Christina Matulaitis ‘09
Food for Thought Seminar, Fall 2008
What is a scythe?
A scythe is a traditional agricultural hand tool used for mowing and harvesting crops. It is no longer in widespread use today, having been replaced first by horse power and then by mechanized machinery, but is increasingly gaining popularity among some old-fashioned farmers. The use of a scythe has been described by many as an enjoyable task and is even featured as the topic of 19th and early 20th century poetry. In “The Scythe Song,” Andrew Lang, a Scottish poet, writes:
MOWERS, weary and brown, and blithe,
What is the word methinks ye know --
Endless over-word that the scythe
Sings to the blades of the grass below?
Scythes that swing in the grass and clover,
Something, still, they say as they pass;
What is that word that, over and over,
Sings the scythe to the flowers and grass?
Hush, ah hush, the scythes are saying,
Hush, and heed not, and fall asleep;
Hush, they say to the grasses swaying;
Hush, they sing to the clover deep!
Hush-- 'tis the lullaby Time is singing --
Hush, and heed not, for all things pass;
Hush, ah hush! and the scythes are swinging
Over the clover, over the grass!
Parts and Types
There are two main parts of the scythe: the blade and the handle, which is called the snath. The blade is constructed out of iron and steel. A high quality blade is light in weight with a very sharp blade that can cut tissue paper without tearing it. However, at the same time, the blade must be tough enough to resist breakage if a rock is hit in the field during mowing. In order to maintain a razor-sharp edge, the blade requires whetting at intervals during the mowing, usually every 15 minutes. When the scythe was a predominant agricultural tool, blades were made in many different lengths to suit various tasks. Today, blades usually measure about 27 inches.
The second part of the tool is the snath that connects to the blade. Snaths are made out of wood and come in a range of shapes, from perfectly straight to curved in order to fit to one’s body. There are usually about five feet long. Grips are the two knobs jutting out from the snath so that the mower can grasp the tool. One grip is located towards the middle of the snath, and should be lined up with the mower’s hip when the blade is on the ground. The second grip is located at the end of the snath. These locations allow the mower comfort and ease when using the tool.
The scythe is commonly pictured with its counterpart, the sickle. The sickle is also a traditional agricultural tool that serves nearly the same purpose a as scythe. The scythe largely replaced the sickle because of its efficiency and comfort, but a sickle can come in handy when a scythe is not suitable. The main differentiating property between a sickle and a scythe is the length of the handle. A sickle has a short handle and requires the use of only one hand and the mower bent over, whereas the scythe has a much longer and blade and the mower can remain upright.
Beginning in the Roman Empire, farmers have relied on this tool to harvest their fields. Continuing though history, the scythe has had four main uses: mowing hay, cutting weeds, maintaining lawns, and harvesting small grains. The first and most common use of the scythe is for mowing hay. Before gasoline-powered tools, farmers relied on the scythe to cut the hay that would be used to feed the farm animals and mulch gardens. One acre was considered an average day’s work of mowing for one man, but many farmers could cover more ground. Even today, some farmers find a scythe much more effective than modern machinery, especially in mowing the edges and corners of fields, where large tractors are unable to maneuver.
Another common use for the tool is the cutting of weeds. It is more efficient than completing the task by hand, but the farmer must be more careful and precise in his slice than when mowing a field of hay. Similarly, scythes are a useful tool in maintaining lawns. Before the invention of the hand-pushed rotary lawn mower in 1831, lawns were trimmed by nibbling animals or long-bladed scythes. Lawns are easiest to mow in the morning, when the grass is heavy with dew and the scythe blade can cut right through it.
The final main use of the scythe is for harvesting small grains, including wheat, barley and rye. The only grain crop than cannot be successfully harvested with a scythe is corn. A cradle-scythe was developed for the specific purpose of harvesting grains. It has a rake-like attachment in order to catch and collect the crop once the scythe cuts it down. This version lays out the grain more neatly than a regular type. The scythe has a variety of different uses on a farm and can perform some tasks better than modern equipment.
Mowing Techniques & Methods
If done correctly, the use of a scythe should be comfortable and not at all exhausting. The mower should begin standing upright with knees slightly bent and an overall relaxed body. This stance allows the worker to continue mowing for long periods of time. The mower then twists his body to the right, almost looking over his shoulder. He proceeds to swing the scythe across his body in one continuous movement and finish with the tool to the left of him. The grass is thrown to the left of the area that has just been mowed. The twisting movement of the entire body is essential in order to the mower to gain momentum for the swing. The blade of the scythe is to remain parallel and very low to the ground throughout the entire process. The scythe cuts a swath, or a patch, or field in a crescent shape which can be as wide as ten feet. Rudyard Kipling compared the mowing movement to sailing: “The foresail scythed back and forth against the blue sky.” In this image, the mower is the mast and the boom is the scythe.
For large fields, a team of mowers was generally employed. They would begin at the edge of the field, arranged in even intervals horizontally. The quickest mower would take the most leftward position and begin mowing first. The mower to his right would follow a few strokes after him, and continue on down the line. The workers would mow straightforward and proceed to turn clockwise, making a spiral pattern of swaths in the field. It was common to sing songs during team mowing, which helped maintain the rhythmic motion of the work.
The scythe has largely been superseded by machinery in modern times. However it is still a common farming method in rural parts of Europe and Asia. Peter Vido, author of “The Scythe Must Dance: An Addendum on the Practical Use of the Scythe,” researched the uses of scythes in America and discovered them also being used in rural areas. He himself uses a scythe to maintain his garden, thoroughly enjoys using the fool and recommends other to try it. Growing up in Slovakia, he saw the scythe used frequently, which meant that it must be an energy efficient method of harvesting. He finds mowing with a scythe empowering and very useful in field of wheat that a mechanical mower would have trouble mowing.
Upon trying to use the scythe myself, I discovered that it does indeed feel like the extension of my body. With the tool in my hand, I felt like I had time-traveled to the past, to a more simple way of life. The breeze blew through the trees and the scythe whispered through the meadow. I can understand why farmers find the fool peaceful and relaxing, especially compared to raucous tractors.
The snath was long enough for me to stand upright in the field. The twisting motion was difficult to get used to and at first the scythe felt heavy and awkward. As I continued to mow, it became progressively easier, but I still need a lot of practice to be able to mow an acre in a day!
Lang, Andrew. The Scythe Song.
Tresemer, David. The Scythe Book: Mowing Hay, Cutting Weeds, and Harvesting Small
Grains, with Hand Tools. Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood & Company Inc.,