Though Americans often think of cornbread and corn pudding as original Southern specialties, getting corn onto colonial tables was not as easy as pumpkin pie. In the beginning, European prejudice labeled corn as a “heathan graine” unfit for consumption. But it wasn’t long before the settlers were forced to put aside their judgments of Native Americans’ diets, as they could not afford to ignore the benefits of the easy-growing, nutritious crop. First they integrated the grain into feed for their livestock, but by the 18th century, corn pudding and other corn preparations graced even the tables of the upper class.
However, because corn was native to the “New World,” English settlers didn’t yet have tools specific for chopping corn stalks. Instead they used hoes, scythes and sickles, machetes, and butcher cleavers. Eventually these knives were adapted for the specific task of cutting down the fibrous stalks and became what are known as corn knives. Some corn knives had long handles with straight or curved blades, others looked more like machetes, while one kind, the corn hook, featured a wide, curving blade in the shape of a C.
Harvesting required laborers to chop down each stalk by hand. After being chopped by the corn knife, corn stalks would be set up in bundles known as shocks to “cure” or dry out for about a month. Once they’d dried, workers came through to husk the corn, then transported the cobs to a crib, a covered, but ventilated, house or granary used to store corn. Thanks to industrial production in the 19th century, corn knives went from a handmade “folk” product to a mass-produced tool. And while some antique knives can still be found, today more than 99 percent of corn is harvested using gas-powered machinery, making the knives a specialty antique. Hand-harvested stalks have also become a rare sight, but around Halloween, you can often find small shocks perched beside hay bales and pumpkin displays, symbols of the innovation and labor that once was.