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My Perplexed Footnote To the French Revolution

By John Gould / September 11, 1998



One of Grandmother's molasses cookies to a king's ransom that you'll hunt wide and far to find somebody to tell you what a "wire edge" is! But lo! You've just found him! A wire edge is what you cuff off a hand scythe before you go down in late summer to mow the meadow swale, which is, or was, swampy and couldn't be cut by machine. Swale grass is purely cosmetic, for it doesn't make good hay. But it must be cut "for looks." You needed a hand scythe, and it was prudent to have it sharp. Sharpening a hand scythe was an art far more fine than anything in the Louvre.

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Every year, as the baby New Year comes bouncing in, the newspapers print phantasmagorical drawings of Father Time taking his exit with a symbolic scythe. I have never known a cartoonist who knew enough about a scythe to draw one. The common scythe is made in two parts: the snath and the blade. The snath has two demountable handles known as the tug and the lug, placed to suit the hands of the sweaty mower, on the bias and according to.

The snath is bent frivolity-wise, so there is nothing you can do with a scythe except mow grass if you know how. In sweeping off a swale, it is well for admiring witnesses to stand back on the nearest mountain range. Such is the purpose of the scythe and its arrangement that it defies all rules of proportion, perspective, position, propriety, relativity, and presumption known to students of artistic symmetry. It is impossible to draw a scythe that would cut grass.

Because of its difference and its length, the blade of a hand scythe calls for grinding talent somewhat different from that used with a knife, hatchet, scissors, swords, and so on. A knowing farmer had a "soft" grindstone for scythes, and woe to the stupid hired man who put an ax or hoe thereon. Having a poor little victim of a boy to turn the crank, a scythe sharpener held the blade so-fashion and drew it back and forth over the slowly turned stone until it was just right and had a "wire edge."

Now we're nearly done. The action of a grindstone on the select steel of the blade resulted in a small, turned-up filament along the cutting edge, and although ground to perfection, the blade at that moment was dull and wouldn't cut cream cheese. Before using, the mower had to finish the blade with a pine stick or a whetstone of fine grain. This took but a second or so, and was usually done after the blade was "hung" on the snath, just before starting to mow.

The soft pine stick was enough to turn back the wire edge to bring the sharpness to bear. In the hands of an expert, the fine-grained whetstone would do that, too, but the stone might overdo it and then it was back to the grindstone for another wire edge. Take my word on this; I've been there.

When a crew of haying hands began, one after another, to mow a meadow in the ancient times before the Buckeye Mowing Machine, it was customary for the prudent farmer to arrange his mowers so the best man was behind. Off they would go, swath after swath, a-singin' and a-mowing, each man a pace behind the one ahead, and the best man bringing up the rear. In this way every mower up ahead flagged not and lagged neither, lest the man behind catch him and become a nuisance. My grampie and my daddy taught me to mow, and with them behind me I could mow at a steady trot.

I've wondered many times about the picture we had in a schoolbook that showed the rabble storming the gentility during the French Revolution. The farmers of France were advancing in wild tumult, swinging their hand scythes in awesome fury, eager to promote liberty, equality, fraternity, and various sundries. To the farm youngsters in my class, as opposed to the village kids, such an advance was utter folly. The way a hand scythe is made, tug and lug, offset and purpose, crook and hang, foot and heel, and perspective withal, it makes the poorest weapon this side of a cream puff.

MY grandfather told about it. He said he hired a couple of Harvard boys for summer farm work, and he showed them how to mow and set them to making a back-swath along the fence row. He said they didn't seem too bright, and this kept them out from under foot while the older hands mowed the field.

Along in the middle of the forenoon, these two boys got to disputing about something Aristotle said. Their scholarly opinions developed into a fight, and all at once the crew noticed the two were fighting mad and were having at each other with their scythes. Knowing, of course, that the scythe is by nature a peaceful implement, the other hands grew amused and went to sit under a Gravenstein apple tree to watch the fight. Nothing happened.

There was a lot of swinging and clicking and some threatening remarks, and while the others were comfortably disposed under the tree they opened their lunch buckets and took their noonin'. My grandfather kept saying he wouldn't pay haymakers to sit by and enjoy a scythe fight, but the men laughed him off and said it was so much fun they would work that day for nothin'. I believe that, and the French Revolution, are the only two notable instances of belligerency by scythe.