Someone recently asked me why some horse drawn plows throw the furrow to the left, while others (most in fact) throw them to the right. The answer is that it’s strictly a matter of preference, custom, and prejudice.
The right-hand plow is well-rooted in history. Illustrations of seventeenth century English plows show that they all were right-handers. A drawing of several wooden plows used by American pioneers shows one left-handed version. Early American inventors, Charles Newbold in 1797, and Jethro Wood in 1819, both favored the right-hand design. However, most American plows were built by blacksmiths and carpenters until the 1830s or ‘40s, and there were local customs and designs in different areas of the country that used one type to the exclusion of the other.
When implement manufacturers began to build plows they offered both types to cater to the demand in all parts of the country. This continued until 1917, when American plow manufacturers announced an agreement to eliminate the “southpaw” plow. The resolution of the manufacturers, as published in the January 5,1918 issue of the Rural New Yorker, read:
“Whereas, it is the belief of those present that left-hand plows are non-essential; therefore, We, the undersigned manufacturers ofleft-hand plows, hereby agree with each other to discontinue the manufacture of all left-hand plows as soon as the present stock of materials is exhausted.” The agreement excluded hillside plows and left-hand bottoms for two-way plows, as well as replacement parts for existing plows.
The Parlin & Orendorff Co., a major plow builder, explained the decision “Left-hand plows have been used to the exclusion of right-hand plows in the States of Indiana and Ohio, with some overlapping (into other states). This defines what might be called the left-hand plow section of the U.S. The present day farmers of this section are using left-hand plows because they were brought up that way, and this goes back for generations.”
The article went on to explain that several things combined to bring about the decision, one of which was the large number of tractor plows, all of which were right-handed, being sold. Another concern cited by P&O, was the cost of producing both left- and right-hand plows and providing spare parts for them both.
The editor of Rural New Yorker commented that “The majority of farmers never saw a lefthand plow, but there will be a few who will protest against this order.”
He was right. It wasn’t long before the letters came pouring in.
One angry letter read in part: “What about Kentucky and Tennessee and the other States? I know farm after farm that hasn’t any other kind of plow than a left-hand one. They say since they don’t make left-hand tractor plows they must stop making left hand plows. There are thousands of farms that will never use a tractor of any kind. Why take the left-hand plow away from these? Any man that has ever plowed a day knows he can do more plowing and better plowing with a left-hand plow than he can with a right-hand one, simply because his lead horse walks in the furrow, and the plow cuts an even width and depth all the time, whereas with a right-hand plow the lead horse walks on the land and is continually bearing into the furrow, which makes the plow cut less and unevenly. It looks to me like a ruse of the manufacturers to unload their stock of right-hand plows on the farmers.”
Another letter read: “I have lived on this farm for over 54 years and we have used only lefthand plows and our plowmen would find the right-hand plow quite awkward. We use only one line, usually a rope one, with a loop at the end which the driver slips over his left hand, the lead horse walking in the furrow, which, if the team is properly geared, making driving much easier.
Of course, with the right-hand plow the leader can be put in the furrow, but the driver then would have the line in his right hand, which to us old men, would be very awkward. Please, Mr. Plow-maker, let us old fellows pass away before our old friend, the left-hand plow.”
Two weeks later, an Ohio farmer told his fellow left-handed plowmen not to worry. “It is their privilege to make any kind of plow they see fit, likewise it is our privilege to buy the kind of plow that best suits our needs.
Remember this, they do not own the universe and they can’t force that kind of stuff down my throat, and I think there are a few million more farmers ofthe same opinion. Let them make all right-handed plows if they dare, but, when they do, let them keep them and then it is our time to see that some new firm starts making left-hand plows.
With a tractor it makes little or no difference whether it is a left-hand or right-hand plow, but with a team of horses it makes all the difference in the world. As long as I plow with a team I shall use a left-hand plow, regardless of what a few manufacturers say.”
In the same issue, J.B. Wells from Nelson County, Virginia, wrote in defense of the right-hand plow: “Now this question about left and right-hand plows resolves itself into the particular manner in which the team is harnessed and hitched.
The point I wish to make is this: the right-hand plow will do just as good work as the left-hand plow if the team is properly harnessed and hitched and the plowman knows his business. With a team thus harnessed and hitched, a good job of plowing ought to be done no matter whether it be a left or a right-hand plow.”
Apparently, the uproar from left-hand plow users was loud enough, or the financial lure of the demand for such plows was strong enough, that the agreement was quietly scrapped.
Plow manufacturers continued to offer both right- and left-hand walking and riding plows into the 1940s. Even today, there exists a demand for both right and left-hand plows. The leading manufacturer of modern horse-drawn plows, Pioneer Equipment, Inc., of Dalton, Ohio, offers walking and sulky plows in both versions.
The president of Pioneer Equipment, Wayne Wengerd, doesn’t know why some farmers prefer one over the other, but they do – and he supplies ‘em.