Antique Farming Hand Tools

Updated February 21, 2017

Mankind began the grand adventure with agriculture about 10,000 years ago, inventing tools along the way. Many agricultural museums have antique hand tools that were made hundreds of years ago. A few of these antique tools, like the scythe, for example, are regaining popularity today as self-reliant farmers rediscover their usefulness. The invention of some ancient farm tools changed how farming was done at the time, making these tools important historically as well as culturally.

Chaff Cutters

A chaff cutter or box was a wooden trough through which the farmer fed straw chaff, hay and oats and then cut them using an attached blade into ½ inch pieces. The farmer mixed these small pieces of chaff with other forage and fed it to cattle and horses, creating a less expensive feed that was easy for the animals to digest. Two models of chaff cutters existed; a larger, heavier stable version kept in a barn and a smaller, lighter and portable version. Men used the portable chaff cutters and went on the road to cut farmers' chaff for them, giving rise to a well-paid agricultural occupation for a time.

The Scythe

The favoured tool of the Grim Reaper, the scythe is ancient, invented around 500BC. It was used by ancient Romans as well as medieval peasants in Europe. The scythe is for mowing grasses and crops. It consists of a long, curved blade attached to a pole, called a snath, with handles. The user swings it from side to side, holding the blade steadily just above the soil to cut the grass or crops efficiently. Small farmers wishing to grow their own grain, but without access to tractors, are rediscovering this useful tool.

Broadcast Seed Fiddles

Introduced into Europe from America in the 1850s, broadcast seed fiddles consisted of a sack of seed grain, housed in a rectangular box with a rotating finned disk to dispense the seed. A farmer carried the seed fiddle as he walked his fields. With each step, he moved a leather bow from side to side, moving against the disk which then broadcast the seed according to its type. It was relatively easy to operate and a farmer could sow two to three acres in an hour.

Milk Yoke

A milk yoke helped people carry buckets filled with milk in from the fields to the dairy, or from the dairy to village or town to sell. The yokes were wooden, concave in the middle to fit comfortably to the shoulders, with chains or rope that hung down from the ends. Hooks at the ends of the rope or chain would grasp the milk buckets so the dairy maid could carry two at a time. Milk sellers also used the milk yoke to take the day's milk from the dairy to nearby village or town to sell house to house.


A flail consists of two pieces of wood connected by a small chain. The dimensions of the wood pieces varied according to the grain being harvested. The thresher held one end of the flail and swung the other end to hit the sheaves of grain and knock loose the grain. People used flails from ancient times up to the late 1700s, when a simple threshing machine was invented.

Hand-held Corn Shellers

The 1850s in America was a time of innovation in agriculture as in other industries. As shelling thousands of ears of corn was a tiresome chore, people invented a variety of hand-held corn shellers to make the task easier. Some had circles or horseshoe-shaped bits to pass the cob through and remove the kernels, while some were encased in boxes and the cob passed through the box. These were hardy steel and many exist today in collections and museums or show up at farm auctions.

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About the Author

Patricia Neill began writing professionally in 2000, spending most of her career as managing editor of “Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly.” Neill published political satire at and other libertarian websites. She also has an essay in “National Identification Systems: Essays in Opposition." Neill holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Nazareth College of Rochester.