A story on NPR yesterday, about whether any old technology or tool ever completely disappears, got me thinking about the many, many ‘obsolete’ items in our agricultural, kitchen and tool collections. So I tested one out, using the reporter’s question: is it still being made today?
Here’s a corn planter, used in Sandy Spring, and donated to the Society in the early 1950s by Cynthia Stabler. It is marked “The Automatic Corn Planter Mnfrd by Wiard Plow Co Batavia NY.” (The name is almost illegible, but once I found possible manufacturers online, I could make it out.) According to my predecessor Dr. Adams, this is “a hand-operated implement used in the period of early automatic corn drills, for replanting [indeed, Dr. Adams called this a ‘corn replanter’] where the kernels failed to germinate.” (Dr. Adams, who grew up on a farm in Kentucky, also says that this tool was called a ka-chuck “because of the characteristic sound of the foot release.”) Unlike grain, corn had to be planted one kernel at a time; devices like this one made the process easier. According to Dun’s International Review (March 1909), “The old laborious system of planting corn and beans is changed to a light task, and it is claimed that over three-fourths of the time formerly required is saved by this simple but ingenious contrivance, which plants with one hand as fast as a man can walk and with the utmost precision.” (To read their explanation of how it works, click here.)
But can you still buy one, that is, a new one? Guided by the helpful NPR journalists, I tried Almaco, an Iowa company that makes both modern and ‘old-fashioned’ (my word, not theirs) agricultural implements. Sure enough, under “hand operated planters,” you can find what is basically the same tool: a hand jab standard-style planter. This one is bright blue, whereas ours has nice (though faded) red decorative stripes, but both have wooden backs and metal sides, a top handle, and a foot pedal, and do the same thing: plant corn.
I know that there are many objects we hang on to and continue to use in the face of newer versions; that hobbyists, reenactors, scholars and scientists recreate the artifacts of the past in authentic ways, whether for use or for study; and that not every culture has access to – or the desire to use – ultra-modern equipment. It never really occurred to me, however, that practically everything in our storage facilities (or in the agricultural pages of the 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog, as the NPR story claims) could still be available for purchase. Think of the possibilities!