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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Innovation Icon: 1938 Massey-Harris Combine Model 20

June 30, 2023 Archive Insight
 Massey-Harris Model 20 Self-Propelled Combine
1938 Massey-Harris Model 20 Self-Propelled Combine in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF110572 

Combines loom large on the floor of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, but they loom even larger on the physical and historical landscape of America’s agricultural heartland. Standing high on the horizon, combines both symbolize and represent the reality of the mechanization of modern agriculture. The 1938 Massey-Harris Model 20 self-propelled combine, a designated landmark of American agricultural engineering, was the first commercially successful self-propelled combine to make its way through an American harvest. 

The harvest was, and still is, the defining event of a farm community. It was the most complicated, time-critical, labor-intensive activity of the farmer’s year, and everyone — men and women, young and old, rich and poor — participated. Through much of history, the success of the harvest could make or break a farming community. 

Throughout most of our nation’s history, the amount of acreage that could be successfully harvested before a crop was damaged by weather, insects or rot determined how much land would be planted. Not surprisingly, over the last several hundred years, tremendous time and effort has been put toward improving the speed and efficiency of the harvest. 

The grain harvest (of crops like wheat, oats and corn) has three major components that allow the living plant to be transformed into something that can feed us. The first is reaping (cutting the crop in the field and bringing it to the barn). The second is threshing (beating the grain so that the edible seed or kernel is removed from the plant). Finally, the seed must be separated from the rest of the plant (the straw and chaff). Each of these tasks required much time and labor as well as specialized tools and skills — reflecting a long lineage of technological development over many centuries. The self-propelled combine, which replaced all these implements and required far less labor, is, in many ways, the magic bullet of modern agriculture. 

Massey-Harris Model 20 Self-Propelled Combine in Use
Massey-Harris Model 20 Self-Propelled Combine in Use, Eastern Washington, circa 1940. / THF702849 

The Massey-Harris Model 20 combine, then, is the compilation of hundreds of years of experimentation and innovation. Its carefully designed components can successfully match the action of mechanical systems to the idiosyncrasies of the natural world, cutting a stem of wheat cleanly or removing the hull of the seed without damaging the kernel. In the time it takes the combine to pass by, it has converted a field of growing wheat into grain ready to be made into flour. 

The overall impact of this new implement was profound. In the 25 years between 1930 and 1955, the amount of labor required to harvest 100 bushels of wheat dropped over 50% — from 15-20 hours to just 6-12. In addition, this improved harvesting efficiency contributed to a 20% increase in the yield per acre. In the decades after World War II, the combine helped feed the baby boom and provide workers for burgeoning industries. 

Massey-Harris Buyer's Guide for 1942
Advertisements for improved models, like the 1942 Model 21 depicted here, touted Massey-Harris combines’ labor-saving qualities. / Detail, THF702887 

Agricultural implements and machinery were among the earliest objects Henry Ford gathered for his museum. Ford, who grew up on a Michigan farm, had a practiced eye for artifacts that were on the cutting edge of agricultural engineering. The Massey-Harris Model 20 combine came to The Henry Ford’s nationally known agricultural collection in 1975, nearly three decades after Henry Ford’s death. If Ford could see the Massey-Harris on the museum floor, he would be delighted — and he would well know what's behind all that galvanized sheet metal. 

The self-propelled combine not only transformed the complicated work of harvesting, it transformed the very nature of rural life and rural communities. Farmers made up 21% of the American workforce in 1930, but now they barely comprise 1.5%. Many of us have parents or grandparents who were farmers, but few of us even know a farmer today. For many people living on farms, new technology created new opportunities. My own father grew up tossing hay bales on his family’s small farm in Vermont. As an adult, he moved to metropolitan Connecticut and worked as an engineer creating components of the Apollo spacecraft that took man to the moon. This kind of transformation would be difficult to imagine in almost any other place and time, but it was quite commonplace in the United States during the years following World War II. Massive out-migration left once vibrant rural communities smaller and quieter. The grain harvest — once a community-wide event of long, hard workdays full of dust and sweat and big, family-style threshing dinners — is now a solitary undertaking, done in the relative comfort of the cab of a combine, high above the crops. 

Although few of us have direct experience with farming, we immediately recognize these giants as critical to the bounty we see in our grocery stores every day. 

This post by Jim McCabe, former collections manager and curator at The Henry Ford, originally ran in November 2015. It has been updated by Saige Jedele, associate curator.   

Additional Readings:

1930s, 20th century, Henry Ford Museum, food, farms and farming, farming equipment, by Jim McCabe, agriculture

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