Notes on the History of the Scythe and its ManufactureBy 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?
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.
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,