Farm Antiques: The Fanning Mill

Farm Antiques: The Fanning Mill

IIn 1899 the British satire magazine Punch's Almanac published an edition titled "The Coming Century", in which writers fancied what the 20th Century might be like. A scene is imagined wherein a genius approached a boy in a publisher's office and asked: "Isn't there a clerk who can examine patents?" to which the boy responded: "Quite unnecessary, Sir. Everything than can be invented has been invented". The line, often incorrectly attributed to Commissioner of US Patent Office Charles H. Duell, is even more amusing to us today than it was to readers 117 years ago.

I can certainly understand the roots of the remark. The 19th Century was an age of marvels; the Industrial Revolution took the western world from economic drudgery to middle-class comfort in just seventy-five years. Inventions pushed the realm of the possible: factories rose up to produce goods of every sort, homes acquired central heating and indoor plumbing, and farm chores were lightened by the invention of mechanical reapers, threshers, winnowers, and steam engines.

One such farm-labor-saving machine was the fanning mill. The next logical advance after threshing machines (which separated grain from the stalk head), a fanning mill accomplished the task of winnowing. Winnowing cleans the chaff, dirt, weed seeds and other debris from the grain so that it may be turned into clean flour and seed.

Above: Credit: ebay.com/usr/serialpug, currently on sale (June 2021) on eBay for US $2,649.99

To understand why subsistence farmers were elated by the introduction of the fanning mill it's helpful to grasp the amount of work that was eliminated by the machine.

In the 1840s, a family of six was required to grow over 2.3 acres of wheat in order to feed the family for a year. A field had to be tilled, planted, nurtured, harvested threshed, and winnowed. Threshing was accomplished by beating the stalks with a stick, stomping on the stalks, or walking an animal over the stalks to separate the grain. Wealthy farmers took a more sophisticated approach to threshing: George Washington built a round, two-story threshing barn at Mt. Vernon. Horses tied to a second-story turnstile walked over grain stalks causing the grain to fall through the floorboards to the lower level.

After threshing, rich and poor farmers alike had to winnow the separated grain. Prior to the invention of the fanning mill, winnowing consisted of placing threshed grain into progressively finer sieve boxes and tossing the grain into the air. Natural breezes would blow away most of the chaff, leaving clean grain that could be turned into flour or replanted (without simultaneously replanting weed seeds).

Most ready-for-harvest grain will stay on the stalk for about two weeks before it falls to the ground and becomes unusable. Imagine the intensity of work to be endured by a small family in harvesting, threshing, and winnowing two acres of grain in a short time span. Then, imagine a machine that could winnow the same amount of grain in a day or so with only two people: one to fill the hopper and turn the crank, and another to bag the grain. Would you be happy to have such a machine? Most farmers - large and small - were delighted. I know I would have been.

Although highly prized, fanning mills were simple machines. Essentially, they were sieves encased in a wooden cabinet. A cast-iron wheel and handle mounted on an exterior side of the cabinet shook the sieves while simultaneously turning an interior paddle-wheel fan. Particles would fall through primary and secondary sieves while the air flow floated-off the light straw, chaff, and dust. Atop the cabinet was a gravity-feed hopper into which threshed grain was placed; and underneath the sieves were drawers to catch the fall-through. Grain would be channeled to a separate chute where it could be bagged. In the attached video, Carl Acquaviva of Farmers Branch Antiques in Galax, VA demonstrates how a fanning mill operates.

Brothers Hiram and John Pitts; shortly thereafter created the first reliable American fanning mill after inventing the first successful American thresher in 1830. Fanning mills were commonplace in Canada as well; the Canadian Encyclopedia indicates they were already in use by 1850.

Improvements to the machine continued to be made throughout the 19th Century across North America. In 1875, Canadian patent number 5182 was issued to a group of nine men led by Edwin Buffington.

By 1880, fanning mills were a common sight on North American farms. Sales of the machine peaked in the 1920s. Having been in use for nearly 100 years, the market was nearly saturated, so manufacturers cut back on production. Early mills were well built and had a long useful life; they seldom needed repair, much less replacement. The next significant "upgrade" to fanning mills didn't come until after World War Two, when rural farms were electrified. When electricity became available, electric motors were installed and the hand-crank was eliminated. Fanning mills are still in use today on small farms.

The exact number of North American fanning mill manufacturers is not known. Iowa State University lists 17 domestic manufacturers in their Agricultural Machinery Product Literature Collection 1881-1966. There were certainly more manufacturers than those listed in the University's catalogue, but complete manufacturers lists are hard to come by. Farm equipment collectors are encouraged to seek out sales and operating literature on whatever make and model fanning mill they have in their collection; documentation will always increase an item's value.

Prices for antique fanning mills range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on a mill’s provenance, condition, rarity, and demand.

Mills are typically more valuable to buyers in their home territory; a Canadian collector might find an "Improved Wonder" model made in Winnipeg more desirable than a "Clipper" model made in Michigan. Condition, of course, is a paramount driver of value. Antique fanning mills are often devoid of finish, don’t work well, and have loose joinery from years of grain-shaking. A colorful, smooth-running mill with graphics and documentation in place is a rare find and imminently collectible.

Enthusiasts who are new to collecting vintage farm equipment will find a wealth of articles, ads, videos, and community forums in the monthly magazine Farm Collector.

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