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How corn was cut and dried
in the early 20th century: reaping

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Island of corn in the centre of a cornfield during harvesting.

The ever-decreasing 'island' of corn in the centre of a field while the corn is being cut.


Once a cornfield was considered ripe and the weather was dry, the corn had to be cut. This process was known as 'reaping'. I used to watch it a lot in my childhood in the 1940s, and I was also involved - but that is another story.

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The reaping machine, the reaper, for cutting corn

The machine for reaping, known as a reaper, was developed in late Victorian times.

The cutting of the corn started round the edge of a field and circled round into the centre, leaving an ever decreasing 'island' of corn.

As the 'island' got smaller, the local wildlife ran out to escape as described on the shooting parties page.

The reaper was pulled along by one or more farm horses or a tractor.

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Scythes for cutting corn and hay

old English scythe

Old English scythe. Note the two offset wooden grips in the wooden handle and the relatively small angle between the blade and the handle.

Sickle

Sickle, designed for lighter work and used with just one hand.

In awkward areas of a field, men had to cut the corn by hand using a long curved blade known as a scythe.

What distinguished scythes from large sickles was that they had two grips, slightly offset from one another, as shown in the picture. Scything was a two handed job. Sickles were much smaller and designed for one-handed use

My father had such a scythe and I tried to use it once with no success at all, although I was given to understand that it was very efficient in experienced hands and with a sharpened blade. Apparently there was a rhythm to using it.

Scythe blades had to be sharpened frequently; a blunt blade led to grunting, flailing around and inefficient cutting.

The farmhands' food

For their refreshment, the men brought along a bottle of cold tea without milk or sugar and a couple of fat bacon or cheese sandwiches. There was also a nosebag for the horse. At the end of the day, an empty nosebag served as a handy place to carry home a rabbit for the pot provided that a fox or badger didn't get in first.

V. John Batten

Tea for the harvesters

I remember my aunt preparing a picnic tea for the men who were harvesting. We took a large basket out to where they were working and set down a check tablecloth on some stubble in a corner of the fielde.

Pamela Southin

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Creating sheaves

The reaper not only cut the corn, it also bound it into rather untidy looking bunches, known as sheaves.

Where the reaper had been, all that was left was short, harsh and prickly stubble.

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Creating stooks

stooks of corn showing the bunches of corn propping each other up

A field of stooks. The front one clearly shows that it is made up of loosely bound bunches propping each other up. Around the stooks where the corn has been cut is the harsh stubble.

The sheaves had to be dry before the stage of separating the grain, so they were manhandled into what were known as stooks to dry in the sun. A stook was a group of sheaves which propped each other up. Good weather was crucial for complete drying. A little rain didn't matter at this stage, though, as long as there was enough sunshine to dry the stooks afterwards.

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

Page contributed by Neil Cryer