Excerpted from The Chronicle, Vol. 29 No. 2, June, 1976
By Daniel B. Reibel
Apples were a favorite fruit of American farms. The trees would grow anywhere and they did not require a great deal of care. The fruit was not too subject to insect or weather damage, stored well, and was easy to pick. Finally, cider making needed no great skill, time or amount of equipment, and even in those innocent days cider was known as a healthful drink. When we contrast the amount of time, equipment and skill needed to make beer or wine, we can see why cider was a popular farm product.
The work shown here, Cider Making on Long Island by William M. Davis (1836?-1927), was painted about 1870. It is oil on canvas, 16-1/2 inches by 26-3/4 inches, and is the property of the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown. The picture appears to be iconographic; that is, the artist was there and must have painted an actual scene he saw as it happened. The reason for assuming this is that so many details could have been observed only during the actual cider-making process.
Many accounts refer to farmers making cider out in their fields. This is one such operation. In the crushing operation on the left, there is a large trough into which the apples are placed. A large stone wheel (seen at the side of the trough opposite from the viewer) rolls over the apples. It turns on an axle that pivots in the middle and is driven by a horse on the outside. A lucky boy has the pleasant job of sitting on this pivot and driving the horse. Although this method of crushing apples must have been fairly common, it is rarely shown. It was a method commonly used to crush flaxseed for linseed oil.
The two men in the foreground complete this end of the operation. The one is holding a shovel which he would use to shovel the apples in and the mash or pomace out. The man on the inside is holding a basket. If his basket is lined with pitch, it could be used to haul the pomace to the press. It seems likely that a coopered pail would be used for this operation, but none appears in the painting and so we have to assume that baskets were used here.
A particular kind of cart was used to haul the apples to the grinder-one that could be tipped to dump out the apples. We see the cart shafts on the left and the pile of apples as they were dumped. The horse pulling the grinding wheel may also have pulled the apples to the press.
(When I showed this painting to a modern cider maker, he observed that the stone would tend to mash the apples too much, to the point of crushing the seeds, and that there was bound to be some leakage of juice from the trough.)
There are no metal objects in the painting. This is partly because of the economy of the period, and partly because metal was considered to be bad for cider. The shovel the man on the left is using is wood, the funnel used to pour the cider into the barrel is wood (and coopered), and perhaps all the parts of the press are wood. In actual practice, a wooden shovel is better for handling apples than metal; my cider maker observed that they are still being made for this purpose.
Cider has to be fermented somewhat before it can be pressed. Normally this is allowed to happen by letting the pomace stand a while. In this operation, carried out under the open sky, the wait, if any, would be a short one.
The next operation is pressing the pomace, which is packed in layers of straw between boards. We can see this clearly in the press on the right. These are often called “cheeses” and several of them were created to make up one pressing. Six of these cheeses appear on the press in the painting. The small wheelbarrow in the foreground holds straw used in making the cheeses. Rye straw was preferred for purpose.
The press is crude but probably effective. It is difficult to see exactly how it works, but the screw is probably turning a first-degree lever. If we can imagine the press as a large letter “H” laid on its side, the cheeses fit in the open space at one end. The screw works across the other open space of the “H” at closing the two arms, with the back of the “H” acting as the fulcrum. It could easily be a third-degree level compressing the open arms of a “C0-shaped press. We would not need so elaborate a mechanism in this type of press, nor would the parts have to take the strain so much as the one seen in Figure 2. A lot of pressure could still be applied, as we can see by the size of the bottom members of the press. The upper members were probably as large. The roof is not meant as a shelter for the crushed apples or the workmen, but to protect the mechanism from the weather. The bottom of the press was probably a large stone with a trough around the outside-but it could be wood as well.
Only one man is working the press. We may assume that everyone else in sight would have fallen to on the handle when the end of the pressing was near.
The final operation is the filling of the barrels. The workman on the right is dipping the juice from the trough in the stone with a ceramic pitcher, practically the only non-wooden tool in sight. He is filling the barrels through a funnel made up of a pail with a spout in the bottom. We can see a woman waiting with a pail to take some cider home. The old man on the right of the press with a jug appears to have already received his cider. In the foreground are two barrels, with the markings “W D” and “X” visible on the one. The “W D” undoubtedly stands for William Davis, the artist, and might account for his being at the cider making. The HX” probably means that it has been filled. We must assume that the farmer made most of the cider for his own use and sold the rest.
On the right is the girl using a sweep to dip water from a well. The water will be used to flush the press after the pressing and to clean the equipment. Why would there be a well with a pond nearby? Probably because cattle were pastured in this field and they needed a clean water supply. The one thing not visible in this painting is the large pile of crushed apples that were commonly dumped on the ground beside the press. After the operation, cattle would be allowed back into the pasture and would eat the apples. Crushed apples were used sometimes for making such things as apple butter or preserves, but usually not from an operation such as this.
One has to admire Davis, the artist, for the acuteness of his sight in freezing an instant of a rather obscure moment forever on his canvas.
An almost contemporary oil painting, also from the collection of the New York State Historical Association, shows a more mechanized operation. This is Cider Mill by William Tolman Carlton (1816- 1888). Although the level of technology is much higher here, I am inclined to think that this is still part of an individual farm rather than an industrial operation. I also believe that this view is not iconographic – that it was painted at some time other than when the cider-making was going on and then was peopled with all those cute genre characters existing only in the artist’s imagination.
The cider press on the left works through two screws applying direct pressure. It is hard to tell what the cheeses are made of here; the straw and board cheese could have been used, but a frame of wood with linen or straw mats is more likely. (That is what the artist may be trying to show us.) The pressed cider flows out of the press into a large tub, where it will be transferred to barrels. There is both a barrel and a jug next to the press in case we did not get the idea.
The crusher is much more advanced than the Long Island one – crushes the pomace without mashing it. The workmen are pouring apples into the large chute in the right background. As soon as this is filled, everyone will get on the large handle and walk around the grinder, crushing the apples. The handle has a pole jutting out of it at right angles near the pivot. This may have been used to attach to a halter, indicating that the crusher was operated by horsepower.
Outside the barn to the right, we see what appears to be a small boy cleaning the barrels. Almost identical equipment is still demonstrated at Black Creek Pioneer Village near Toronto.
There are virtually no metal objects in this painting for the same reasons that they do not appear in the Davis painting.
Cider-making was one of the operations which were so necessary for a farmer before our recent advance in technology. In these two paintings, one can see how a relatively sophisticated operation could be carried out with a modest amount of machinery.
I am grateful for a research paper written by Albert C. Bullard for a class in the Graduate Program of the New York State Historical Association for some of the details of this article. I am also grateful to Minor Wine Thomas, Director, New York State Historical Association, for obtaining the photographs for me.
Editor’s note: The paintings were originally reproduced in black and white.