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 14 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.
2. Tractors are born
Charles Hart and Charles Parr set up a business in Charles City, Iowa, in 1900, originally selling a two-cylinder gasoline engine they developed. In 1903 the firm built 15 self-propelled traction engines. As part of their advertising campaign, their sales manager invented a new word to describe their product: tractor.
Relatively few farmers could justify the purchase of this 14,000-pound monster, and despite its size the machine only produced 30 horsepower.
3. Cheap and versatile
Most farmers did not need a large tractor. Instead, they were attracted to small, inexpensive general-purpose machines that could do both field and belt work (in which the tractor powers another machine with a long leather belt). At first, it was not clear what type of firm—automotive or agricultural—would build and market lightweight internal combustion tractors.
In 1916 nearly 100 manufacturers sold tractors, but total sales were small. Ford and International Harvester built the market by mass-producing tractors and engaging in a price war.
By 1932 over a million lightweight tractors had been sold, but competition narrowed. Three companies—International Harvester, John Deere, and Allis-Chalmers—represented over 50% of the market.
4. Experimental tractors
In the 1950s and 1960s tractor use had successfully displaced mules and horses. Manufacturers refined the equipment, adding new technology like three-point hitches and power take offs (to power auxiliary equipment).
Manufacturers experimented with some alternatives to internal combustion engines, but in the end the rugged diesel engine won out.
5. High design
Attractive styling helps sell even utilitarian vehicles. Deere and Company hired Henry Dreyfuss's industrial design studio to enhance the aesthetics of its tractors in an effort to be more competitive.
The sketch has some features already standard for general-purpose row crop tractors: the tricycle type tractor was introduced by International Harvester in 1924 and rubber pneumatic tires were first marketed by Firestone in the 1930s.
6. Political pressure
Despite special features—power steering, multiple speeds (16 forward and eight reverse), a diesel turbocharged engine, air-conditioning, AM-FM radio, and a hydraulic adjustable seat—a tractor's technology is not always what makes it important.
In 1979 thousands of farmers drove tractors to Washington, D.C., to participate in the 1979 American Agriculture Movement Tractorcade protest.
The American Agriculture Movement was organized in the fall of 1977 in response to a growing farm crisis. The 1977 Farm Bill had ignited concerns for many farmers who believed the bill would adversely affect farm income by lowering commodity prices to less than the cost of production. Gerald McCathern coordinated the D.C. demonstration, hoping to bring the desperate financial situation facing American farmers to the attention of Congress.
Early tractors used power to revolutionize work on the farm, and centuries later farmers used tractors to show the power of protest. Whether protesting on the streets or harvesting food for our tables, the tractors in the museum's collection help us better understand agricultural history.
Peter Liebhold is a co-curator of the American Enterprise exhibition.
John Deere is a generous supporter of food and agriculture programs at the museum.