When I saw this plow it was about 30 feet from the American History Museum’s Constitution Avenue entrance, on the right-hand side, in a display case of artifacts. To the immediate left of the plow was a red gasoline pump from 1911, and to the right were a surveyor’s compass and chain from 1830 and a set of miner’s lamps. Among the other artifacts in the display case were a toy steam shovel; an assortment of barbed wire; a Barbie doll; a G.I. Joe doll; an early gas-powered lawn mower; a plastic human skeleton fitted with a number of prosthetics, including a pacemaker, an artificial hip and an artificial knee; a medical jar that once held leeches and had “Leeches” painted on its side in gold letters; a faded wooden tavern sign from Vermont; an infant’s cradle from the 1700s; a carpet beater; a “Flintstones” lunchbox and thermos; wedding cake toppers; an assortment of glass eyes; a Communion chalice (“Communion is a Christian ritual memorializing Jesus’ last supper”); a wooden decoration from an ark that formerly held a Torah in a temple in Philadelphia; and a mailbox that was all that remained of a house belonging to a family named Alexander in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Amid this wild miscellany the old plow that John Deere made in his blacksmith shop in Grand Detour, Illinois, back in 1838 stood out like Abraham Lincoln waiting in line at a tag sale.
This plow is one of the Smithsonian’s most prized objects, and the unpretentious way it is displayed can be ascribed to an unusually strong love of Democracy in the vicinity. The genius of blacksmith Deere’s innovation was to discard the cast-iron moldboard—the blade—from the traditional plow of the rocky farm fields of the East, and replace it with a dynamically curved moldboard of wrought iron or steel. For his first plow of this new type, Deere took a large circular saw blade, cut off the teeth and reshaped the metal into a curving parallelogram. Attached to an upright post, and the post to a horizontal wooden beam with handles, his new moldboard exemplified the functional, plain objects of frontier America that would have such an influence on Modernism. This was a tool made not for clanking against the granite boulders of Vermont, but for shearing the sod and opening the rich, sticky, black almost-mud of the Midwestern prairies.
I stood next to the display case and took in the plow from many angles. Beyond its bold utility, the plow qualifies as different categories of art. It is sculpture: The lambent black of its wrought-iron surface and the sinuous twist of its shape prefigure the abstract steel sculptures of the 20th century. Alexander Calder’s monumental black steel “stabile”—set to again lift its metal planes just down Constitution Avenue this fall—owes a debt to blacksmith Deere. The plow is also music: It ran so smoothly through the black soil that some farmers said it made a singing sound, and it was sometimes called “the singing plow.” From there it’s just a few furrows to the Mississippi Delta, slide-guitar blues and rock ’n’ roll. Most important, the plow is connected to our literature. Words taken from farming occur less often in ordinary speech nowadays, and most people have forgotten the meaning of the word “scour” as used to describe the progress of a moldboard through earth. The problem the pre-Deere plows encountered in Illinois was that they would not scour—as they moved ahead, the plowed dirt did not turn over and fall neatly to one side, but instead clumped on the moldboard, requiring maddening halts for the farmer to scrape it clean. John Deere’s revolutionary design solved that problem; it scoured.
After Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, he sat down next to his bodyguard and (according to the bodyguard) said to him, “That speech won’t scour. It is a flat failure.” Lincoln’s fear—contradicted by later history—that the Gettysburg Address did not “scour” refers to the black dirt of Illinois, and to the muddy difficulty through which John Deere’s great invention beautifully scoured. If you want, you can walk from this object to the Lincoln Memorial a mile up Constitution Avenue and reread the Gettysburg Address, with its words that scour forever, carved on the marble wall.
A longtime staff writer for the New Yorker, Ian Frazier is the author of five books of nonfiction. His most recent, the 2010 Travels in Siberia, is an account of five trips he made across the wide-open spaces of eastern Russia.