This particular diorama, completed in the 1939, shows a transitional period in agriculture. By this point, Henry Ford’s tractors had been on the market for more than 20 years. Slowly, as the machinery became cheaper and more reliable, it began to replace mules and farm hands. The introduction of machinery and fertilizer revolutionized agriculture, allowing farmers to produce more food with less effort.
The animals in this diorama are not horses, but mules. A cross between a donkey and a horse, mules were often used for farm work in the early 20th century as they were less stubborn than donkeys, less expensive than horses, and worked harder than either.
Russell Lee, a well know American photographer, spent much of his career working for the USDA Farm Security Administration. Lee captured the below photographs of a Rice farm near Crowley Louisiana in September 1938 as part of the FSA’s photography program.
Notice how these images mirror LSEM’s Rice Harvesting Diorama, constructed in 1939. The artists in charge compiled a variety of pictures like those below to help in the planning and construction of each diorama.
It was only after the Civil War that Rice became a major crop in Louisiana. The state government began cheaply selling off large uninhabited tracts of land in the south west of the state. Farmers from across the country who’d fallen on hard times moved south to take advantage of this opportunity. The land proved perfect for rice cultivation. After World War II, the rapid improvement of machinery made rice production lucrative.
In 2014, Louisiana produced nearly 16% of all rice grown in the United States.
Two machines integral to Rice harvesting are depicted in this diorama: the harvester and the thresher. Invented by Cyrus McCormick in 1831, the harvester, or reaper used rotating blade to cut down stalks of rice. Some harvesters even automatically bound the rice together into sheaves. Thresher’s, like the one in the diorama, were used remove the grain from the stalk by beating the harvested stalks against the sides of the machine. The man in the lower right hand corner of the diorama is filling a bag with the separated rice. The leftover stalks, or chaff, are dumped into a heap, as can be seen on the far right of the diorama.
Today, the thresher has been ‘combined’ with the harvesting machine to form the highly important and useful combine. While a modern combines cost around $150,000, these sophisticated machines allow two or three workers to do all of the harvesting and threshing done by the sixteen men in the diorama.
Banner Photo: Harvesting rice in Crowley, Louisiana in 1938 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-DIG-fsa-8a23599]