History

Notes on the History of the Scythe and its Manufacture

By Simon Fairlie. First published in the Tools and Trades History magazine 2006 also windrow 2, 2011

Much of the world’s farming land can be divided into two zones: the machete zone and the scythe zone.  The machete is a formidable implement — a skilled  user can peel an orange, halve a wasp in mid flight or  open up a coconut with one swing. It is even used to  mow lawns; but the machete is most comfortably swung  at hand height, and hence is particularly associated with  vegetation which is tall, such as tropical forest or sugar  cane, and with regions such as South America and Indonesia,  where that kind of vegetation predominates. The  European equivalents of the machete are the billhook,  and the faghook, or sickle  The scythe is a tool specially adapted for cutting  vegetation at ground level. There is no other reason  for its existence: it is useless at hand height and (unlike  the machete) very unwieldy as a weapon. Initially it  was probably designed for grass; but as pasture became  harder to find, and livestock were increasingly fed on  different kinds of straw, the importance of cutting oats,  barley and other grains close to the ground became more  important and the scythe began to replace the sickle as a  way of harvesting crops.  The scythe is therefore found in most areas of the  world where grass and grains such as wheat, barley, oats  or rye are the predominate agricultural crop. The scythe  belt emanates from Europe and the Middle East, but  extends from the Mid West of Canada and the US A,  through the whole of Europe, much of Russia, the Middle  East, Egypt and some other north African countries,  Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Kirghizstan and other colonies of the  former USSR, a few parts of China and of the Indian  subcontinent to Australia.

Types of Scythe 

There are several varieties of scythe. There is some  extraordinary early film footage (c 1915) of folk in the  north of Finland mowing with two-edged scythes which  they wield in an airborne figure of eight motion, all  members of the team (whom we have previously witnessed  breakfasting on vodka) moving in perfect synchrony  so that their flailing blades don’t clash.  Scandinavian scythes are still somewhat different  from those found throughout the rest of the world, and  some are still handmade by individuals. Otherwise, 95  per cent of scythes in the world nowadays belong to one  of two categories: the Anglo-American scythe, made and  used up until recently in England and the US; and the  much lighter, hand-forged, “continental scythe”, sometimes  known as the Austrian scythe, because Austria has  excelled in its manufacture. The Anglo-American scythe  is now hardly made, and the continental model is becoming  universal.  It is fairly easy to see why the Anglo-American  model has been largely superseded in recent years; the  continental model is considerably lighter and easier to  use. Traditional English blades were either stamped or  rough forged and then shaped by heavy grinding. Austrian  blades hardly visit the grinding wheel except for  finishing, and are hand-forged, wafer thin, to an elegant  curve in all three dimensions so that the finished blade  is under tension and therefore stronger in relation to its  weight. Because the blade is lighter, the snath, and hence  the whole kit, can be lighter as well. A brand new 75 centimetre  Anglo-American rig, still available in a few farm  stores, weighs 3 kilos; an Austrian blade of the same  length with an adjustable ashwood snath weighs 1800  grams, 60 per cent of its rival.  There are those who maintain that the heavy English  scythe is more suited to heavy English grasses, and  there may be some truth in this, but the fact remains  that it is now nearly extinct. Why have Anglo-American  blades nearly died out while the continental model is still  sold in its millions. And why haven’t continental blades  caught on in Britain up till now?

Early History 

The scythe appears to have developed during Roman  times, though it probably wasn’t developed by the  Romans. Pliny, in his Natural History noted that there  were two kinds of scythe: the heavy Gallic kind, and the  shorter Italian model. Several examples of what is presumably  the Gallic type have been discovered, and they  are impressive, up to five feet long. In the 1960s, John  Anstee had a replica made and found that skilled scythesmen  had no problem mowing with them.  These Gallic scythes were made of soft steel with a  strip of higher carbon steel sandwiched inside to provide  the cutting edge. This is precisely the method used by  English scythemakers to produce what were known as  Crown blades — the main kind of blade manufactured in  the UK until “Patent” blades were invented in the 19th  century. This single fact suggests that the Gallic blades  were a forerunner of the traditional English scythe.  Whether the shorter “Italian” blade mentioned by  Pliny can be seen as a forerunner of the continental  scythe is less clear. In the early 14th century a “lighter  more flexible” scythe known as the Hainault scythe, with  a shorter handle came into use in Flanders, but it never  caught on in England.

Continental Scythe Manufacture

The modern continental scythe industry is often  described as having its origins in the occupation of  Austria by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. The  Ottomans were renowned for the quality of their steel,  and the area of Styria, in Austria, supplied everything  that was needed for state-of-the art steel manufacture  in the 16th century: iron ore, timber for charcoal, and  waterpower. I have yet to find any firm evidence in the  English language that this was indeed what happened:  but it seems to be widely accepted, and in the second half  of the 20th century, the Austrian Scythe Union marketed  its blades as Turk Scythes (Turkensensen) to evoke these  origins.  The continental method of forging scythes spread  right across Europe and until recently similar blades  were made in Spain, France, Italy, Sweden, Germany,  Slovakia, Poland and Slovenia. However the Austrians  dominated the industry; around the time of the First  World War there were 53 scythe producers, many of  them based at watermills in small towns and villages,  and some of them dating back to the 1500s. Millions of  scythes were exported from Austria every year (allegedly  up to 10 million at the end of the 19th century) many of  them to Russia. I have read somewhere that when Napoleon  declared war on the Austro Hungarian empire, he  ran into problems because France was dependent upon  Austrian scythe blades for its harvest.  In the second half of the 20th century the industry  started declining, because sales were dropping in the  industrialized countries, while factories in Turkey and  China started producing blades of lower quality, much  cheaper. One by one the small factories closed. For a  time, a number of factories in Austria and Germany  joined forces to form the Sense Union (Scythe Union)  which produced the Turk blade. But eventually even  many of these closed, and now there are no factories in  Germany, and just two in Austria, Schroeckenfux, and  Offner.  The manufacturing process at the Schroeckenfux  works remains similar to that employed over the last  400 years. The blades are hand-forged under a trip  hammer, originally water-powered but now electric.  (The Redtenbacher factory in Scharnstein was using  some water power up until its closure in the 1980s.)  In all there are at least 15 processes, many of them  highly skilled. It is a long apprenticeship to learn how  to perform the principle forging processes and only a  small number of apprentices are considered to have the  aptitude to perform the most highly skilled work, which  is therefore well-paid.  Since the scythes are hand forged, they can be made  to any pattern specified by the customer and there  are patents for literally thousands of patterns. I have  a Schroeckenfux order form dating from the 1930s,  which has a diagram of a scythe with about 20 different  measurements and angles which the customer is invited  to specify.

The English Scythe Industry 

The English scythe industry evolved in a very different  direction from that on the continent. There were  two main differences  Firstly, whereas the dominant tradesman on the  continent was the smith, in the UK it was the scythegrinder.  The amount of forging involved in the manufacture  of the English Crown blades appears to have  been relatively low, compared to the Austrian process. A  strip of hard steel was sandwiched between two plates  of softer steel, and the three were hammer welded together,  and then plated out to the required width.  In the 19th century another style of blade, the “Patent  blade” was developed, which comprised a flat sheet  of rolled steel stamped out and hardened, and then  riveted to a rigid back. Patent blades were manufactured  by Tyzack in Sheffield up until the late 1980s, and can  still be found in hardware stores.  Both kinds of blade required prodigious amounts  of grinding which was performed by men suspended  above huge water-powered grinding wheels, so as to be  able to place all their pressure on the blade. It is easy to  see where the expression “nose to the grindstone” came  from. In 1879 a workman could grind only two to three  dozen crown blades in a day — which gives an indication  of the considerable amount of grinding involved.

Industrialization and Revolt 

The other feature of the English industry was  its early concentration and industrialization. Whilst  scythe-making in Austria remained a largely rural  industry, based in small towns and villages, in the UK  it became an urban industry. Although there were small  scythe grinding mills to be found in villages around  the country, by the first half of the 19th century the  industry was becoming highly concentrated in Sheffield.  According to Don Tyzack, “following enclosure . .  . the army of little mesters  making scythes gave way  to bigger workshops  making machine knives”  for reaping machines, and  scythes for a market kept  buoyant by demand from  the colonies. Much of  the scythe manufacturing  industry lay under  the control of one family,  the Tyzacks. By the 20th  century, the Tyzacks (who  split up into a number of  firms) seem to have gained  a monopoly over scythe  production in the UK. At  their Stella works in Sheffield,  there were 20 “sturdy  grinders” working side by  side on 20 large wheels.  Scythe grinding was  a vile occupation, and the  almost certain risk of silicosis,  meant that many scythe-grinders died by the time  they reached 40. However the scythe-grinders union was  strong, and very active in the Sheffield Outrages of the  1850s. Machinery was destroyed, factory owners were  shot at, and the secretary of the Scythe Grinders Union,  Michael Thompson, was accused by Joshua Tyzack, of  paying men to blow up scythe grinding wheels with gunpowder.  The union hustled 14 scythe grinders out of the  country to avoid their prosecution.

Men’s Work? 

Another charge laid against the scythe in England  is that it contributed to the marginalization of women  in agriculture. Mowing, as well as being highly skilled,  was regarded as particularly physically demanding work.  According to Richard Baxter “though the labour of a  smith be hard” it is in “a dry house, and by short fits; and  little in the comparison of threshing and reaping; but as  nothing in comparison with mowing, which constantly  pulls forth whole man’s strength.” Scythe work was  highly paid, and it was a male monopoly. At haymaking  women and boys would do the raking and turning, while  men would mow. Since there was a need for twice as  many turners as mowers, this was perhaps not altogether  surprising.  It was when the scythe took over as a means of  harvesting corn that it became particularly injurious to  women’s interests. Grain harvesting was originally a  predominately female activity, and as long as the sickle  remained the main means of harvesting grain, women  could work as reapers. Alice George, an Oxford woman  who claimed to be over 100 years old told John Locke in  1681 that in her youth “she was able to have reaped as  much in a day as any man, and had as much wages”.  The advantage of a sickle was that it left the second  hand free to lay the stalks of corn neatly for the  followers who would bind it into stooks. A scythe cut  quicker but it left the stalks in disarray, so more time  was taken binding. The development of the cradle in  the 18th century meant that corn could be mown with a  scythe and deposited neatly in rows for the convenience  of the binder; and that the straw could be cut lower. As  the scythe gradually replaced the sickle in the harvest,  women found themselves relegated to lower paid jobs  such as raking and tying — and once mechanization was  introduced, they found themselves excluded completely.  I doubt whether the male monopoly over the scythe  was confined to the UK, but it seems likely that it was  particularly entrenched here because of the additional  weight of the English scythe — and also because of the  highly structured and centralized nature of the English  agricultural economy. In the European peasant economy,  there was much more “soiling”, than in Britain — mowing  grass on a daily basis for dairy animals, rabbits etc  — and this was more likely to be performed by a woman  than gang mowing. I have about six historic pictures of  women mowing and only one shows a gang, and that  was in France during the First World War. In the 1950s  the Austrian firm Vindobona was advertising its scythes  with a picture of an cheery Heidi-like lass scything in  a headscarf and apron, but to what extent this was an  advertising gimmick designed to emphasise the lightness  of the kit, and to what extent it reflected actual use, I do  not know.

The Future for the Scythe Industry 

Despite the above shortcomings, the Anglo-American  scythe remained a much loved and respected tool,  which over the centuries played a major role in feeding  entire nations. Many consider it unduly heavy, but there  are some who maintain that its weight is necessary to  achieve impetus through the thick English grasses: and  it is true that the Northern versions of the continental  scythes tend to be somewhat heavier than those designed  for hotter countries where the grass cover is usually thinner.  Overweight or not, the scythe was a popular tool,  and scything was a popular and well paid occupation,  much preferred to threshing, and so nobody complained.  But, unlike the continental scythe it has not stood  the test of time. As far as I can gather the last scythes  made in England on any scale were manufactured  around 1987, and these were also the last Patent scythes  made anywhere. You can still buy a hickory snath from  the US, together with something resembling a Crown  blade, but these are now made at the Schroeckenfux factory  in Austria, where one worker asked me “Why do  you English like your scythes so heavy?” This article is, I  suppose, my attempt to answer him.  The continental scythe industry, by contrast, shows  no signs of collapsing, though the remaining European  producers face stiff price competition from Turkey and  China. Scythe use is experiencing a revival in some west  European countries because of the tool’s environmental  benefits: and there is still high demand in the Middle  East and neighbouring countries. There was a newspaper  report recently that US invaders are attempting  to gain the confidence of Iraqi farmers by giving them  gifts of scythe blades — the sure way to a peasant’s  heart. One wonders which manufacturer’s blades they  were giving away, now that they don’t make their own.  The collapse of the English scythe industry may  have less to do with the form of the tool, than with the  structure of the English agricultural industry, which has  succeeded in pulling more people off the land than in  almost any other country. There is perhaps an argument  that the form of the English scythe was compliant to the  process of industrialization. Be that as it may, it seems  almost certain that, as people come back to the land, it  will most likely be the continental style scythe to which  they will turn. Perhaps, one day, someone will make  them in Britain.

MAIN SOURCES  Don Tyzack, Glass, Tools and Tyzacks, published by Don Tyzack, 1997.  Michael Roberts, “Sickles and Scythes: Women’s Work and Men’s work  at Harvest Time”, History Workshop, Oxford, 1979.  David Tresemer, The Scythe Book, Alan C Hood, 1996.  J W Anstee, “Scythe Blades of Roman Britain”, Countryman,