Antique Plows: The Ultimate Guide to Identification, Valuation and Buying

For centuries, the plow has been one of the most vital tools in agriculture, enabling farmers to prepare their fields for planting and increase crop yields. Today, antique plows from the 1800s and early 1900s are highly prized by collectors who appreciate their historical significance, ingenuity of design, and aesthetic appeal. In this comprehensive guide, we‘ll explore the rich history of antique plows, show you how to identify and value different types, and give you expert tips for buying, restoring, and displaying these agricultural icons.

The Fascinating History of Antique Plows

The plow has been around since the dawn of agriculture, with evidence of primitive digging sticks and wooden plows dating back thousands of years. However, the 18th and 19th centuries saw major advancements in plow design that greatly improved farming efficiency.

One of the most influential figures in plow history was Jethro Tull, an English agricultural pioneer who introduced the horse-drawn seed drill in 1701. His ideas about row planting and horse-hoeing helped pave the way for the development of more sophisticated plows.

In the United States, several innovators made their mark on plow design:

  • Charles Newbold patented the first cast-iron plow in 1797, though farmers were initially skeptical that the iron would poison the soil.
  • John Deere invented the steel moldboard plow in 1837, which could cut through stubborn prairie sod without soil sticking to the blade. His plows became a huge success.
  • James Oliver patented the chilled iron plow in 1868, an improvement on Deere‘s design that was stronger and more durable.

The shift from wooden to cast iron and steel plows, along with refinements like replaceable parts and adjustable beams, made plows more efficient and affordable for farmers. By the late 1800s, riding plows and large gang plows with multiple blades made it possible to cultivate vast tracts of land with less time and labor.

According to the 1880 US Census, there were over 2 million farms in operation, and plows would have been essential equipment on most of them. The value of US manufactured farming implements increased from $6 million in 1850 to $68 million in 1880, illustrating the rapid growth of the agricultural industry.

Identifying Antique Plows: A Collector‘s Guide

To determine the age, rarity, and value of an antique plow, collectors need to carefully examine several key features:

Material

The material a plow is made from provides clues about its manufacturing date:
– Wood: Wooden plows were common in the 1700s and early 1800s. Look for a simple wedge-shaped block or board as the body.
– Cast Iron: Used from the late 1700s through mid-1800s. The body is heavy and has a distinctive curved shape.
– Steel: Steel plows took off after John Deere‘s invention in 1837. The moldboard is smoother and may have decorative embossing.
– Chilled Iron: Developed by James Oliver in 1868. The moldboard has a hard, glass-like surface.

Moldboard

The moldboard is the curved part that lifts and turns over the soil. Different shapes were used for different soil types:
– Stubble plow: Shallow, gently curving moldboard for slicing through soil and light debris
– Sod plow: Tall, sharply curving moldboard and long slice to cut through thick roots
– Middle breaker: Moldboard curves up and out to turn a deep furrow
– Rooter plow: Steep, short moldboard for clay and gravelly soils

Beam, Handles, and Other Attachments

– On wood plows, look for rough-hewn beams connected by mortise and tenon joints.
– Cast iron and steel plows have curved wrought iron beams, sometimes with a reinforcing strap down the middle.
– Handles may be straight or bent, with a variety of cross-section shapes (round, oval, triangular, etc.)
– Other details to note: Adjustable gauge wheels, coulters (blade that cuts through debris), jointers (mini-plow to cut the edge of the furrow)

Maker‘s Marks and Patent Dates

Check the metal beam or moldboard for any embossed or stamped names, locations, and dates, such as:
– J. Deere & Co. Moline, ILL.
– Oliver Chilled Plow Works South Bend, IND.
– Patented dates (e.g. "PAT‘D JUNE 18, 1878")

Some common US plow brands and their manufacturing dates:

Brand Years Active
John Deere 1837-present
Oliver 1855-1929
Syracuse 1877-1960s
Moline 1852-1929
LeRoy 1878-1920s

Valuing an Antique Plow: What‘s It Worth?

Antique plow values can range from under $100 for a common rusty specimen to over $1,500 for a rare, beautifully restored plow. Factors that impact value include:

  • Age: Pre-Civil War (1820s-1860s) cast iron plows and early steel plows (1837-1870s) are generally more valuable than later mass-produced models.

  • Condition: Plows with significant rust, cracks, or missing parts are less desirable. A plow in good original condition (or professionally restored) will command higher prices.

  • Rarity: Plows produced by small regional foundries or with unusual patented features are harder to find and therefore more collectible.

  • Historical Significance: Plows owned by famous figures or used in notable farming demonstrations have added value. A plow that can be traced back to its original owner or farm also boosts its worth.

Auction results show the range of prices antique plows can bring:

  • A late 1800s John Deere Gilpin sulky plow sold for $1,700 in 2020
  • An 1887 James Oliver cast iron plow in excellent condition brought $800 in 2019
  • A primitive 1850s New England wooden plow sold for $350 in 2021
  • A rusty Syracuse No. 32 steel beam plow went for $70 in 2018

While six-figure sums are not unheard of for the rarest antique plows, most sell in the $200-$800 range depending on the aforementioned factors. Online price guides like AntiqueTractors.com and TractorShed.com can provide a general sense of value, but the most accurate assessment comes from a professional antique farm equipment appraiser.

According to industry insiders, the market for antique plows has remained steady in recent years, with high-end plows continuing to attract bidders at auction. "We regularly see collectors and museums vying for the most significant and visually impressive plows," noted Jim Gehringer, director of the Lafayette Farm Toy & Collector Show. "There‘s still a strong appreciation for the craftsmanship and history embodied by these pieces."

Buying an Antique Plow: Tips from the Pros

Ready to add an antique plow to your collection? Here‘s how to find a quality piece from a reputable source.

In-Person Buying

Farm auctions, estate sales, flea markets, and antique stores are great places to find antique plows. Before buying, be sure to:
1. Inspect the plow carefully for any cracks, breaks, or missing pieces. Some rust is expected, but avoid plows with severe corrosion.
2. Check the moldboard for any welded repairs or replaced parts. Original components are preferable.
3. Look for a maker‘s mark to confirm authenticity. Be wary of reproductions posing as antiques.
4. Ask the seller for any provenance (ownership history) or documentation they may have.
5. Assess your budget and don‘t be afraid to negotiate price, especially if the plow needs restoration.

Online Buying

Dozens of antique plows are available through online marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist. To avoid scams and disappointment:
1. Check the seller‘s feedback rating and reviews before bidding/buying. Aim for sellers with 98%+ positive feedback.
2. Read the item description and view all photos carefully. Don‘t hesitate to ask the seller for additional pictures or details.
3. Factor in shipping costs, which can be substantial for a large, heavy plow. Some sellers may offer local pickup only.
4. Pay with a secure method like PayPal Goods & Services, which offers buyer protection.
5. If you‘re unsure about an online purchase, consider enlisting an antique plow expert to assess the listing and help with pricing/authentication.

Restoring and Displaying Your Antique Plow

Whether you plan to use your antique plow as a decorative accent or restore it to working condition, proper care is key to preserving its value and integrity.

If you opt for a full restoration, consider hiring a professional who specializes in antique farm equipment. They can safely remove rust, repair any damage, and repaint/refinish the plow to its original glory. Expect to pay $500-$1,500 or more for a complete restoration depending on the plow‘s size and condition.

For a more hands-on approach, follow these steps:

  1. Clean the plow with a wire brush and metal-safe cleaner to remove dirt and loose rust. Wear gloves and eye protection.
  2. To remove stubborn rust, soak affected areas in white vinegar overnight or use a commercial rust remover. Avoid sandblasting, which can damage the patina.
  3. Repair any cracks or breaks with a cold weld compound or have a welder make the fix.
  4. For wood handles, sand down to bare wood, then seal with boiled linseed oil or a clear coat.
  5. If desired, repaint the plow with a rust-preventive enamel paint, using a color-matched to the original finish. Apply multiple thin coats to avoid drips and runs.

To display your restored plow indoors, consider mounting it on a custom stand or bracket. Place it near other farmhouse decor or antiques to create a rustic vignette. A plow also makes a striking outdoor sculpture in a garden or landscaped area – just be sure to protect it from the elements with a weatherproof clear coat.

Plows of the Future: The Tractor Revolution

While horse-drawn plows reigned supreme in the 1800s, the early 20th century brought a major shift with the introduction of gasoline-powered tractors. Companies like Fordson and International Harvester began producing tractors equipped with plows in the 1910s, enabling farmers to work larger areas faster.

Tractor-mounted plows featured durable steel construction and hydraulic systems that could raise and lower the plow with the pull of a lever. Gang plows (with 2-5 blades) and wider "prairie breaker" moldboards became the norm. By the 1930s, most farmers had retired their horse teams in favor of tractors, relegating antique horse-drawn plows to the realm of collectors.

Today, antique tractor-drawn plows from the 1920s-1950s are also popular with collectors, particularly those who restore vintage farm machinery. A restored 1940s John Deere No. 44 two-bottom plow can sell for over $1,000, while more common models go for a few hundred dollars.

Why We Love Antique Plows: Collecting Meaning

For many collectors, antique plows represent far more than just a tool for turning soil – they embody the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and hard work of early American farmers. As collector Steve Weeber explains, "I‘m drawn to the inventiveness of these old plows, how they were adapted to work in different regions and soil types. Each one tells a story about how our ancestors struggled and innovated to feed their communities."

Antique plows also serve as a tangible link to our agricultural heritage, a reminder of a time when most Americans lived and worked on small family farms. Displaying a plow in your home or garden can spark conversations about where our food comes from and the importance of preserving traditional farming knowledge.

Whether you‘re a history buff, a fan of rustic decor, or simply appreciate fine craftsmanship, antique plows offer a rewarding and meaningful collecting pursuit. By following the tips in this guide, you‘ll be well-equipped to find, evaluate, and care for these iconic pieces of Americana. Happy collecting!

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