speaks. Each does its own work in perfect harmony. . .The story of
life upon this globe is nothing but the irresistible growth of a
more perfect organization, ranging from the simple-celled amoeba to
the perfection of the human body’ (3). The M. Rumely Company,
concludes the writer, is such a perfect organization. This
catalogue author appeals to an educated class of agriculturists to
those who, thirteen years later, would side with Clarence Darrow in
the trial of John Scopes. Yet, so as not to ostracize anyone, the
writer cleverly inserts an ambiguity into his definition of
‘organization’ to satisfy those who, like William Jennings
Bryan, would favor a more medieval concept, like the Great Chain of
Being.

Despite the modernity of allusions to evolutionary science, the
country in the teens bore much more in common with what it had been
in the rural nineteenth century than with what it would become in
the metropolitan twentieth. In 1913, the same year that Willa
Cather published O Pioneers! and Robert Frost his first book of
poetry, the author of the Huber Manufacturing Company (Marion,
Ohio) catalogue urges farmers to compare horses to engines:
‘Teams must be handled with great care, must have regular
periods of rest. . .On the hottest days they accomplish less work.
The engine can work constantly, day and night if necessary’
(13). In paraphrase, horsepower surpasses power by horse. The
reference to horses is not as antiquated as it may appear, for the
majority of farmers would continue to employ teams until after
World War II.

While Huber indulged in equestrian studies, the Nichols &
Shepard Company of Battle Creek, Michigan, published a 1913
catalogue which applies the public’s growing fear of trusts to
the sale of machinery. ‘The Builders of the Red River Special
Line are not a Trust, nor a great big combine trying to get hold
and control of the building and selling of everything a farmer buys
and uses’ (4). The Nichols & Shepard catalogue of the
following year adopted the established strategy of celebrating the
founders: ‘Corporations, like individuals, have certain
well-defined and dominant characteristics that can be traced to
their ancestry. Those which typify the standing of the Nichols
& Shepard Company are. . . progressiveness and straightforward
honesty of purpose. .. Buyers and users. . .owe much to the two
Michigan pioneers whose portraits are shown on the preceding
page’ (3). Both years’ catalogues feature extraordinary
addresses to the reader common-sense arguments worthy of
Lincoln:

‘If a farmer should take you out to his barn, showing you on
the barn floor a pile of intermingled straw, chaff and grain and
ask you to go to work and separate the grain from the pile, what
would you do? You would first ask for a pitchfork, wouldn’t
you?

‘Now watch your own actions closely, because what you do to
that pile of straw and grain is going to tell you which thresher is
the best separator.

‘Would you jab your fork down into the top of the pile of
straw and drag a bunch of it across the barn floor, expecting the
grain to fall out? No! Because you know that much of it would not
fall out. Some of it would, but you know that some of it would not,
even if you dragged it over the floor a dozen times!

‘Yet, you have done just what some threshing machines do.
They have forks and tines to push the straw back through their
machines, but there is not sufficient agitation to take out the
grain.’ (1913,32).

The catalogue continues to show the faults of competing
manufacturers always with the question ‘Would you. . .?,’
followed by the exclamatory negative! Authors of catalogues in the
heyday of agricultural steam power often reveal their folksy
wit.

In 1910, the Department of Agriculture estimated that 100,000
engineers were running steam engines for threshing, plowing,
road-building, and hauling (Wik 5). In 1911, Case erected the
highest number of engines it would build in a single year of
company history. By 1914and the beginning of World War I the trend
began to shift away from bulky, steam-powered equipment to
gasoline-run motors and lighter-weight ‘ machines. Although a
generation would pass before the effects would be realized, the
change had started. The Huber catalogue for 1914 adjures readers to
identify additional applications for the steam engine: ‘After
you became the fortunate owner of one of these engines, you will be
finding new uses for it from time to time, and be able to keep it
working a large part of the year. Where you keep it busy that way,
it is bound to be a money-maker for you. . .'(38). The author
betrays urgency by repeating this motif three times in the
catalogue. Huber was seeing sales of steam engines drop.

The Case catalogue of 1919 summarizes the condition of a world
torn by war: ‘The peoples of the earth are crying for food of
all kinds and it will be years before the normal food supply is
restored. Europe has lost millions of men and many of the most
productive areas have been laid waste. All nations look to North
America for food. . .’ (7). With foresight, the author states,
‘Farms must be run with the same efficiency as factories, for
in reality the farmer is a manufacturer’ (7). To transform each
farmer into an industrialist, companies like Case designed smaller
and smaller finally cheaper and cheaper tractors. This response to
global change ended the steam era. In 1921, the Keck-Gon-nerman
Company of Mount Vernon, Indiana, advertised steam engines, but
also listed gasoline-powered tractors and smaller threshing
machines. Interestingly, the author’s description of threshers
designed for the individual farmer states, ‘With one of these
separators, you can do your threshing when it should be done,
without waiting to suit the convenience of the community thresher,
or the annoyance and trouble of feeding a large thresher crew’
(20). Today viewed nostalgically as something of a summer Christmas
celebration, the threshing dinner in 1921 had become an
‘annoyance.’ The period of communal harvests was vanishing.
The era of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920) had arrived.

The threshing-machinery catalogues of the first twenty years of
the twentieth century trace the massive changes away from an
agrarian nation of roving settlers to a war-weary, metropolitan
republic of settled industrialists. The catalogue authors reflect
their time and reveal their understanding of the epochal
relationship they bear to traditions and to future cultural
prerogatives. Herbert Quick’s encomium fits the anonymous
authors of the threshing-machinery catalogues: ‘All praise to
them from a great people famished for reading! They brought to
thousands and thousands of humble, isolated homes the nearest
approach to literature that was available, in a day when books were
costly and the good magazines were not only more so, but were
pitched in a tone too high or too dull. . .'(42). The
catalogues’ anonymous writers brought to a large percentage of
the population a literature richer and more varied than anyone had
the right to expect.

Works Cited

Case Power Farming Machinery. Racine, Wisconsin: J.I.
Case Threshing Machine Co., 1919.

Catalogue of Northwest Thresher Company. Builder of High
Grade Threshing Machinery.
Stillwater, Minnesota: Northwest,
1903.

Engines & Threshing Machines. Marion, Ohio: Huber
Manufacturing Co., 1913.

Frick Company General Catalogue. Waynesboro,
Pennsylvania: Frick, 1912.

The Geiser Manufacturing Co. Waynesboro, Pennsylvania:
Geiser, 1905.
The Geiser Manufacturing Company General Catalog of
‘Peerless’ Machinery.
Waynesboro, Pennsylvania:
Geiser, 1910.
General Catalog: 1908 Book of Specifications of Threshers and
Engines.
Port Huron, Michigan : Port Huron Engine &
Thresher Co., 1908.
Hurt, R. Douglas. ‘Ohio: Mainstream America’ In The
Ohio Almanac
. Ed. Damaine Vonada. Wilmington, Ohio: Orange
Frazer, 1992.

J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company. Racine,
Wisconsin: Case, 1907.

Keck-Gonnerman Company: Catalogue No. 32. Mount Vernon,
Indiana: Keck-Gonnerman, 1921.

M. Rumely Company: 1912 Annual Catalog. LaPorte,
Indiana: Rumely, 1912.

Nichols & Shepard Company. Battle Creek, Michigan:
Nichols & Shepard, 1914.
Nichols & Shepard Company Catalogue. Battle Creek,
Michigan: Nichols & Shepard, 1913.
Pichaske, David R., ed. Late Harvest: Rural American
Writing.
New York: Paragon, 1992.
Quick, Herbert. The Hawkeye. New York: A. L. Burl,
1923.
Rikoon, J. Sanford. Threshing in the Midwest. 1820-1940.
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1988.

67th Annual Catalog of the J. I. Case Threshing Machine
Company.
Racine, Wisconsin: Case 1909.

Threshing Machines, Steam Engines, Gas Tractors.
Marion, Ohio: Huber Manufacturing Company, 1914.
Wik, Reynold M. ‘Farm Steam Engineers: Pioneers in Rural
America.’ Iron Men Album Magazine 34.6 (1980):
3-6.

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