These tractors show 150 years of farming history
2018 is the Year of the Tractor at the museum. Curator Peter Liebhold explored gems of the museum's tractor collection and what they can teach us about the history of farming in America.
Agriculture is a significant part of American history, and nothing is more symbolic of farming than a tractor in front of a red barn. The National Museum of American History has 16 full-size tractors and numerous scale models in its collection, not to mention photographs and other related objects.
Each tractor in the collection illustrates a different aspect of how farming changed over time. These are six highlights from over 150 years of tractor and farming history.
1. Steam in the fields
For millennia farming was accomplished with human and animal power. Some of the earliest engines began appearing in fields in the mid-1800s. Wood, coal, and even straw fueled a fire to heat water that generated steam to power the engine. Some farmers bought these portable steam engines to run equipment like circular saws for construction or threshing machines for separating and cleaning grain. Steam engines made farmwork less reliant on human brawn or animal power.
Early versions of steam-powered engines were not self-propelled and still needed to be towed into the fields by teams of draft animals like horses and mules. In addition, the high cost of the portable engines meant that only a few could afford them.