J. Sanford Rikoon

The “Good Old Days” — Sweet and Sweat

Once in a while I’ll spot something on Ebay that has special relevance to my musings on agrarian art, and when it falls into my price range that makes it doubly rewarding. So it was recently when I found an exceedingly dog-eared copy of James Wilson’s Art Designs in Harvest Machinery (1884). I know, not exactly a best-seller back in the day let alone now, but it was filled with thirty large exquisitely rendered, large format steel engravings of farm scenes that offer many interesting details about equipment used at that time. Extensive recent research by agricultural historians Jerome Blum (1978) and J. Sanford Rikoon (1988) using period documents indicates how romanticized modern notions have been about social conditions of pre-industrial agrarians.

The emergence of medieval tenancies on terms that favored landlords and small free-holder properties demanded a single family’s devotion to their own limited holdings to make ends meet. Although farmers tended to cluster in villages throughout Europe where they gathered for worship and to socialize, little need existed to join with others for most field operations. To be sure, the weeks of summer harvest were a critical time to ensure sustenance throughout the entire year, and therefore demanded full and creative deployment of all able-bodied personnel from the vicinity and beyond. Modern perceptions endure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century “golden age of threshing” that fostered greater cooperation and neighborliness. These values were needed for grand “harvest rings” to pool labor and equipment but were a relatively short-lived phenomenon.

James Wilson & Son,  Art Designs in Harvesting Machinery  (1884); Steel engravings on paper, 8 ¾ x 12 ¾ inches

James Wilson & Son, Art Designs in Harvesting Machinery (1884); Steel engravings on paper, 8 ¾ x 12 ¾ inches

As manufacturers in the U. S. and Europe developed more affordable mechanical threshers and steam engines, need for the larger cooperative endeavors diminished. The advent of internal combustion engines in the early twentieth century that replaced animals and steam to power threshing equipment further shifted the complex nexus of technological, economic, and social factors toward single family responsibility. Creative cooperative methods especially during harvest time have continued, however, with seasonal employment of additional workers, sharing and leasing of expensive combines, and organization of grain storage, transportation, and marketing networks.

Modern society’s reliance on convenience stores and relative abundance of provisions serve to obscure understandings of the stolid persistence required to seed, till, and reap lest the family and wider population suffer. Rural folk beckoned rain and sun in proper measure, and prayed that staples would not spoil or be stolen. Until recent times, much of the year for the masses was spent in hope and fear. Hope realized at summer harvest brought promise of sustenance through winter, and come spring it would all begin again. For rich or poor, survival came from what was grown in the good earth. The duties of sowing and harvesting, therefore, had religious connotations which have been reflected in a variety of creative forms of art, literature, and music.