Revised May 13, 2022 to correct spelling of Nathaniel Currier’s name.
It’s mid-May in southeastern Wisconsin, and with luck the last frost is behind us. For the past weeks and months farmers and gardeners have been tending to the soil and preparing for planting. At this time of year in the 1840s and ’50s, Jonathan M. Clark would have done much the same, hitching up his team of oxen to a steel-bladed plow to cut and turn over the tough prairie grasses and break up the soil of his newly-cleared lands.
Palmer, Frances Flora Bond, American Farm Scenes, No. 1., pub. Nathaniel Currier, [New York], 1853. Hand-colored lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of International Business Machines Corporation [link]. CC0 license, no restrictions. Click to open larger image in new window.1
In today’s image, the rolling hills and two-rail fences—along with the clapboard house with its gambrel roof and dormer windows—are clues that this is a view of spring plowing in New York or New England, and not southeast Wisconsin in the pioneer days of the early 1850s.
But the scene of the farmer at his plow, the double-yoke of oxen, the farmer’s son leading the way and prodding the team when needed, could easily be taken for Jonathan M. Clark and his son Henry (b. 1843), at work on the Clark farm in Mequon, Wisconsin, circa 1853.
Palmer, Frances Flora Bond, American Farm Scenes, No. 1. (detail). Click to open larger image in new window.
Tilling fields by hand is never easy. In New England, the first “crop” of the season is usually a field full of rocks, newly surfaced by the past winter’s freeze-thaw cycle. In Wisconsin and the other prairie states, the great plowing challenge was prairie grass and its deep, thick, root systems.
As white settlers migrated to the prairie states in the early 1800s, they found it nearly impossible to plow through and turn over the sticky prairie soil with the existing iron-bladed plows of the time. Many blacksmiths tried to solve the problem, experimenting with new plow shapes and materials.
John Deere’s steel plow
“Tradition holds that this plow, held in the Smithsonian collections, is one of the first three plows that John Deere personally forged.”2 (National Museum of American History, gift of Deere and Company, 1938. Image used under fair use provisions of copyright law, other restrictions may apply; see link for details.) Click to open larger image in new window.
John Deere failed as a blacksmith in Vermont but succeeded as an agricultural tool manufacturer in Illinois. His company built revolutionary plows like this early 1838 example. The steel blades of Deere plows slid more easily through sticky prairie soil and made farmers more efficient. John and his son Charles expanded the company through clever marketing and financial acumen making Deere & Company the largest plow manufacturer in the world. The company continue to expand making everything from tractors to combines, from mechanical cotton harvesters to riding lawnmowers.
We don’t know if Jonathan M. Clark owned an early John Deere plow but, as today’s lithograph shows, by the early 1850s, the steel plow was in use in the east as well as the midwest. Whether he owned a Deere, or one of its imitators, Jonathan would not have successfully farmed his 160 acres without a modern, steel-bladed plow hitched to his team of oxen.
- Nathaniel Currier, the publisher of this lithograph, is best known as half of the famous and prolific artist-publisher duo of Currier & Ives. The artist, Frances Flora (Bond) Palmer (1812-1876), usually known as Fanny Palmer, is noteworthy in her own right. For an introduction to the artist and her work, you might start with this Wikipedia article. Her works are in the collections of several major museums, including the National Gallery of Art, the New York MET, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- For the source of this caption, and more on John Deere, his steel-bladed plow, and its effect on agriculture and the environment, see this article in the December 17, 2015, Smithsonian Magazine.
- Although we don’t have specific documentation of whether JMC owned oxen, the 1850 federal census for Ozaukee county is clear that oxen were the main working animals of local farms at that time, out-numbering horses by almost 10-to-1. For more on this, see our post Harvest Time: 1850, part 2