The following is excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 59 no. 3, September 2006
by Suzanne Fellman Jacob
It’s cold; the wind drives down the back of your neck. Your hands are ungloved in order to take the ears of corn from the husk. Opening the stiff, outer husks that protect the corn kernels further roughen chapped, cold hands. Corn Huskers Lotion® will be used on hands and forearms tonight. (1) There are still several acres to “pull” before evening descends. But the handy, pointed tool in your hand thrusts into each ear of corn and speeds the job a bit.
The routine described above was normal farm work for many generations. Until the advent of the mechanized corn picker in the late-1800s and early-1900s, corn picking was done by hand by each farmer, his family, and his friends. Men, women, and children husked acres of corn by hand. It was laborious work and roughened the picker’s hands. One of American novel-ist Willa Cather’s characters described “…my hands cracked and sore from the corn husking.” (2)
A husking peg helped a great deal with the harvesting. Husking pegs were used to husk field corn, that is, the corn fed to hogs and cows and used by humans in corn meal. (3) This article describes the simple farm implement that was used by many generations of farmers. Once a farmer obtained a mechanical corn picker, the husking peg abruptly disappeared from the farm. On each farm and in different areas of the United States, this mechanized change occurred at different times and generations. However, the change usually happened between one fall and the next. One year the farmer used the hand husking peg, and at the end of that season, he placed the implement in its usual location in the barn, outbuilding, or farmhouse. And there, at the next harvest, the husking peg would lay, unused, for mechanization had come to the farm and changed the way of husking corn.
Some farmers used a combination of hand husking and mechanical huskers that were pulled by a horse or tractor. Until the 1960s, when mechanical huskers could be driven to the end of each field and row, many farmers would “open” the field (the first several rows around the perimeter) by hand with husking pegs.
Simple farm implements, husking pegs—four to six inches of wood, bone, or metal— were called different names in different areas. Husking pegs, husking pins, huskers, shuckers, and corn pins are some of the more common names. They were produced in different styles but all served the same function. Like all tools, a husking peg was an extension of the hand. The point, or tip, was thrust into an ear of corn (on the stalk or on the ground) and enabled a person to quickly rip the dried husk off the ear. Some locales had husking bees. Husking bees were usually held in a barn, most often on the thrashing floor, where neighbors would gather to husk a farmer’s corn. This was a community social event that allowed boys and girls to meet in a public, chaperoned setting. Tradition stated that whoever found the ear of red corn could kiss the person of his or her choice. In 1900, a Doylestown newspaper reported on such an event.
“CORN HUSKING FROLIC
“About thirty young men of Tradesville and vicinity Wednesday evening, November 7th, attended a corn husking frolic given by Samuel Maxwell. After husking about 500 shocks of corn they were invited to the dining room where they partook of an elegant oyster supper furnished by the hostess.” (4)
In other locales, farmers husked in the field, off the corn shocks. In Figure 1, men of the Shutt family of Neshaminy Dell Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, are husking in the field. Sometimes, several neighbors would get together and work on each other’s fields. This also provided a social outlet and made real the adage that “many hands make light work.”
Henry Wallace, United States Secretary of Agri-culture in the 1920s, decided to create husking contests in the eleven “corn belt” states and drew thousands of spectators. (5) The contests ceased during World War II, but a Kansas agricultural extension agent revived the idea in the mid-1970s. Today, nine states hold annual corn husking contests. Wayne Guthrie of Alma, Nebraska, picked 473.8 pounds of corn in thirty minutes to win the 2002 national title. (6)
Origins and Development
Where did the concept of a husking peg originate? Maize was growing along the Eastern seaboard of America when early settlers arrived. John Smith described the Indians of the Potomac and Rappehannock rivers (probably of the Algonquin Confederation) planting, cultivating, and harvesting the corn in the Virginia colony. New England tradition tells how Squanto, a native American Indian, saved the early English settlers from starvation by teaching them how to plant and harvest corn in New England.
Preliminary research with the agricultural societies of the United Kingdom and Germany (the predominant settlers of the eastern Pennsylvania region) has not revealed the use of husking pegs in those European countries. The original husking pegs were probably a Native American Indian design. The author surmises the early American colonists probably appropriated the concept from their Native American neighbors. (7) In Parker on the Iroquois, the Iroquois use of corn (maize) is discussed in some detail. But Parker claims there is a word in the Iroquois language for bone husking pin. He goes on to state, “Husking pins are shaped much like the ancient bone and antler awls, but generally have a groove cut about a third of their length about which is fastened a loop, through which it is designed that the middle finger be thrust.” (8)
Husking pegs were both manufactured and hand-made. Figure 2 illustrates three manufactured husking pegs. The bottom peg in Figure 2 was patented April 7, 1868, by Lyman H. Johnson of Branford, Connecticut. The other two huskers in the illustration have no patent information at this time. Manufactured husking pegs, after 1870, tend to similarity. However, those manufactured in the mid-nineteenth century were unique. Manufactured husking pegs are still produced and are sold in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area, to the Brethren, Amish, and Mennonite communities, and to communes and small farms who husk corn by hand. (9) Though many Amish and Old Order Mennonite use horse-powered corn pickers, some individuals still prefer to husk corn by hand.
Entire booklets and many articles have been devoted to manufactured husking pegs and the companies that produced them. (10) Therefore, only hand-made husking pegs will be discussed in this article.
Types of Handmade Pegs
The three primary materials used in handmade husking pegs were bone, wood, and metal. A handmade husking peg reflects the personality of its creator and the loving care, or lack thereof, in its creation.
There were as many styles of huskers as there were farmers, because each person had their favorite style of husking peg. There were three distinct sizes: large, medium, and small. The large size was for a big hand. The medium size was broken into two subgroups: men’s (larger) and women’s/teenager’s (smaller). The smallest size was quite obviously for a child. Entire families worked in the fields during harvest time so various sizes were necessary.
The collection of husking pegs on which the information in this article is based has been obtained from the lower southeastern portion of Pennsylvania. This comprises four counties with a predominately Pennsylvania German (aka Pennsylvania Dutch) population (Lehigh, Bucks, Montgomery, and Berks Counties). Most of the immigrant Germans of the southeast Pennsylvania region brought farm techniques from their native Switzerland or Rhineland-Pfalz, Germany. These eighteenth and early-nineteenth century immigrant farmers probably adapted the husking peg of the local Native American Indian tribes to their use. (11)
One of the earliest references to husking corn is 1829, in an account book from Unadilla, New York. (12) There are many written references to husking corn but only a few references to husking pegs. (13)
Bone husking pegs are the rarest (Figure 3). In southeastern Pennsylvania, the bones used to create husking pegs were pig and sheep ribs (flat), sheep and cow leg bones (long), and the occasional small horn or antler (Figure 4). Bone is difficult to work, but it develops a wonderful patina that can’t be faked. Some bone husking pegs were marked with color or carved to distinguish them for their specific owners (Figure 5).
Wood was the least expensive material to find and the most quickly worked (Figure 6). It permitted quick creation of a husking peg. Unfortunately, wooden husking pegs broke more quickly than bone or metal pegs. They were also used by later generations for a variety of other means such as tent pegs or hay rake tongs. The two most frequently used types of wood were maple and hickory. These hardwoods served a lifetime when well maintained. Other woods used were oak, osage, and—in one case—ebony. (14) In Figure 6, the husking peg in the center of the photo has a pillow ticking strap. Even the knots on the leather straps may be studied and evaluated.
Hand-wrought, metal husking pegs fall into a variety of subcategories. Some were finely made, and were probably created by a blacksmith. Others are blacksmith forged but appear to be done for quantity sale. Some hand-wrought, metal husking pegs were so crudely made as to indicate a farmer was inexperienced in metal work. These were probably produced by the farmer on his own small forge. He knew what he wanted to do but didn’t have the fine skill to create a beautiful husking peg.
Hand-wrought (metal) husking pegs were divided, by the author, into several categories: spatulate, rounds, flat, curved, and curled end (Figure 7). There are so many styles of hand-wrought, metal pegs that some people wonder why wooden and bone husking pegs didn’t have that variety. Part of the answer may lie in the fact that manufactured husking pegs were patented as early as 1856. (15)
The author’s favorite type of handmade husking pegs is the “recycled” group. These pegs had fascinating prior lives. They had been used as other implements or as part of machinery. Among the husking pegs illustrated are: spinnerette from a spinning wheel (Figure 8), files (Figure 9), door latch and case knife (Figure 10), 20 penny nails (Figure 11), and bone toothbrushes (Figure 12). Recycled husking pegs are indicative of a way of life that demanded hard work and the use of every possible thing on the farm to save money (Figure 13).
Several husking pegs in the author’s collection have names or specific identifiers on them. One is marked “I Christ” and is undoubtedly from the Christ family of southeastern Pennsylvania blacksmiths. This family was known for their grain hooks. (16) Another pin is marked “D.F. KERN.” I believe this was the owner of the husking peg. Since many husking pegs look alike, it was worth the time and effort to personalize a husking peg (Figure 14).
As mentioned earlier, most of the author’s collection is from southeastern Pennsylvania. Over the past several years, however, the collection has been augmented with huskers from Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Georgia, and North Carolina. There appear to be some regional characteristics from the small number of out-of-Pennsylvania samples available for study.
Upper New York State and Connecticut husking pegs have a wide indent in the middle of the peg over which the leather is fitted. All of the out-of-state huskers are wood, predominantly hickory or oak. The Georgia husker is pecan hickory.
Husking pegs are one of those little known but vitally important farm tools. When the farmer obtained a me-chanical corn picker, the hand-held husking peg became a forgotten tool. But for some collectors, the challenge of finding husking pegs, understanding them and their use, and placing their importance in agricultural production in the United States is vital. (17) For others, the creation of a collection of an unusual agricultural tool provides enjoyment. (See “Hunting for Huskers” below.) For me, it started with my paternal grandfather’s husking peg. I’ve since obtained my maternal grandfather’s husker, and my husband’s. Still, it’s worth looking for more because each one is unique. The hunt for husking pegs goes on.
Hunting for Huskers
When found at auctions or tool meets, husking pegs cause people to comment: “That’s made of ivory” (if it’s bone); “This was a tent peg” (if it’s made of wood); “This is a just a chunk of metal.”
Handmade husking pegs, whether bone, wood, or wrought iron are becoming hard to locate. However, they can still be found at farm auctions, yard sales, and flea markets, among other places. Collecting husking pegs is fun and is relatively inexpensive. Husking pegs store easily taking up little space.
Bone pegs are the rarest pegs found today. Some people sell them as “ivory” (either intentionally or not). Ivory was as rare and expensive in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it is today, except perhaps within New England. Located at the door of the whaling industry, it’s possible that a carved ivory husking peg could turn up in that region.
Because of the popularity of “folksy” handmade items, husking pegs are beginning to be reproduced and sold as “old.” Beware of wooden pegs. These are the most popular reproductions and they are very easy to replicate. Some people also try to create bone pins. The lack of patina on wood, bone, and metal and the absence of a “sweet spot” (the well-worn area to which your thumb instinctively goes) are giveaways of reproductions.
Pick up a husking peg and your thumb will find the “sweet” spot, that place the ball of the thumb wore it smooth from use. Look at how it’s made (carefully turned or artlessly whittled) and of what material. Feel what it’s saying, and better understand a time when life was less hectic, more communal, and was very hard work. Then the beauty of these little, forgotten, simple utensils speaks across the years.
1. Corn Huskers Lotion® was created specifically for corn husking. Its silicone base quickly heals the cracking of human skin that developed when ungloved hands were exposed to cold, damp outside air and the brittle husks.
2. Willa Cather, “A Wagner Matinee,” Great Short Works of Willa Cather (New York: Harper Perennials, reissue edition, March 1993).
3. Husking pegs are not useful on sweet corn, trust me!
4. Daily Intelligencer, Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsyl-vania. November 9, 1900.
5. Leonard J. Jacobs, Corn Huskers’ Battle of the Bangboards: Complete Digest of Corn Husking Records (Des Moines, Iowa: Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1975) and J. Mitchel Burns, The National Cornhusking History 1970–1999 (Marceline, Missouri: Walsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 2000).
6. “Hoosiers host national corn husking event” November 3, 2002. www.agrinews-pubs.com.
7. The Indians of eastern Pennsylvania were of the Lenape (Munsee) group. They were hunters and gatherers (Woodland Indians), not warriors.
8. Arthur C. Parker, Parker on the Iroquois. Edited with an introduction by William N. Fenton (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, paperback edition 1975), 32. The portion of Parker’s writings on maize use was a monograph published in 1913 by the New York State Museum.
9. There were numerous companies that manufactured husking pegs. They merged and were bought out and today there are at least two companies: Clark and Boss. A February 2005 Internet search revealed that Seedboro Corporation of Chicago sells two styles of corn huskers. One is a leather bound palm plate. The other style is a long, stamped, pressed metal husking peg with a riveted leather strap.
10. Jim Moffet, American Corn Huskers—A Patent History (Sunnyvale, California: Off Beat Books, 1994) and Tom Junkins and The Corn Items Collectors, Corn Collectibles Book One, Hooks and Pegs (Corn Items Collectors Association. Undated).
11. Many of the English immigrants to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania were landed aristocracy, albeit second and third generations, who became merchants or “gentlemen farmers” (who often hired their German neighbors to run the farm).
12. Lathrop’s Account Book, 1827-1853. Unadilla, N.Y.(Bucks County Historical Society, Spruance Library Manuscript Collection).
13. One definition appeared on the pages of The Chronicle. “Corn Husker—generally of iron or bone, about half an inch wide, with two holes made in it and a leather strap put in, forming a loop; slip this over a finger of the right hand, and you are equipped. An active hand with this, can out husk any machine, than can be made to do it with neatness.” From Country Gentleman (1859) quoted in The Chronicle 5, no. 4 (1952): 44.
14. The ebony husking peg is in the collection of the Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. This husking peg was made from a piano key. What a unique recycle!
15. There may be earlier patents not under the “Corn Husker” appellation.
16. The Christ family is from Berks County, Pennsylvania. Known for their handmade grain hooks, they have associations with other blacksmith created pieces (scythes, etc.).
17. Corn Items Collectors Association, Inc. Contact Bob Chamberlain, 9288 Poland Road, Warrensburg, IL 62573. Based in the Midwest, the organization’s publication covers corn bags, planters, planter seats, husking pegs, and shows (mostly in the Midwest) where the group exhibits.