I joined the museum staff as the curator responsible for agriculture and food almost a year ago last June. My background is fisheries and museum history, so I had some adjustment and learning to do. Coming to know the agriculture collection—which contains more than 4,000 objects—was one challenge. To familiarize myself with the collection—to connect to it—I would wander through our storage warehouse, taking time to examine objects and take notes about ones that interested me.
One object that immediately drew my eye was this object, a thresher. Threshers separate grain: they use belt-driven cylinders and shaking tables to extract grain and separate it from chaff and straw. Developed in the late 18th century, threshers mechanized grain separation—an operation previously performed by labourers—enabling farmers to process more grain. Threshers increased farm productivity, but farm workers, particularly in England, resented and resisted them. By the late 19th century, threshers had wheels and were bigger. Over the course of the 20th century, threshers were replaced by combine harvesters, which merged reaping and threshing operations in one machine.
As I later discovered, this machine (artifact #1978.0939) had an interesting history. Macdonald MacPerson was founded in Stratford, Ontario, in 1869 and this thresher belonged to a Stratford-area farmer. In 1927, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, bought the thresher from the farmer’s son. In 1978, the National Science and Technology Museum, as it was then known, traded an American-built corn planter with the Ford Museum for this thresher, and repatriated it.
I knew none of this history as I admired the thresher in the warehouse: what caught my eye was the striking hand-painted striping, scrollwork, lettering, and scenes that adorned the thresher’s surface. These photos show some of this work: the thresher’s manufacturer, Macdonald MacPherson & Co. is painted on a darker background on the outside cover of a conveyor. You can also see two scenes: they are painted on small doors or portals on opposite sides of the machine. Both are maritime scenes: one of a boat, perhaps a schooner, coasting along; the other, of a tropical island with waving palm trees. Was the painter dreaming of a maritime home or past when these scenes were executed? Or perhaps they were thinking of Canadian wheat in transit across the oceans to distant destinations…
This freehand work is typical of agricultural implements manufactured in the 19th century, as Tamara Tarasoff noted in a paper she wrote for the museum in 1989. Hand-painted decorative elements on implements were meant to enhance their appeal, much as modern cars are styled to attract potential buyers. The difference is that in the 19th century artisans painted, or sometimes stencilled, these elements by hand directly onto machines. By the 1920s, the era of hand-painted decorated implements and machines was over. Design, of course, continued to play a role in making machines useable and attractive—but this beautiful and anonymous work became a thing of the past.