Tuesday, April 11, 2017

As the Apple Turns

QUESTION: A few months ago, my family set about cleaning out an old barn that belonged to my grandfather. Boy, did we find some interesting stuff. We can’t identify one of the items and wondered if you can help us. It’s a machine type device with a crank and what seems like crab-like claws hanging from some sort of gear system. Can you tell us what this is and a bit about it if possible?

ANSWER: I believe you’ve found what would have been a treasure to the farm family that previously owned the barn. Today, we don’t see machines like this anymore, but back in the second half of the 19th century, they were commonplace. What you’ve found is a commercially made apple paring machine, dating around 1880.

To paraphrase the opening line of one of America’s longest-running soap operas, “As the apple turns, so do the days of our lives.” And so it was for many people, especially farmers and their families, who relied on the ordinary apple to quench their thirst in the form of cider and to fill snacking and baking needs throughout the year. But before they could do anything with their apples, they had to remove the skin. And that’s where the lowly parer comes in.

When the apple parer first appeared in England during the 1840s, it caused much amusement. But it had been a staple of American life since the late 17th century. Apples played a vital role in the diet of the American Colonists. Fearful of drinking the local water, lest they become ill, the Colonists took to making apple cider. Plus they dried apples for use during the cold winters.

William Blaxton, a clergyman from Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts, planted the first apple orchard in 1635. Later he propagated a sweet yellow apple which he dubbed Blaxton’s Yellow Sweeting.

Colonists picked apples in the fall, then pared, cored, and cut them into slices which they strung on strong linen thread and hung to dry. They also made applesauce, apple butter, and apple vinegar, all of which required the apples to be pared and sliced.

To offset the drudgery of paring apples, they held “apple bees.” Members of various farming communities gathered together, rotating from farm to farm, to socialize and pare apples. According to the November 1859 Harper's Weekly, a popular pastime during such bees was for a young woman to throw the string of apple paring over her shoulder where it would form the initial of the name of her future husband when it hit the ground.

But there was still the drudgery of paring apples until Yankee inventiveness created a wide variety of paring machines. The first parer, devised by 13-year-old Eli Whitney of later cotton gin fame, appeared in 1778. But it was Joseph Sterling of South Woodstock, Vermont, who came up with a mechanical parer in 1781. In 1801, Thomas Blanchard, another 13-year-old, from Worcester County, Massachusetts, came up with his version of an apple parer. Finally, Moses Coates of Downing’s Field, Pennsylvania---now Coatesville---obtained the first U.S. patent for an apple parer on February 14, 1803.

Whether basic or complex in design, one thought was clear—pare the apple as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

The first parers were wooden and featured a shaft with a turning crank on one end and a wood or metal fork on the other to hold the apple. The operator turned the crank with one hand and guided, with the other hand, a wooden handle with a mounted blade or knife, paring the apple.

Farmers made early parers by hand. They copied the devices of other farmers and borrowed ideas from farm magazines to fashion their own devices. The various types of early parers are amazing, including, to name a few, the straddle board, table top, table mount, table mount gallows, floor pedestal, leg strap, knee hold, and bench.

As these primitive machines evolved, their makers speeded up the turning of the fork holding the apple with the addition of cords, belts and gears, and anchored the paring cutter in an upright post, although still guided by hand, as in Coates’ parer.

It was inventor Ephraim C. Pratt who was credited with the first practical parer with the blade being guided over the apple mechanically with spring tension, leaving the operator a free hand to pull off the pared apple and put on " a new one. Pratt’s parer  allowed the knife to vibrate and accommodate itself to any irregularity in the surface of the apple.

Essentially, apple parers can be organized into five categories—Lathe, Turntable, Arc or geared segment, and Return, quick or otherwise, as well as the Commercial models added later on.

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